Saturday, April 10, 2010

Her Lunch

From their vantage point in a grandstand outside Buckingham Palace on Coronation Day (June 2, 1953), a companion turns to Noël Coward and wonders aloud: Who is “that little man” sitting in the pouring rain beside Queen Sālote of Tonga in the open landau? Coward’s reply: “Her lunch.”

This myth has proven stubbornly durable and, notwithstanding the racist slur directed at not one but two visiting heads of state (crowned heads, moreover), it still crops up from time to time as an apparently prized example of the wit of Noël Coward, most recently in the late Sheridan Morley’s awful Noël Coward (London: Haus Publishing, 2005, pp. 109–10).

H.M. Queen Sālote Mafile‘o Pilolevu Tupou III was born on March 13, 1900, and reigned over Tonga from April 5, 1918, until she died on December 16, 1965. She was the daughter and heir of King George Tupou II and his first wife, Queen Lavinia Veiongo. Queen Sālote’s companion en route from Westminster Abbey to Buckingham Palace that rainy afternoon was H.H. Paduka Sri Sultan Sir Ibrahim IV ibn al-Marhum Sultan Muhammad, Sultan of Kelantan, one of the Federated Malay States, since 1963 the northeastern-most in the mainland portion of the kingdom of Malaysia.

Outside the coronation annexe at the abbey, a footman asked Queen Sālote if she wished to have the hood raised over her landau, but (according to the Queen’s own account, quoted at length by Elizabeth Wood-Ellem in her Queen Sālote of Tonga: The Story of an Era, 1900–1965, Auckland: Auckland University Press, and Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press, 1999, pp. 243–44) Sālote was so moved by the enthusiastic reception of the crowd that she declined, and was driven instead smiling and waving enthusiastically through the streets, exposed to heavy rain, a gesture that was much appreciated by tens of thousands of ordinary wet people who had camped out overnight.

The Sultan of Kelantan was seated opposite Queen Sālote, and not beside her. With her normally cold eye for precedence, and from a vantage point by this date diminishing by several notches in the line of succession almost daily, Prince Alice, Countess of Athlone, recalled this unusual seating arrangement, implying a measure of counter-jumping vulgarity on the Queen’s part: “We noticed [at Buckingham Palace] with curiosity and admiration how she manoeuvred herself into her carriage and then sat down plumb in the middle of the seat of honour. A small but magnificently attired sultan who had been assigned to the same coach attempted to take his place beside her, but she put out an arm and majestically waved him into the seat facing her” (For My Grandchildren, London: Evans Brothers, 1966, p. 286).

Later Queen Sālote felt it proper to apologize formally to the sultan for being partly responsible for getting him drenched, but by all accounts His Highness’s response was entirely gracious. At length neither he nor she caught cold.

The miserable little quip about “her lunch” is difficult to trace, but it seems to have circulated widely through the London crowds before the end of Coronation Day, and was immediately attributed to Noël Coward: “‘Oh Noël, that was so funny,’ Dickie Fellowes-Gordon said when next she saw him, but he denied responsibility. ‘I didn’t say it. I wish I had.’” (Morley, p. 401. The tall Scottish singer and socialite Dorothy [“Dickie”] Fellowes-Gordon was the sometime lover and sole heiress of the hostess, gossip columnist and snob Elsa Maxwell.)

The same preposterous “lunch” remark was later ascribed to the moustachioed matinée
idol David Niven, either by Coward himself or more usually by “bystanders.”
It is remarkable that since 1953 no Englishman has ever seemed in any way reluctant to repeat it, nor (apart from Coward) even to disclaim responsibility. And few have ever taken the trouble to find out anything at all about its targets. The Sultan of Kelantan served as a deputy judge of the High Court of the Malay States; his eldest son and heir was elected king of Malaysia in 1975.

Queen Sālote was six feet three inches tall, and the sultan was short, so the disparity was principally one of height. However in subsequent iterations of the story, having begun as merely plump, Queen Sālote becomes gradually fatter, and eventually attains mountainous obesity, while the Sultan of Kelantan diminishes to “that tiny little man,” or an equerry, or an attendant, or even at times a faceless, nameless servant. As for her real lunch, the Queen wrote: “After the coronation we were led to an annexe of the Abbey and offered a light meal. It consisted of tea or a cold drink, with sandwiches and cake” (Wood-Ellem, p. 243).

Reports of cannibalism among the Polynesian islanders of Tonga were widespread in the early nineteenth century. At best they were unreliable, and at worst they were entirely fictitious. The practice seems to have existed as a genuine ritual adjunct to tribal warfare and at funerals, but ended with the arrival of Methodist missionaries in the 1820s.

The Tongan archipelago (21° 7’ 60” S, 175° 11’ 60” W) consists of 169 islands, 130 of them uninhabited, that stretch over a distance of approximately 500 miles from north to south. It is roughly one third of the way along a 4,400-mile straight line that stretches from New Zealand to Hawaii. Captain James Cook reached the locality in 1773, on his second circumnavigation, and owing to the warmth of his reception named it “the Friendly Islands.” This was an unfortunate misreading of the annual inasi festival (for the ceremonial distribution of fruits) with which his visit coincided, because in fact the local chieftains planned to kill Cook and his companions but could not agree on a sufficiently punitive method before the Resolution set sail. Six years later the Hawaiian islanders demonstrated greater efficiency and resolve in that regard.

Tonga united as an independent kingdom in 1845 under Queen Sālote’s paramount chieftain great grandfather Siaosi Tupou Maeakafaua Ngininginiofolanga, who at his coronation in Nukuʻalofa—the only such ceremony that has ever been conducted according to Methodist ritestook the name of King George Tupou I, apparently in honor of King George III. The decision was canny because henceforth Tonga shrewdly allied herself to Britain by treaties of friendship and thus, alone among the island groups of the South Pacific, she successfully avoided annexation, the hazards of trusteeship, and the loss of independence. Britain never bothered to install an official more senior than a spectacularly sidelined Foreign Office consul, who, though he reported to the Governor of Fiji in Suva, exercised no executive authority in Tonga.

With considerable dispatch, Queen Sālote declared war on Japan at noon on December 8, 1941 (i.e. 1.00 o’clock in the afternoon on December 7 in Honolulu, Pearl Harbor Day), almost 24 hours before the United States and Great Britain did. Although this ultimately proved not to be Tonga’s Grand Fenwick moment, thanks to the swift action of the U.S. Navy Nukuʻalofa was never attacked or occupied. Under provisions of Queen Sālote’s will Tonga joined the British Commonwealth as an autochthonous monarchy in 1970, and, after a long, ruminative pause for reflection, in September 1999 decided also to join the United Nations. Today Tonga is severely threatened by the prospect of rising sea levels as a direct result of global warming.

Perhaps the neatest commentary on the whole sorry business of Queen Sālote’s coronation lunch occurs in Elizabeth Wood-Ellem’s index: “Coward, Noël, not mentioned.”

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