Buckingham Palace: 18 Rms, No Royal Vu

Buckingham bric-a-brac: a tourist finds Rubens, a suburban throne, electric heaters and mints

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The opening of Buckingham Palace to paying tourists this month at 8 pounds ($12) a head hasn't quite lived up to its advance publicity; what does, these days? The mere possession of a ticket, raved the New York Times last June, "will have the magical properties of fairy gold . . . ((It)) will turn frog into prince and frump into Circe." This frog joined the queue for tickets in Pall Mall last week.

8 a.m. Already about 400 other frogs (many of them English ones, heavily reinforced with Japanese and Americans) are in the queue; the earliest ones, real frogs from France, had been here since 7. Dress: sneakers, blousons, & rucksacks, jeans. A suit or two. We are a long way from the days when a minister, arriving at Buckingham Palace in trousers rather than knee breeches, was asked why he had joined the retinue of the American ambassador.

8:30 a.m. Fidget and wait. Conversation in this part of the line turns on why the Queen is opening Buck House (as its staff calls it) at all, even if it's only for two months. Main text and official reason: she needs money to restore the part of Windsor Castle that was ruined in a fire last year. Subtext: p.r. to make up for the behavior of her offspring and their spouses -- Di the bulimic fairy princess, fat Fergie and her toe-sucking Texan "financial adviser," Charles' ambition to become Camilla Parker-Bowles' Tampax. Will a trot through the state rooms of Buckingham Palace raise our minds from these mundane affairs? Don't bet on it.

8:45 a.m. There is movement; we inch toward the ticket booth.

9:25 a.m. I fork out 8 pounds and receive a ticket that will let me in between 9:45 and 10 a.m. A semidignified rush to the back of the palace, where yet another queue, slower than the first, has formed. We are filtered through security -- real security, not the flimsy check you get at airports.

10:10 a.m. Now a third queue, inside the courtyard of the palace. We are standing on, or somewhere near, a failed silkworm farm, which was how the place began. In 1623 the Earl of Middlesex leased the land from James I to grow mulberry trees to feed the worms. Alas, the earl planted the wrong trees, and the worms did not spin. Eighty years later, it was leased again by the Duke of Buckingham, who built a house there. Then George III bought the house, which was enormously enlarged by his son George IV: it was his special folly. His son William IV pronounced it "hideous" and suggested turning it into a barracks. His daughter Victoria thought it was too small, but put up with it all the same.

10:25 a.m. The queue jerks forward again. Up the steps and in, after nearly 2 1/2 hours of waiting. How did tourists manage before there were sneakers? We go up the Grand Staircase, which is not so grand compared with other royal stairs -- Versailles, the Winter Palace. Much of its decor is covered in plastic sheets to save it from the friction of hoi polloi.

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