The day the Queen gave me an English lesson

Editor’s Note: Queen Elizabeth II celebrates her 90th birthday on Thursday. Veteran CNN royal-watcher Roger Clark recalls the time he met the Queen, reflects on her six decades of public service and asks what it is that makes her so popular. For full coverage of the British royal family, head to

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Queen Elizabeth II is celebrating her 90th birthday Thursday

After six decades of tireless service, why is she still so popular?

CNN  — 

King George VI once told his daughter she wouldn’t remember most of the people she would meet in her life. But His Majesty said those very people would always remember the day THEY met HER.

I know exactly what he meant. I doubt the Queen tells her friends about the day she met me but let’s just say I’ve mentioned the occasion once or twice!

It was a meeting I’ll never forget – I think I even have a picture on the wall at home of us chatting together at Windsor Castle. I wanted to make a good impression. I’m not normally lost for words but I did struggle a bit that day.

I was covering the Golden Jubilee in 2002 and we’d asked the Palace if on the opening day, she would adjust her schedule by a few minutes to help the broadcasters. The Palace agreed.

So when I met Her Majesty, I thanked her for changing her schedule. Unfortunately, I pronounced it “SKedule” not “SHedule. I’d used the American pronunciation in front of the Queen AND in her Castle. Brilliant move! She gently corrected me and then laughed.

The King was right. I still remember our meeting, which is why, even during my years living in America, I never use the American pronunciation. And if any one questions me about it, I tell them to ring Buckingham Palace for an explanation!

Stage presence

When you meet the Queen, she tries to put you at ease. But it’s still nerve wracking. After I’d shaken her hand, I thought about all those world leaders, pop stars, sports legends and others who’ve shaken THAT hand. Despite being 5’4” tall, the Queen has enormous presence when she enters the room. It’s a most unusual feeling.

My first encounter with Her Majesty came during her Silver Jubilee in 1977. She visited my hometown of Hull in the North of England. I wonder if she’d forgiven the city for rising up against one of her predecessors, King Charles I.

READ: What’s inside Queen’s wardrobe?

The protests had ignited the English Civil War that led to the King losing his head – and all future monarchs ruling not through the Divine Right, but with the blessing of their people. That first sight of the Queen was one I’ll always remember. We didn’t see her often in those days before 24 hour news.

Sure, she was on our stamps, our coins and her picture hung in the school assembly hall. But to see her in the flesh was quite something. I was with hundreds of choirboys that day singing to her. I really hope she doesn’t remember that!

Patience - more than a virtue

Over the years, I’ve seen the Queen in action on many Royal visits. God only knows how she does it. She travels all over the world, meets countless people, tries to ensure a routine day for her is a special day for those she meets.

READ: Queen’s guide to globetrotting

One event after another, listening to and giving speeches, shaking endless outstretched hands and all with a smile on her face. It must be tough because, in truth, some of the speeches can be dull and some of the events are pretty boring.

But she can’t exactly yawn when she’s bored or, indeed, tired. And if she is bored or tired, you’d never know it.

Little is known about her

Despite being one of the most famous people in the world, very few of her subjects really know much about her.

She’s never given an interview, never written an autobiography. We know she likes horses, corgis and the outdoors. We know also that she’s a deeply religious person and has a sense of humor.

Apparently she’s an excellent mimic. But we know nothing about her politics or her views on anything remotely controversial.

Sense of duty

Some commentators have criticized her for being a bit remote as a mother. Yet when she put her grandmotherly responsibilities to Princes William and Harry first in the days after Princess Diana died, she was criticized for that too.

I remember that time very well and the angry mood of the British people – it was unprecedented. That week saw the biggest wobble of her reign. What a remarkable turnaround that just five years later, millions of people around the Commonwealth came onto the streets to celebrate her Golden Jubilee.