31 August 2013

Living at Buckingham Palace is ‘a lot like being at university’, according to Page of the Presence, Martin O’Keefe.

He has a room in Her Majesty’s residence, with shared bathrooms and kitchen, and a close-knit team with which he both works and socialises. The difference is that - unlike the box he had in Grizedale College - this large room at the front of Buckingham Palace has a view down the Mall, is furnished with antiques and his work puts him in daily contact not only with the Queen and the Royal Family, but also with a host of other celebrities from heads of state to rock legends.

“There are certain things you get used to,” says Martin. “But every day I think to myself 'This is Buckingham Palace - not only is this amazing fun, but it is amazing that I live here at all’."

Since he started there in 2003, he has witnessed more state occasions and celebrity meetings than he can bring to mind, but one personal joy was during the Diamond Jubilee celebrations when his music heros Madness were rehearsing for the concert at the Palace. One of his colleagues tipped the band members off that the rehearsal day happened to be Martin’s birthday, so they played and sang him 'Happy Birthday'.

He says: “Seeing HRH The Duchess of Cambridge on her wedding day was amazing too as I was one of the first people to see her when she arrived back to the Palace for the wedding reception. Having visited the Palace during my time at Lancaster, I could never have imagined that my life would have turned out like this.”

Martin’s role is one that dates back 300 years. It requires him to wear a livery he describes as being much like those in the TV drama Downton Abbey of black trousers and gold-buttoned waistcoat, white shirt and tail coat. He is one of three in that role at the Palace. He is a servant with a responsibility to serve the Queen and her household by attending to their guests. This involves organising and attending anything from breakfast meetings for four people to sit-down dinners for 180 people or full-blown investitures.  He is also in attendance when the Queen is away at Windsor Castle, at Ascot or on a state visit, so he has travelled widely including to Turkey, Australia, the United States and Singapore. This requires discretion, sensitivity and an ability to tune in to other people’s needs, which he believes he learned at Lancaster.

Liverpool born and brought up in a large Catholic family, the comprehensive school educated teenager chose Lancaster as a place to study in part because it was not too far from home and because he wanted a reassuring-small campus, with a city of a manageable size nearby.

As Martin was the first in his family to go to university, his parents expected teething problems, but he loved it from the start, despite having one of the smallest rooms on campus and the fact that the college was full of humidifiers when he arrived, having been flooded after heavy rain.

“It was not a good start,” he recalls . “But there was a really good mix of people there and there were so many international students.  I really felt I was connecting with the wider world.”

Academically he was happy.  He had not had the chance to study politics at school, but he was able to add it to the English Language and Literature with which he started.  In his second week he had dropped the English Language in favour of Sociology and by the end of the first year he had made Politics his major. Having three different subjects gave him three different friendship groups, which allowed the diffident youngster to start to find his feet away from home.

The turning point for Martin was seeing a poster for the student counselling service Nightline in his second term. It looked like a good way to make friends and seemed like a useful service, so he decided to give it a try. After six weeks training he joined the team, then became secretary, co-ordinator and ultimately the chair leading to attendance of the Union Council, contact with other societies and the Union.

“Nightline really helped me to get out of myself and to gain confidence,” says Martin. “I felt I was really managing my life.”

Studying for him was a ‘side-effect’ of his time at Lancaster.  He loved it and considers he enjoyed some of the best times of his life there and he gained his degree, but for him its value lies in what he learned about life and the experiences he had whilst there, including the opportunity to travel abroad, which he had never before considered doing.

When he left, he had abandoned earlier thoughts of going into politics and moved back to Liverpool into a full-time job with John Lewis. After a few months he applied for a job as warden of the Queen’s Gallery at Buckingham Palace and got it, in part he thinks because a friend from Lancaster University’s Nightline had offered him somewhere to live in London should he get it.

A few months later he applied for the position of footman and came to live in the Palace. After three years he was promoted to Senior Footman having more of a supervisory role of the team as well as working in the Queen’s private apartments.  Two years later he was promoted again to his current role. 

“Royalty is day-to-day life for me,” he says.”But when you are in the room with so many pop stars, that can be really daunting.  You may be serving one of your idols - is it appropriate to speak?”

For the moment, Martin is happy where he is and can’t think of anything he would rather do and some of his colleagues have been working for the Royal Household for 30 years. “Yes, a Page of the Presence is a servant, and some people are very snobby about the  jobs that we do,” he says. “Lancaster gave me the standards of how to deal with people. It is not where you are from or what you do that counts, it is how you conduct yourself.”