The day of my investiture at Buckingham Palace dawned bringing freezing rain and fierce winds, which lashed at the windows as I regarded the outfit I had painstakingly planned — a lightweight, cream wool suit. A little damp didn’t bother me, so I didn’t care if I’d be shivering as Prince Charles pinned the medal on to my cape. No — it was the fate of the hat that worried me most. Designed by milliner Philip Treacy, it was a frothy creation of white grosgrain, chiffon flowers and delicate veiling, and I was concerned about the wind whipping it off. My best friend Judy Bryer said soothingly, ‘Philip has put so much construction inside that even a gale wouldn’t shift it.’
After much primping, my husband Percy, my two oldest children and I drove to the Palace. We averted a potential disaster when, at the gates, Percy confessed to having left his photo ID behind. ‘Will you vouch for this gentleman?’ the helmeted bobby inquired. ‘Well, I’m not sure if I’d go that far, but he is my husband,’ I joked. The policeman smiled politely, stared at me to make sure I was the real McCoy, and ushered our driver into the outer courtyard.
Once inside we were separated, and I was shown into a vast hall. There we were instructed in protocol and the ladies made to practise our curtseys. The future knights weren’t let off, as they had to practise kneeling on a velvet stool and rising again, amid much creaking of joints. Walking through the hallowed passages on the way to the Investiture Hall, I couldn’t help but feel slightly giddy as my moment approached. ‘Walk, stop, walk, stop, turn, curtsey, walk, stop, curtsey, stand, wait, curtsey, walk backward, stop, curtsey, turn, walk,’ I repeated to myself. Suddenly a hand propelled me forward and I was facing Prince Charles. ‘And about time, too!’ he said, flashing a charming smile. My nerves evaporated.
Although I’d already received an OBE, my damehood for services to charity means so much to me. As patron of the Shooting Star/Chase Hospice for children with terminal illnesses, I know how much these families depend on the charity to help them provide the best care for their child. They receive next to no support from the government when their child is sent home, and would be left to cope almost entirely alone if not for the valiant efforts of the hospices.
After the ceremony we repaired for lunch at the Wolseley, where I was greeted by my dearest sister Jackie and my brother Bill and his family, along with several friends. Most of them were a touch hung over because the previous evening my friends Joyce and Simon Reuben had thrown a spectacular soiree at Loulou’s. The club had created a special drink called the Joan Collins — a lavender Tom Collins — as well as scrumptious canapés.
My guests and I had hit the disco like over-ambitious Anton du Bekes and Abbey Clancys. But I was surprised to see a few curious trends on the dance floor. Three or four young ladies placed their handbags on the floor and tripped the light fantastic around them, leaving the hazard for others to trip over. Others showed off tipsy moves while clutching cocktails, occasionally sprinkling liquid around them. Add to this hapless waiters trying to mop up the drink while avoiding those embracing their inner Beyoncé, and it became more like dodgems than a dance‑off.
At home for a well-earned break, I stared at the once-beautiful brocade curtains in my sitting room and realised that it was time for a change. After almost two decades of faithful service, they were so ragged and ripped that I was beginning to feel like Miss Havisham. There was nothing for it but a trip to Chelsea Design Centre to order new ones. I arranged to meet the designer in the great foyer, and as I stood there waiting, a lady slowly approached. She stopped in front of me, raised her head and asked my favourite question: ‘Do you remember me?’ I hemmed and hawed then mumbled: ‘Of course, mmm — now, where was it?’ ‘We were at school together,’ she beamed. ‘You were in my class?’ I asked, embarrassed not to remember. ‘No, I was in Jackie’s class, and I’ll never forget you chiding me at lunch one day for refusing to eat my lumpy custard.’ ‘Why did I do that?’ ‘You were my prefect, and you were quite bossy!’ I’m glad some things haven’t changed.
On the night of my investiture, we hosted a big party at Claridge’s for friends and family. I’d been working on the perfect placement for months, so I was panicking hugely about no-shows. I needn’t have worried. Everyone turned up beautifully dressed and on time, which never happens. The speeches were warm and witty and after many wonderful tributes, Percy stood up wearing a sailor’s hat emblazoned with ‘HMS Dame Joan’ and began singing the opening verse of ‘There is Nothing Like a Dame’. I steeled myself to be thoroughly embarrassed, but I needn’t have worried. Christopher Biggins took the second verse, and then they sat me on a Bergère throne in the middle of the dance floor while Theo Fennell, Charles Delevingne, Billy Differ, Jack Rich and Nickolas Grace took on various parts with gusto. This was without a doubt the best night of my life.
The following day, my sister Jackie gave us a post-mortem lunch, and later our mayoral hopeful Ivan Massow threw a grand kitchen supper. A final lunch on Saturday, then tea at home before everyone flew off, leaving Percy and me to rest. Waking up the next morning I felt very Jack Lemmon-ish inSome Like It Hot, as I recited: ‘I’m a Dame! I’m a Dame? I’m a Dame!’
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated 25 April 2015