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Monday, 17 July, 2000, 14:26 GMT 15:26 UK
The nation's favourite grandmother
The age-defying Queen Mother in 1995
By royal correspondent Jennie Bond

For almost all of us, the Queen Mother is someone who has simply always been there - whether or not her life has impinged greatly on ours. She therefore represents a stability and sense of continuity that extends far beyond her own family.

But, for them, she is very much an anchor - someone who has helped them hold steady in some stormy seas.

Part of her constancy comes from the fact that she is a fierce traditionalist: change is a word that is not in the vocabulary of Clarence House. Many of her staff have grown old with her - some have been with her for more than 50 years. It is a friendly household, which she runs in quite a hands-on style, taking all the key decisions - down to supervising the menus.

'Up-to-date lady'

The Queen Mother with her daughter Elizabeth
Although she talks to her eldest daughter most days - either in person or on the phone - the Queen Mother values her independence. At Clarence House in the week, and at Royal Lodge in Windsor at weekends, she has her own life-style and friends.

She enjoys hosting lunch parties for up to 20 people, and always dresses for dinner - whether there are guests or not.

It is her great love of meeting people that has helped her defy her age. Part of it is a sense of duty - she feels obliged to talk to as many people as she can if they have turned out to see her. But she's also genuinely interested in topical issues and views. She is, as one of her ladies-in-waiting says, "a very up-to-date lady" who wants to hear about modern ideas - "even if she doesn't agree with them!"

She is also shrewd. Over the years, with her willingness to stop and chat, she has become adept at appearing to be at once the most accessible of the Royal Family and, at the same time, the most regal.

Steely resolve

Standing firm with Winston Churchill in the war years
Instinctively suspicious of diluting the mystery of monarchy, she has never been in favour of allowing cameras behind the scenes. She does not give interviews or sound bites, and is reluctant even to let people speak on her behalf. It has proved a wise course to follow.

But she knows the importance of image. As Queen during the days of the World War II, she was well aware that her decision to remain in London with the King was a powerful symbol of defiance. And she shows the same steely resolve these days - for example, insisting on walking down all the steps at St Paul's Cathedral last month, when she attended a special service.

After her two hip operations, walking is less painful than it was, but still not easy. She is undeniably frail and her eyes are failing. But still she goes on. And she's pleased that she is providing a positive image of old age - setting an example to many people a good deal younger.

"We get lots of letters from people who've been encouraged by the Queen Mother," says one of her ladies- in- waiting.

"Especially from people who are about to have replacement hip operations, as she has. And she likes to feel that she has shown what you can do if you have the health, and enough strength of mind, to do it."

Fun loving royal

The Queen Mother loves to keep abreast of the racing news
More than anything else, the Queen Mother is an example of how to get fun out of life. It is the one word that comes up more often than any other when people talk about her.

Until recently, she would still take to the dance-floor during her stays in Scotland. Now she watches from the side-lines, but she still enjoys her gin and dubonnet - well mixed, and with plenty of ice. And she remains a passionate follower of the turf.

She has the dedicated racing channel on her television, and never misses a day out at the races if she can help it. Indeed, her engagements are generally arranged around the racing calendar!

As she celebrates her 101st birthday, the Queen Mother appears to be, as Prince Charles once said "indefatigable and completely unstoppable".

With her devoted grandson, Prince Charles
In a touching tribute, he added, "Ever since I can remember , my grandmother has been the most wonderful example of fun, laughter , warmth , infinite security and, above all, exquisite taste. For me, she has always been one of those extraordinarily rare people whose touch can turn everything to gold."

The Prince's words speak volumes about the close relationship he has always enjoyed with his grandmother.

And, having been discharged from hospital following a polo accident, he is expected to be at her side as the family gathers to celebrate another royal milestone.

See also:

17 Jul 00 | Entertainment
Queen Mother film planned
17 Jul 00 | Entertainment
Womble honour for Queen Mother
15 Jul 00 | Scotland
Picture tribute to Queen Mother
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