The queen. Across the pond, her name occupies immense psychic space. While in Ireland, for example, I made a joke to a cab driver.
“Yeah, we had dinner with the queen the other night,” I said. “I’ll tell you, she was drunk as a skunk.”
If I’d told him my brother was skunk-drunk, that wouldn’t have gotten the merest rise out of him. But Queen Elizabeth II soused on her ass? That cracked him up.
When I visited the Magic Circle last Monday, I talked with the grand old man of magic, Henry Lewis, who has been a member of the Circle for decades. His big claim to fame is having performed regularly for the royals. Ask him and he’ll bring out his iPad and show you where he claims it on his Web page.
“If you play your cards right,” Henry likes to say with a wry grin, “I’ll invite you to my funeral.”
Personally, I’m not a big fan of the queen. A few years ago, I made my views known to a visiting British author at a party.
“She hasn’t earned her position,” I said. “She wasn’t elected, she wasn’t promoted, she didn’t work her way up through the ranks. She doesn’t do anything in particular. She’s like an appendix, really. It’d be better if you just cut her out.”
The British author started to sputter, as the English sometimes do, muttering some indecipherable defense, or more appropriately, defence. She never did fully articulate that defence. That hostess never invited me to another party.
On our trip to England, though, the queen and the royals hung in the air like a heavy Saxon mist. Harry and William were on the front page of the Times promoting a charity. My mother and Claire spent a few hours at Windsor Castle, where the royals reside. I visited Buckingham Palace on my way to an acupuncture appointment, and in the ever-present souvenir shops, saw Union Jack paperweights, double-decker bus keychains, books about royal genealogy, and all manner of royal detritus.
We didn’t see the queen, though. Maybe we should have called first. Mayhaps she would have invited us over to take a dip in the pool.
“Bring your swimsuit,” she might have said over the phone. “We’re all taking a dip au naturelle. No need for sunscreen, though. This is England, after all, not fucking St. Tropez, ha ha ha!”
Maybe the conversation wouldn’t have gone exactly in that way.
On Tuesday, we hopped on a train in London at 9:10 am and headed north for Wales, where we were to catch a ferry across the Irish Sea, landing in Dublin at 5:25 pm. It promised to be a nice, relaxing trip on a fairly empty train.
But there was a man sitting across the aisle from us. He had dark hair and was plugged into a lot of technology. A conversation ensued, and then, as often happens, I was performing a magic trick for him. I must confess that I’m a little promiscuous with magic in that way, performing magic for strangers at the drop of a bowler hat. Then I was teaching him a magic trick, because, as he said, “I work with kids and I need tricks sometimes.”
So I taught him a killer trick that’s fairly simple. Cross-cut force with a bet as a revelation. After teaching that, I became Bill’s lifelong friend.
Bill and I began chatting about all sorts of things, starting with history. Oliver Cromwell’s ill treatment of the Irish. Whether the Chinese were better off after communism came in in 1949. What kind of man Mao Zedong was. Why rich countries are often flanked by poor countries that provide cheap labor.
“I’m reading lots of histories, making my way around the world,” I said. “One history leads to another which leads to another. It helps me put together a picture of the world.”
Somewhere into the third hour together, Bill mentioned casually—not gratuitously, but apropos to the conversation—that he had had dinner with the queen the night before.
“William and Harry were there,” he said, “and Andrew, as well. It was as part of a charity that I run called Coderdojo.”
In that moment, something changed. One of two options applied. Either he had been in the company of the queen the night before and we were actually in the presence of someone extraordinary, or he was a fraud or delusional or both, and everything he had been saying previously was now suspect. Our world hung in the balance for a while. It recalled for me the day I met a named Peter (last name withheld) of Orion Entertainment, who gave me his card and promised to get my magic show on television. He never did return my calls, but pretty quickly, I discovered online accounts of how he had defrauded numerous people, writing huge bad checks and promising people things he couldn’t deliver. Turned out that Orion Entertainment was not a legal company, just something printed on a business card. He had lots of fraud convictions, including larceny charges in New York state, wrote $60,000 in bad checks to a winery, $30,000 in bad checks to a woman he “hired,” who promptly quit her job in Northern California to move to L.A. before she discovered the scam, and numerous other scams and frauds. Needless to say, I was skeptical.
My gut told me Bill was for real, and soon, I had the opportunity to check it out on the Internet. Happily, my gut feeling was right. He’s the author of a book with, of all people, Desmond Tutu. He’s lectured at the London School of Economics and at TED. He’s got quite an impressive resume.
Amazingly, Claire, my mother, and I were one degree of separation removed from the Queen of England.
In fact, we were sharing a train with Bill Liao, an investor who made over a billion pounds in tech, then cashed out and now spends all his time running various charities designed to save the world.
Amazingly, Bill wasn’t traveling first class, perhaps because he was charging it to one of his charities.
“I like to sit in this car because the next car is first class, and you can get free Internet access if you sit right next to it,” he said.
Strangely, he was one of those guys you hear about in movies but hardly ever see, a superrich guy who likes to rub elbows with “real people.” In my experience, most rich people find that too much of a bother. They might run into a bore. They might discover that there’s some money to be made off you. They might zero in for the kill when your bodyguard is seeing a man about a horse. In my experience, there are always several layers of protection between the superrich and the outside world, and those protectors are vicious when they need to be.
“Power changes you,” he said at one point. “They’ve done studies on it.”
Bill lives on a farm in Cork, Ireland, with his wife and three children. Throughout the eight hours that we spent together, we talked about everything. While we passed through quaint Wales towns, he would point out the castle on the side of the mountain or the windpower generators in the bay or the longest place name in Europe (Llanfairpwllgwyngyll), which is written across the train station–alllll the way across it. At one point, he commented on my personality.
“Yes, you seem to have a personality with all the hard edges cut off,” he said.
I’m still wondering whether that was a compliment.
I guess I was waiting for something. I performed a couple of my best magic tricks for him, and he said he was mightily impressed. So I waited. The conversation would have gone something like this.
You know, the queen has simply got to see your magic. You’re fabulous. Why don’t you stay with our family for a few days, and then I can arrange a dinner where you can dazzle the queen and the royals with a show. I would think that Kate would find you physically attractive, as well, and would like to take a skinny-dip with you.
I could do that, I would say.
It wouldn’t be an inconvenience, would it?
Unfortunately, that conversation never took place. But the next best thing happened. We talked about the future of humanity, about how to teach the next generation of children in a better way, about whether children need authority figures more or freedom more, about whether the world was getting less violent. I had a fascinating conversation, one degree removed from the Queen of England, for eight hours.