Please note, this is a rather self indulgent post written to help me remember in future years what was a truly spectacular day and set of events. Please forgive me and feel free to skip.
Let me start off by saying what an incredibly normal person I am. I have a job I am passionate about, friends and family I love, but apart from quite how fortunate I count myself to be, I am incredibly normal. I don’t have ‘connections’, I didn’t go to private school, and neither I nor my family are part of any clubs or other exclusive societies. So imagine my outright shock when in March this email dropped into my inbox on a Friday afternoon:
This is a joke………right?
On the 31st January 2020, I was fortunate to be awarded the British Empire Medal for services to healthcare and I wrote a little about how I didn’t believe it in a blog post. That was a fascinating process in itself, especially as I couldn’t tell anyone. When this email dropped into my inbox however, frankly it felt like someone was playing a bit of a joke. I opened and returned the form, almost on auto pilot because it felt like the kind of thing you should do, but as soon as I hit send I phoned my mum and Mr Girlymicro and had a bit of a breakdown after I calmly got the words out. Just saying the words ‘I think I’ve just been invited to the Coronation’ put me into a complete spin. You see, I’m the girl that snuggles down with a cup of tea and Agatha Christie when I manage to get time off, or to be completely honest, some truly awful reality TV (hated by my husband 🙂 like Love is Blind. I am not the girl that gets invited to fancy dinners or big events, let alone something to be seen on the international stage. Writing the Girlymicro blog is often the most down time I get on a weekend. So after sending my reply I sat back and just assumed that they would at some point realise their mistake and life would carry on.
As time went on and more emails went back and forth it gradually hit me that I may, in actual fact, need to attend the Coronation. I went through a period of properly freaking out about how I wouldn’t fit in, and how I’d have nothing sensible to say, my family pointed out it was too late for that, I’d accepted the invitation. I was locked in.
Then I proceeded to have, what a dear friend, referred to as a ‘Costume Drama’. Now, I get up in the morning and dress in the clothes in front of me. I am guaranteed to have covered myself in food/tea/detritus within an hour of dressing. I don’t wear makeup, and when I do I am lucky to not poke my own eye out with my eye liner. As the reality dawned on me, it also occured to me that I was going to need to have something to wear. Bear in mind that when I went to the Garden Party at Buckingham Palace I had a tail spin because I had never brought a hat and I just didn’t know what to expect. It took me 6 months to find something to wear and I had a little less than 6 weeks to get this sorted. This also felt like a complete level above what I had needed to achieve for afternoon tea.
I have previously posted about how I feel about clothing expectations. In this case, I began to increasingly feel like clothing would have a role as armour, as a way to step into a space where you felt like you needed to put your best foot forward. I needed to find something to wear that would help me feel like I deserved to be there and could occupy the space I had been given. At the same time, I wanted to balance the costume with who I am, I wanted to feel both like I belonged and still feel like me. So, being a scientist, I hit research mode and pulled together as many sources as I could to find the ‘uniform’ that was likely to be worn at such an event, and then to find ways to modify it so I could ‘fit in’ and still be me. I know some of you will be reading this and feel disappointed that I was not prepared to stand out. To make a statement. Sometimes, I feel that the freedom to make a statement comes from a position of privilege. Not always, sometimes it’s merely bravery and not worrying about the consequences. In this case, I didn’t feel I wanted to make a statement, I don’t feel like I come from a place where I have enough privilege to go against the tide. You may think it shows a lack of bravery, but the last thing I wanted was to stick out in anything but a ‘that’s a nice dress’ way. I was nervous enough, and a lot of those nerves stemmed from knowing that I was representing not just myself but all of you, my family, my profession, and my friends. What I wanted most was to make everyone proud, and so standing out needed to be done in the best possible way by rocking a look that acknowledged the event and still felt like me.
Feeling the weight of representation
You see, as time went on, I became more and more aware that the invitation I’d received wasn’t really about me, it was about us. I didn’t get a BEM for my work in isolation, it was for the work we had done as a community, I was just lucky enough to be the one who got a medal pinned to her chest. As the event drew nearer, I was so aware that I was representing both Healthcare Scientists and Infection Prevention and Control on an enormous stage. I am so proud to be part of both of those groups. I am prouder than I can state about my profession, a profession that is so often hidden and doesn’t get mentioned at the big events. I knew that the one thing I would be able to do on the day was talk about it and shine a spot light, if even just to a few people, on the amazing work my colleagues do and the sacrifices that they all made during the pandemic. I was aware that even though it was my name on the invite, in point of fact, in many ways, it wasn’t about me at all. I needed to use this unique opportunity to shine that spotlight on the people who deserve to be seen.
