Magazine article The New Yorker

A Couple of Ambassadors

Magazine article The New Yorker

A Couple of Ambassadors

Article excerpt

A COUPLE OF AMBASSADORS

"Is the traffic I endured just because the Cambridges are here, or is it just life's like that?" Alastair Bruce asked, as he settled in to lunch at the Lambs Club last Monday. Bruce, an expert in British state ceremony, had come by taxi from Penn Station to Times Square, a short but long journey even when New York is not hosting his future monarch, as it was last week. Bruce wore an unseasonable seersucker jacket--"It is called by my family my 'vicar abroad' jacket"--as well as stars-and-stripes cufflinks and a tie decorated with images of jolly British policemen. When advised that New Yorkers had been having some trouble with the police lately, he replied cheerfully, "Well, I am advertising police with whom you would have no trouble."

A waiter set down a small loaf of bread. "Shall I be mother?" Bruce offered, slicing it. He was in town with the cast of "Downton Abbey," on which he is a historical consultant. The first episode of the new season, which premieres in the U.S. in January, will be followed by a spinoff, "The Manners of Downton Abbey," in which Bruce explores the social protocol of the time. He dislikes being called an etiquette expert. "Etiquette experts are a bit prissy, and will probably encourage more doilies than are necessary," he explained. Protocol is behavior that comes naturally, or once did.

Bruce is a descendant of Robert the Bruce, who led the Scots against the English seven hundred years ago. His great-great-great-grandfather was Lord Elgin, of the marbles; his great-great-grandfather, another Lord Elgin, "created Canada"--he was the governor-general--and his great-grandfather was a viceroy of India. "No wonder I was interested in history," he said. "And, because nobody else is competing with me, I find myself as probably the person in my generation who knows more than any other about coronation ritual, going back to the ordo set by St. Dunstan, in 973." Bruce serves the Queen in the role of Fitzalan Pursuivant of Arms Extraordinary; in state funerals and the like, he processes wearing a tunic decorated with the Queen's armorial bearings, looking like the Jack of Diamonds. "Can I show you a picture?" he said, pulling out his cell phone. "I'm a bit of a dresser-upper," he acknowledged.

He would not be crossing paths with the royal couple on their visit, though he has had the opportunity to observe William at close quarters at many official events, including the Garter Service, an annual chivalric ceremony at Windsor Castle. "Here is a young man, swathed in blue velvet, with a wonderful Tudor bonnet with ostrich feathers flying out the side. …

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