Just how down-to-earth was Princess Margaret?

Why Michael Caine had to go up a tree because of the Queen's sister

Princess Margaret, according to papers released today, had very ‘simple' tastes, and didn't like a fuss being made about her. ‘Simple' here seems to be a relative term - five courses at dinner, for instance, were ‘quite sufficient'. But the detail that really caught my eye was Margaret's taste in literature: she would only accept gifts of books from authors who were ‘of reputable character'. Not sure whether Michael Caine falls into that category, but the Princess might have been interested in a story from the actor's 1992 autobiography. Because it's about her - and reveals that perhaps she did like a fuss being made about her after all ...

Just how down-to-earth was Princess Margaret?

The young Caine served part of his National Service at the barracks of the Queen's Royal Regiment near Guildford. One day he and his colleagues were told that Princess Margaret would be making a visit, and a huge pile of coal at the barracks was likely to offend her royal gaze. Therefore, came the order, the coal was to be painted white. The order was duly carried out.

What's more, as it was autumn, every leaf that had fallen from the trees had to swept up. Caine thought this was reasonable enough: you couldn't have the place looking a mess. But on the morning of the visit itself, he had to climb every tree and shake the branches, so that no loose leaf would fall while the Princess was there. ‘I often wonder,' he wrote, ‘if Princess Margaret thinks that coal is white and the winter comes earlier in Surrey than it does in London.'

 

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Big Ben

On a visit to Big Ben, I was told that if you stand at the bottom of the tower with a portable radio and listen to the chimes on Radio 4 (they still transmit them live), you hear them on the radio before you hear them ‘for real’. I couldn’t believe it – but was intrigued enough to try it for myself. And you know what? It’s absolutely true. The bongs come out of the radio a fraction of a second before they reach your ears from the top of the tower. It’s something so silly, so counter-intuitive, that you have to tell people. (Well, I did.) Researching the explanation, I found that it’s because radio waves travel at the speed of light (186,000 miles per second) rather than the 700 or so miles per hour at which sound waves travel. The signal travelling down the wire from the microphone to the BBC goes at the speed of light too. Hence the radio version overtaking the real one.

I realised that this would be the perfect way to teach the principle in school physics lessons. Instead of a boring teacher droning on that ‘radio waves travel at the speed of light’, illustrate it with this beautiful and quirky little fact. The kids will remember it then. I certainly would have done if my physics teacher had taken this approach. As it was I had to wait until I heard a piece of so-called ‘trivia’ in my thirties.