Fast Talking PI Visits the Queen by Selina Tusitala Marsh (Westminster Abbey, London, 14 March 2016)
She has the most recognisable face in contemporary western history and she’s almost within my reach. The longest reigning British monarch and I share a few things: we are both seated in Westminster Abbey (founded in 960); we share the same birthday (on April 21st I turn 45 and will be exactly half her age, a quirky fact I thought to share but then my Samoan discretion got the better of me); and we are both wearing blue in a sea of black and beige, as observed by many an attendee afterwards:
‘My dear, how politic of you to wear the royal blue.’ ‘The blue of majestic Te Moana Nui a Kiwa, the Pacific Ocean? Why, thank you!’
Her peeps also colonised my peeps. Our shared colonial histories put a controversial spin on my acceptance of this commission. I’d been approached in November by the Head of the Commonwealth Education Foundation about writing and performing a poem for Her Majesty on behalf of 53 nations for Commonwealth Observance Day. It had a few parameters around it: it had to be less than three minutes long (fine); it had to address the theme of unity; it had to be appeal to over a thousand school children, royalty, dignitaries, heads of state and the common assembly (difficult but do-able); it had to represent all 53 nations of the Commonwealth (in less than three minutes?); and it was not allowed to be political (oookaaay). Challenging but not impossible.
Commonwealth Observance Day is the Queen’s gig. Has been since the inception of the Commonwealth in 1947. Celebrated in Westminster Abbey every second Tuesday in March of every year for the past 52 years, this will be the Queen’s 53rd attendance.
After World War II and Germany’s rule was replaced by a paternalistic New Zealand colonial administration until Independence in 1962, Samoa has had a complex relationship with New Zealand, and by extension, the British Empire. For a ‘PI’ (Pacific Islander) with networks across ‘postcolonial’ Oceania, the relationships are problematic at best.* Nevertheless, my Samoan-Tuvalu mother, after marrying my Kiwi-European father in Samoa and moving to the suburb of milk and honey (Avondalé, West Auckland), gave place of pride to a portrait of a young Queen Elizabeth on horseback (gleaned at the Avondalé Salvation Army). For half of my life the Queen was forever 21, straight backed, and going places (on a horse)! I was even given the middle name ‘Anne’, as in ‘Princess’. If mum hadn’t passed away in 2009, she would’ve had a heart attack knowing that her daughter was now seated across from Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth II, the Duke of Edinburgh, Wills, Kate, Harry and Andrew.
While no bullets were directly fired, there was an off-hand remark from a Pasifika scholar about being a ‘sell out’ to which I publicly responded. I suppose those who don’t know me may have felt I was suckling at the very bosom of the British Empire. My politics as a Pasifika poet has always been one of inclusion – I’m a bridge not a wall – some might see that as giving others permission to walk all over me; I see it as granting access to what Tongans call ‘talanoa’, open dialogue. The night before the biggest performance of my life, I received an email from the fierce and formidable Māori activist Ngāhuia Te Awekotuku. I hesitated before opening it, reluctant to jeopardise the head and heart space I needed to cultivate for the delivery of the poem. But that’s the thing about being a bridge -- you stand under sun and storm. I opened it:
“It is not selling out. It is BEING THERE. Where the f--kers need to see, and hear, and watch, and learn from us, on our terms”.
Ngāhuia was moved to pen her first poem in three years which ended with the lines:
not Kiri of decades nuptially lost but you : our very own Fast Talkin' P I
These lines are now carved into my bridge.
Before the service began, before the trumpets heralded in the royal procession, before the parade of 53 flag bearers, all invitees were seated and waiting. To my left: Kofi Annan, British PM David Cameron, the Prime Minister of Malta, the Commonwealth Secretary-General and numerous other Heads of State, official dignitaries, Lords, Ladies, and Barons. Across the aisle four rows deep, I glimpse the gold hair of Lady Alexandra Smith, tucked beneath her feathery fancery (my latest new word). She is seated next to her husband, Sir Lockwood aka our W3 game show host cum parliamentary speaker cum opera singer cum the New Zealand High Commissioner. They are my London aiga (family). Lady A. winks at me.
