As a police press relations officer many years ago, one of my pleasurable duties was to attend all official visits to North Yorkshire by members of the Royal family and other VIPs, such as the Pope and Margaret Thatcher. I wore civilian clothes as I accompanied the official parties, and my task was to assist coverage by journalists and photographers without them becoming too intrusive.
Princess Margaret was a regular visitor to the county when she formally opened hospital extensions, new council offices and assorted other premises. Invariably, this involved the unveiling of a plaque, followed by short speeches and a tour of the building.
In my view, she seemed to be the most relaxed of our Royal visitors. One Thursday, she was due to open a new council building, which I shall keep anonymous, and my duty was to accompany the press party.
The opening ceremony was to begin at 2pm. As was the practice, HRH would arrive about 20 minutes before the official opening to relax in a small ante-room, powder her nose, have a puff at a cigarette and perhaps enjoy a sip of fine sherry.
Those few minutes enabled chosen officials to assemble in the company of the Royal visitor before embarking on the formal part of the event.
The entire building was new and so, in that small room, we mingled among new chairs and new settees upon a new carpet with new accessories. Indeed, everything smelled new and, as expected, Princess Margaret produced her elegant cigarette-holder and lit a cigarette.
I stood close to the door through which we would process into the conference room for the formalities and watched the behaviour of the assembled officials, all trying to snatch a personal moment with Her Royal Highness. But she was skilled in avoiding small talk as she walked around the room, smiling graciously, with her long-cigarette holder like a snipe's beak with smoke rising from it.
Meanwhile, the chairman of the council was rather nervous and came towards me, saying, "Ah'm off to t'gents," then vanished.
As time ticked towards two o'clock, the Princess's cigarette ash grew longer and longer until it was drooping like a lamb's tail on a hazel tree. Then I realised her problem. There were no ashtrays. Someone had overlooked that small point.
As I wondered what the Princess would do with her drooping ash, the door opened and in strode the chairman, much relieved.
"Ah, Mr Chairman," Princess Margaret held up her cigarette with its drooping ash. "Excuse me, but where's the bin?"
"Ah've bin to t'gents, Your Royal 'Ighness," he replied and then, quick as a flash, recognised her problem.He placed his outstretched hand beneath her cigarette just as the ash fell into his palm. She also extinguished the cigarette-end and, smilingly, dropped it into his hand.
And so, as the official party moved towards the formal proceedings, the chairman put the debris into his jacket pocket, an unusual Royal souvenir. I hoped he wouldn't catch fire.
YP MAG 15/1/11