I have looked at the recent picture of Theresa May curtsying to the Duchess of Cambridge for a long time now. Really studied it. They were both in Belgium recently to commemorate the centennial of Passchendaele, along with Prince William, Prince Charles and a couple of other European royals.
It was a deeply sombre, respectful occasion and Theresa May was obviously feeling pretty sombre and respectful herself. So she curtsied in front of Kate Middleton, which is protocol and so on, but all I can think about, looking at the photo of the curtsy is: what kind of supplements is our prime minister taking?
I can’t get down that low without what sounds like some sort of hideous percussion instrument going off as bits of knee crackle and pop.
I say a curtsy. It’s more a lunge, Theresa stooping so low it’s a wonder her knees didn’t dislocate. I am roughly half her age and I can’t get down that low without what sounds like some sort of hideous percussion instrument going off as bits of knee crackle and pop. Then I looked at a picture of Theresa May curtsying to the Queen at another serious moment and the Prime Minister was at it again, her knees bent like pipe cleaners and her body leaning forward in the manner of Usain Bolt at the 100m start line. Do we need another track runner in our national team? Is there space?
She must be mainlining glucosamine. Very sensible. But I have to say technically her curtsy was all wrong. You’re not supposed to dip as low as a pantomime dame when you meet the Royal family. Officially, as it says in Debrett’s, you are supposed to bob briefly with the weight fleetingly on the front foot. “Low sweeping curtsies, although usually well meant, are best reserved for the amateur dramatic stage and can be the subject of some amusement in Royal circles.” (Fair play, they’ve got to get their laughs from somewhere.)
Debrett’s also has instructions for if you are a man, or identify as a man, and are summoned to a garden party. “A bow should come from the neck not the waist,” it says.
I met Prince Charles at a polo match when I was 16. I can’t remember the exact angle of my curtsy, but I can remember the shoes I was wearing – black, clumpy numbers from Topshop, it was like having an anvil attached to each foot – so I don’t presume I managed it with any particular grace. Still, as Debrett’s generously says, “Meeting the Royal family (never referred to as ‘the Royals’ or ‘the Royalty’) often throws the ingénue into a flap.” So we should console ourselves with that, Theresa.
She must be mainlining glucosamine. Very sensible. But I have to say technically her curtsy was all wrong.
On the subject of meeting terribly grand people, I got into one of these flaps in Sicily last summer where I met a Venetian doge (not technically a royal but a kind of duke equivalent). I stuck my hand out for him to shake it, so he took my hand but then bent over. I thought this very endearing. “Sweet,” I said to myself. “These Italian aristocrats still think it’s the 18th century.” Then I met his 10-year-old son, who took my hand and also bowed to it.
“Why are they all bowing to me?” I whispered to a hovering English professor who was at the same party.
“They’re not bowing, they’re kissing your hand,” he explained.
And, actually, even though you’re never supposed to touch any member of our Royal family, there are moments when the Queen’s hand can be kissed. If you’re becoming a member of the Privy Council, you can have a quick smooch of the Royal paw. Although if you’re in doubt it’s probably safer to stick to the bob or the bow. The late actor Mickey Rooney planted a big old smacker on the Queen’s hand when he met her in 2007 at the British embassy in Washington. There’s a photo of this which I have also studied for a long time (I don’t get out much), and the Queen, wearing a pair of white gloves, is looking on bemusedly, as if weighing up whether to lop off his head or not. Still, you can’t expect Americans to get these things right, can you?