I am wearing an electric blue tapa-inspired puletasi (traditional Samoan dress) bought at Mena’s in Apia, Samoa, just across from the Savalalo Markets (which recently burnt down). The trendy fashion house (with a Ponsonby branch) is named after Mena Loheni and operated by her four daughters. I am wearing an orb paua shell necklace bought from my Solomon Islands honeymoon in 1996. It is a blue green moon, luminescent in the light. I am wearing my hair – as is my custom – out. Ironically, what used to be the bane of my existence at Avondale Primary (‘Mop head!’ ‘Toilet brush!) is now my trademark, my obsidian crown of power. I am seated in the transept. The throng of school children and the remainder of invited guests are seated in the longer, lower part of the architectural cross. I thought I’d be performing there, closer to the public where UK pop star Ellie Goulding and the Queen’s youth representative were being miked. But no, the girl from Avondale and Apia, the Fast Talking PI and Dark Sparrer, was to perform on the sacrarium steps, standing on the lip of the Cosmati Pavement, west of the High Altar where Queens and Kings have knelt, been crowned, married, and committed to the afterlife.
I wink back at Lady A. An elderly gentleman and his wife are escorted to the empty seats next to me. After they settle, I do the Kiwi thing, hold out my hand and introduce myself.
‘Hello, I’m Selina, the poet from New Zealand’. The man in his three piece suit, looks at me, then down at my hand, then averts his gaze. ‘Yes.’
His hands remain knotted on his lap. His fingers look like stubby, orange tubers of turmeric, lined and uneven. My outstretched palm is frigate bird flying, fingers soaring and suspended. The bird realises landfall is further away than first thought. His wife peaks self-consciously around his shoulder, the wispy yellow feather of her fancery quivering: “Oh, yes, hello? Hello.”
I lower my hand, but not my gaze. Hopefully no one saw. I have 20 minutes before the performance and refuse to let a stranger ruin the moment. I stare ahead and into the raging blue eyes of Lady A. Her mouth is open, brows furrowed. Later at the Royal Reception in Malborough House, she is in full flight:
‘I can’t believe he did that to you! I’m so offended! Lockwood, did you see Baron what’s-his-face? How rude!!’
She’s such a sweetheart, in full equitable, justice-for-all school-councilor mode.
‘Do you think he was racist?’
‘Maybe more classist?’ I replied, wondering who could possibly outrank the hand-shaking Queen.
Back at the Abbey and 15 minutes to go. My unshaken hand is going to make excellent poetry fodder. Wait till Snobby-Suit-Face sees me rise! Should I have worn my gold jandals? What if I forget my lines, trip up the holy steps, or accidentally step back onto the sacred Cosmati Pavement, causing the Abbey ministers to cry out (like I did during rehearsal)? The Choir is almost bursting. Through the soaring sopranos of preadolescent angels (they get kicked out once they hit 13), a verger (second new word) comes and stands before me, holding his staff and bowing low. This is my signal. I stand and bow, and follow closely behind him, past Her Majesty and up the four sacrarium steps. Together we stand facing the Holy Altar and the Rood Screen (my second in the past twenty minutes) and we bow again. Multi-faith church fathers sit either side. The verger exits stage left. I turn, face the congregation and wait. Two minutes later, the last Amen is sung.
Lady A. would later prod me: ‘Why did they take you up so early? You had nothing to do! We had nothing to do but look at you. Oh, but you did look splendid. And so calm and composed. I’d be as nervous as anything!’
But I needed that two minutes. Earlier, in the semi-empty Abbey, I had wandered through the brass gates and up the stairs to Henry VII's chapel, sky-gazed at the pendant fan vault ceiling – orbis miraculum – milled round Poets’ Corner fingering Chaucer’s name (interred in 1556), tracing the Bronte sisters’ plaque, accidentally stepping on C.S. Lewis (it’s okay, his bones aren’t there), and I knew I needed to exit. Just for a quick slice of sun after hours of being inside this most magnificent mausoleum of princes and poets. I remembered the passageway to the Cloisters.
During the ‘familiarisation rehearsal’ (a new phrase) two nights earlier, one of the Abbey ministers had shown me the Thomas A. Crapper room. I thought he was joking, but there, framed on the wall, was Crapper’s certification for inventing the loo. His name was carved on the wooden toilet seat too. I was waiting in line for the Holy crapper when joined by a man wearing glasses and a generous side swept fringe. He walked in with the aid of a cane. I smiled. He smiled. He looked familiar – that British comedian perhaps? I was about to say ‘Love your work, great comic timing’, when three blue-toothed cell phone rigged suits spotted him and whisked him away. I’d meet him later that evening at the Royal Reception. He asked to see me before leaving. Making my way through a parting crowd I was introduced to a lovely Sir John Major. ‘Just wanted to meet you and say what a marvellous poem.’ And what a marvellous thing that I’d held my fast talking tongue outside the Holy Crapper!