Coming, ready or not
Knowing it wasn’t really about me didn’t stop me from feeling nervous, however. I often get in my own head about big moments or events, especially things like this that feel too big and outside of the normal, for someone as normal as me. At times like this, I like to remember a quote of one of my favourite TV series:
“Bottom line is even if you see ’em coming, you’re not ready for the big moments. No one asks for their life to change, not really. But it does. So what, are we helpless? Puppets? No. The big moments are gonna come, can’t help that. It’s what you do afterwards that counts. That’s when you find out who you are. You’ll see what I mean.”Whistler – Angel Season One
My family, friends and colleagues did a great job of helping me get out of my own way. I really struggled at first with people asking me why I’d been invited. I didn’t know, I didn’t have an answer, but with the help of those around me I practiced an answer I could use on the day, ‘I got invited because of the great work that IPC and Healthcare Scientists did during the pandemic, coming together to really make a difference for children and young people, in terms of not only testing but also in keeping them safe in healthcare. I’m representing a great group of people who all go above and beyond every day, and I’m really honoured to be invited.’ I was as prepared as I was going to be.
A fairy tale day
So, the day arrived. I continued to be nervous, but I had all the lists and instructions to make me feel prepared. In the end, everyone I have to say was simply wonderful. I had been prepared for the formality, but I don’t think I had been prepared for the nice bits, the bits where we laughed and the bits where the event was in some ways just like every other event, just bigger and shinier, and with some of my hero’s present.
The day started at 5:15 am. I knew that there wouldn’t be many bathroom opportunities and so I could only have one (yes, that’s right, one!) cup of tea. Because I also knew that doing my hair and make up would stress me out and I wanted to enjoy the day, and because London has people who will do this for a very reasonable price at 6am, a wonderful lady arrived to make me feel pretty. I was made up, hat on and in a taxi by 7:45. All the time, with the news running in the background saying people were arriving and making me feel like I was already late.
I had that strange anxiety, like getting to an airport, where you just want to get through security and take your seat. I have to say that from the minute I showed my invite and started walking from Victoria Gardens down towards the Abbey, everyone was just so lovely and the nerves started to fade. Security was easy, and the atmosphere just felt really special. I felt like I do when running a half marathon, when everyone on the side of the road cheers you on, with less running and more hat. This part was made even nicer by running into another IPC legend Clare Johnstone as I was nearing the Abbey. This was great because not only did I have someone to experience it with, but we could also take a photo of each other to record the occasion.
Clare and I weren’t sitting in the same area, so I made my way to find my seat, just behind the North Quire. I was in some way saddened to realise that I wouldn’t have a good view of the procession, although to be honest, I’d not been expecting one. What I hadn’t expected was that everyone from Rishi Sunak to Ant and Dec would have to walk right by me both before and during the ceremony, as the Quire was mostly blocked with performers. This meant I got to do some grade A up close people watching in the 2 hours plus you had to be seated prior to the arrival of King Charles III, including Lionel Richie being a complete gentleman as he went by, asking how I was doing and saying he like my dress. The other thing that was interesting to note was that everyone had to scrum for seats. Now, as a pleb I’d expected this to be the case for me, but no, it was also the case for those much more famous than I. Those entering through the West Door had reserved seats, but everyone else was very much equitable in terms of finding your own within the section you had been allocated to. I found this somewhat pleasing.
We all knew the toilets were going to be locked down at 10am, and having been sitting since 8am it seemed sensible to try to get a visit out of the way as there would be no further opportunity until after 13:30. I state this here because, although the event was spectacular, the fact that toilets are always an issue somewhat amused me. There were 3 female toilets for the entire of the Abbey, for everyone from Hollywood celebrity to little old me, it made no difference. My colleagues have often heard me swear I will never use a portaloo, as I hate them from an IPC perspective. The available toilets were a step up, but they were still just temporary toilets. Of the 3 cubicles available, 1 did not have a working lock on the door, and 1 was blocked, only leaving 1 toilet in reality for everyone to use. Also, the cubicles were small. Normally, this would be less of an issue, but as I’m not someone who has often tried to negotiate such things with a rather large hat, it was challenging. Toilets are an issue, even if you are a King.
When the ceremony started I was fortunate enough to have found a seat next door to the seating reserved for the Heralds. This was very cool as I got to see them process, but also got to sit and get an up close view of all their regalia and to see a lot more of their roles. The advantage to being off to one side and therefore not quite on camera was that although the event was still very formal, I got to enjoy some informal moments that made us all laugh. Some parts of the order of service did not quite go as planned, such as the Prince and Princess of Wales entering iut of order. Because we were in quite close quarters together there was a real sense of comradery, which I hadn’t expected, as we all got up at incorrect points or couldn’t work out when to sit down when things were not quite as stated.
There was also some slight drama, when during the first hymn, the older lady next to me tried to drink some water, choked and then vomited water all down her, me and quite a chunk of the floor. Trying to silently signal and collect tissues, check she was OK and clean her up was significantly easier given where we were seated, but again our whole section silently pulled together to try and help. This is the disadvantage of telling people that bathroom access is limited, as over 5 hours is a long time for some people to not feel like they can drink.
There was never really a dull moment during the service, and it felt like the congregation were constantly involved in small ways during the service. The moment when the enormity really struck me however, of where I was and what was happening, was during the singing of the national anthem, it made me choke up a little, it just felt truly historic, it really felt like I was living through a never to be repeated moment, and I felt so lucky to be there to witness it.
And then it was over, and yet somehow the time after the Coronation itself felt like the nicest bit. You could almost feel the collective sigh of relief, and the atmosphere suddenly became much more informal, with people taking selfies with each other, talking and introducing themselves and mingling much more freely. At this point I could really talk to people about the amazing work my colleagues do and what an honour it was to be there. It also meant I could get a couple of pics of the Abbey in a way you weren’t permitted before the ceremony.
Then, as I was leaving the Abbey something happened that really made my day. I got to leave the Abbey and walk with Dame Judy Dench and Sir Kenneth Branagh. I mean, I didn’t have the courage to say anything, especially as they were just talking to each other in a really normal way, but I got to wander down the road with 2 complete legends, and then say hi to Stephen Fry. The only way I could have been more excited was if I’d gotten to meet Michelle Obama, but it appears she didn’t get an invite.
It was a truly magical day that exceeded all my expectations, I got to talk to people about the work we do, I got to feel part of history, and I got to visit a world, however briefly, which I never believed would welcome someone like me, and yet it did with open arms. I felt like I was welcome, I felt like I was seen and unexpectedly I felt like I deserved to be there.
Carrying your family with you
My friends and family mean so much to me, and they properly stepped up to the occasion, from sending gin minis for after the service that I could use to celebrate, to sending me pieces of jewellery that I could wear on the day and therefore carry them with me to help me deal with the nerves, and to help me feel like I belonged. They helped me move from feeling worried about the need to represent people and a profession who mean so much to me, to feeling the joy of doing the same. They helped me stay in the moment and understand that rather than fearing letting people down, I should celebrate making them feel seen.
Seeing their excitement, feeling their support for me stepping onto this enormous stage and celebrating me embracing all of who I am and where I’ve come from made all the difference, and no amount of drizzle could dampen the day.
I was collected by my husband Jon after the ceremony, and not only did he bring me an umbrella, but he also brought me comfortable shoes to switch into. I’ve rarely loved him more. Sharing the build-up and the day with people I love, as well as seeing the responses on social media, really did make it a day I will never forget. Thank you for sharing it with me.
All opinions in this blog are my own
One thought on “An Unexpected Invitation: Representing the Healthcare Science & IPC workforce at the Coronation of King Charles III”
I thoroughly enjoyed this blog Elaine and felt as I was reading that we got to experience a little of your absolute honour of being in attendance. I looked out for you on the television on Saturday to no avail so I am delighted to see your outfit in the photos. What a blessing and so very well deserved. History is made up of many “ordinary” people who do extraordinary things and you are indeed one of these people. 🙂