I found my way outside in the inner sanctum of Westminster School, as old as the Abbey and attended by Ben Jonson, John Dryden, A.A. Milne and no less than seven British Prime Ministers. Its motto, ‘Dat Deus Incrementum’ (God gives the increase) no doubt also applies to its fee structure. But here, the sun was free and so was I. Excitement and dread were rising in equal proportion so I reminded myself that I was here by free will.
This was my opportunity to share my poetry, my place and my people on the global stage.
I spoke the poem to the trees, their boney fingers scraping the blank page of sky, lazily writing the beginning of a London spring. Feeling lighter, warmer, and more me, I wound my way back inside the Abbey.
Rehearsing to inanimate objects as part of one’s prep is normal for poets. When informed that there would be no podium or mike stand, that the Queen would be within meters of me, I knew I couldn’t read off the page. The poem, titled ‘Unity’, required the unity of mind and body. During rehearsal I was given free reign of the Abbey as media set up mechanical booms scraping the 105 foot ceilings and mega screens, while florists lightened the Abbey’s corners with yellows, purples and whites. I had wandered into Lady’s Chapel and come across the marble effigy of Queen Elizabeth I and her half sister, Mary. To the bones of these formidable women, I recited ‘Unity’ thinking that within 48 hours, 413 years after her burial in 1603, Elizabeth I will have heard the same poem as her descendant. Poets love synchronicity. We also love to rehearse in front of flesh and blood. The day before during my run from Trafalgar Square to Buckingham Palace, I returned through St James Park. After cutting across the Queen’s Horse Guards Parade, over its large circular dirt floor field and under its central archway (the official entrance way to St James’s and where only Monarchs are permitted to drive through), I spotted two Palace Horse Guards stationed either side of the gate. I stopped at a babble of bobbies.
‘Excuse me. Is it true that the guards can’t move or respond to the public?’
‘Oh yes. Tourists try, they do. Turn it into a bit of a game. But they can’t you see. They’re on duty... guarding. Strict protocol.’
‘So I could talk to him and he can’t do anything?’
‘You could try Ma’am. Many have.’
Rejogging my steps, I choose the smaller, younger guard on the left. In his red uniform, brass buttons, and spiked gold helmet covering the bridge of his nose, he still looked like something out of Spartacus, nevertheless:
‘Hi. I’m Selina, a poet from New Zealand. Tomorrow I perform for the Queen. Um, I need to rehearse, if possible, in front of a live audience.’
He stared straight ahead.
‘So, apologies in advance, but since you can’t move, I’m thinking you’ll do? Is that okay?’
The young man’s left eyelid slowly descended then rose. Not a wink per se, but its as if he was saying: do your thing weird tall brown Kiwi woman, this job can get unspeakably boring and no poet’s ever come up to me before so, this should be diverting, even slightly entertaining. For Queen and Country!
In sweaty running gear, I performed ‘Unity’ with gusto, arms raised, hands fluttering, pacing up and down the dirt stage. After my final line I look him in the eye.
‘Sorry again to impose on you, but thank you.’
The left side of his mouth twitched up. Blink and you would’ve missed it. But it’s as if he was saying: Streuth! That was fantastic. Good luck for tomorrow, and thanks for breaking the monotony. For Queen and Country!
I took a selfie with the guard and posted it on Facebook. My sister messaged me within the hour:
‘Is that nuttella on your mouth?’
(It was, they had make-your-own waffles at the hotel in Trafalgar Square).
‘For Mum’s sake, please wash your face before you see the Queen!’
Back on the sacrarium steps I focus on breathing. The first person on my left is Her Majesty, in a powder blue jacket, skirt and hat with white gloves. It is a déjà vu moment. The scene before me could have been set in a frame of serrated ivory paper edges – like many royal portrait stamps I’ve licked over the years. Next to the Queen sits the Duke, staring intently at the Commonwealth Observance booklet and the schedule of events. Could ‘they’ be reading about ‘me’? Could royal eyes be perusing my poem?
The final Amen echoes through the Abby. I am strangely serene and let ‘Unity’ fly:
‘Let’s talk about Unity here in London’s Westminster Abbey did you know there’s a London in Kiribati? Ocean Island, South Pacific Sea...’
At the line mentioning bees and their Queen, I look directly at Her Majesty. She looks up just at that moment. It is captured on camera by the BBC. The screenshot shows us both, ladies in blue, a line of connection.
There is a pause, then applause from the transept. This is echoed throughout the rest of the Abbey where digital screens were placed. I was later told that it’s not protocol to applaud in the transept so I was doubly pleased.
At the end of the service, the performers were shepherded out and lined up in single file just inside the Abbey entrance. Thinking we were leaving, I took off my silk wrap and put on my black puffer jacket and crimson backpack. But then I saw the Dean of the Abbey lead members of the royal family to the beginning of the line, and introduce the Queen, one by one. I was second to last in line. I flashed back to a Mr Bean re-run – the episode where Mr Bean as butler endeavors to groom himself while in line to meet the Queen. He picks a loose thread from his jacket to floss, unravels it and finally gets the end of his white shirt jammed through the zipper of his black trousers. It hangs flaccidly in the air. When the Queen finally reaches him, he bows with such rigid excitement he headbutts her, knocking her out. I am trying to disengage from my puffer jacket and heavy backpack, and re-knot my transparent ocean shawl to cover my shoulders in front of international press and a slowly progressing line of royals. I end up kicking the bulky pile behind me, concealing them with my skirt. I am now kanohi ki te kanohi – face to face -- with the Queen. I am surprised by her youthful demeanor. Her make up is flawless and she has kind eyes.
‘How do you do?’
‘Hello Your Majesty. I hope you enjoyed your poem.’
‘Yes, indeed. How did you memorize it all?’
‘I’m a poet Your Majesty, it’s my job.’
At which she smiled, and I laughed,
‘Do give me a call if you want another.’
Yes, yes, just get me out of here? Or yes, yes, what is that tall, hairy woman muttering about in such a colloquial manner? Or Yes, yes, you and this performance will come to mind for a future royal event which will surely require a poem!
Then, the longest reigning British monarch, moved along the line.
Wills spoke to me about their trip to the Pacific and the brightly coloured Tuvalu costumes he and Kate danced in.
‘I don’t quite know how I find myself in these situations.”
‘Something to do with your job I think!’
“Yes quite right. I’m very much aware of the impact global climate change is having on the islands.”
“They say Tuvalu will disappear in less than 30 years.”
“It’s a very serious situation. Lovely to meet you. Lovely poem.”
‘Thank you Prince’.
Prince? Just Prince? Who calls Will just Prince? Sounds like a diamond studded Great Dane. His proper title is the Duke of Cambridge – now Duke sounds like a Dane’s name. Kate was all grace and style, surprisingly tall and very petite. Her eyes seemed very large on her flawless face and she was perfectly perfunctorily pleasant. Harry, on the other hand, was down to earth.
‘Great poem – really enjoyed it.’
‘I’ve written one for the Rugby World Cup too’
‘Ha! Great stuff!’ We both have our hair fashionably messy.
‘Well, call me if you need one!’
What am I now? Some roving, pushy, door-to-door sales poetry peddling Polynesian? Two verses for one? Then came Prince Andrew who queried me about composition, having spent the weekend with Ed (Sheeran) discussing such matters.
‘What’s your process for composing then?’
‘Well, poetry is slightly different than song lyrics I think, I journal regularly in order to process...’
He then turned to Ellie Goulding. ‘And how do you compose? Now I think...because Ed says...’ I hadn’t realised the demure, make-up less blond sitting next to me during rehearsals was the UK pop star, whose recent break up had over a million hits online. But the best royal exchange was with the Duke of Edinburgh later that evening at Marlborough House. After meeting and greeting the Queen for a second time, His Highness followed.
‘Greetings again, Your Highness.’
‘And what do you do?’
‘I’m a Poet.’
‘Yeeess. But what do you dooo?’
‘Oh, I teach postcolonial literature at the University of Auckland in New Zealand.’
Prince Phillip cocked his head and with a glint in his eye, said.
And with that, he moved on down the line.
Listen to Unity here: https://soundcloud.com/strummer89/unity
Enjoy ‘Pussycat’ (the poem in response to Mr possibly racist, perhaps classist Snobby-Suit-Face) here:
*I use Albert Wendt’s definition of ‘postcolonial’ where the ‘post’ means “around, through, out of, alongside, and against” colonialism, highlighting its ongoing impact (via neocolonialism, westernization, globalization and so on) in Oceania (see Nuanua: Pacific Writing in English Since 1980, Albert Wendt (ed), Auckland:Auckland University Press, 1995; 2007, 3).