19 Sep 2022

Queen Elizabeth II funeral: The delegation representing New Zealand

12:17 pm on 19 September 2022
Dignitaries are welcomed at the New Zealand High Commission. 
In attendance were: Prime Minister of New Zealand Jacinda Ardern
Prime Minister of the Cook Islands Mark Brown
Governor-general of New Zealand Dame Cindy Kiro 
The Māori King, Tūheitia Potatau Te Wherowhero VII
Dame kiri te kanawa
Supplied / CPL Dillon Anderson

Dignitaries welcomed at the New Zealand High Commission in London. Photo: Supplied / NZDF

The words 'humble' and 'overwhelming' have been heard a lot around London over the past week as people commemorate the death of Queen Elizabeth II. A number of the New Zealand delegation to Her Majesty's funeral sat down exclusively with Jake McKee, discussing why these are some of the only words they can find to describe their feelings ahead of the historic occasion.

Read more:

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  • Queen Elizabeth II funeral plans: What we know so far
  • Jacqueline Gilbert can't stop smiling as she sits on a park bench in Leicester Square, cosied up next to a statue of Mr Bean - his own cheeky grin beaming over her left shoulder.

    It is Friday and she has just arrived from Cambridge. She will spend the next few days in London preparing for the funeral.

    "Being invited is a great honour and obviously extremely humbling," she says.

    Gilbert has a bit of an unusual relationship with the royals that's not been widely talked about before this week.

    She is the co-founder of Beaudurof, an England-based and award-winning brand of bags that convert between handbags and backpacks.

    Beaudurof co-founder Jacqueline Gilbert sits next to a Mr Bean sculpture in Leicester Square, London.

    Beaudurof co-founder Jacqueline Gilbert, who is one of the New Zealanders invited to attend Queen Elizabeth II's funeral, sits next to a Mr Bean sculpture in Leicester Square, London. Photo: RNZ

    However, after three years of developing the product and spending "all of our money", the company received a letter "from one of the Royal households" saying the brand "infringed upon royal symbolism", Gilbert said.

    Beaudurof's founders had "very naively" used a crown in the brand's logo, which also features a lion.

    "It was terrifying," Gilbert says.

    She remembers bursting into tears in the kitchen of the one-bedroom apartment she was living in with three others (someone was sleeping in the bathtub).

    "You know that awful feeling where your whole body's tingling and you're feeling your heart rate is going 2000 miles an hour [sic]."

    "It had been so hard for so long" and "there was no one coming to save us", Gilbert says.

    She went back and explained exactly what they were doing and why (helping women in business by creating a comfortable bag that could fit everything while still looking "competent and credible in the boardroom").

    Beaudurof waited six months for a response - one that ultimately proved Gilbert wrong about needing to be saved.

    "They said, 'if you make some tweaks to your crown so that it doesn't confuse the public that it's not a royal-endorsed product ... then we are very happy to support you'."

    That wasn't the end of things either.

    "Rather than persecuting us, they did decide to support us," Gilbert says.

    She was invited to celebrate the Queen's 95th birthday and Beaudurof was also included in a showcase for excellence in British engineering - "the stuff dreams are made of ... it was pretty magical".

    Gilbert has never met the Queen and being invited to the funeral has left her with a big feeling of imposter syndrome.

    "But it would be impossible to ever feel that you're deserving of being this sort of representative for your country."

    The invitation came via a text from the New Zealand High Commission.

    "Thank God they text [sic] me because I think if they called me I would have thought it was a prank."

    Gilbert says her first thought was "wow" and then she thought of her grandparents - including her grandfather Sir William Gilbert, a former Director of the New Zealand Security Intelligence Service who was appointed Knight Commander of the Order of the British Empire in 1976.

    Asked how she expects to feel on Monday, Gilbert takes a moment and stares around at the other people in the park.

    She's realised how zoned-in to the interview she's been and is only now taking in her surroundings: the early-autumn leaves scattered on the ground, the statue of William Shakespeare just metres away, and the electronic billboards around the square showing nothing but profile shots of the Queen at different ages.

    "The last funeral I went to was one of my best friends [who] died really unexpectedly from a mosquito bite, and she actually was a part of our story helping us solve the design problem," she responds, readjusting her position and blue blazer.

    "That's going to be playing in my head ... she was really important to our story."

    'A privilege' to represent Aotearoa

    Opera singer Aivale Cole hasn't met the Queen either.

    She came close though - singing at the Commonwealth Day service, at Westminster, in March 2022.

    "That was the first time the Queen's ever missed it," Cole says. Instead, she met King (then-Prince) Charles, who was there representing the Queen.

    Opera singer Aivale Cole in Twickenham.

    Opera singer Aivale Cole says she was 'overwhelmed' to be invited to Her Majesty's funeral. Photo: RNZ

    Sitting in the quaint, brick-walled garden of a cafe in Twickenham, the Samoan New Zealander chuckles while admitting she questioned why she was asked to be part of the delegation.

    She was in another cafe when the call from the high commission came.

    "I was like, 'this is a joke' ... I was quite shocked, I was really overwhelmed," she says.

    "What a privilege to be able to go alongside other amazing New Zealanders to represent Aotearoa."

    Lots of thoughts have been going through her mind: Cole loves community - particularly engaging with young United Kingdom-based New Zealanders in the arts and being part of the Gafa Arts Collective, which encourages Pacific Islanders into performing arts "on this side of the world", she says.

    That sense of community is "absolutely" something she'll carry with her while she's at the funeral.

    "We're carrying the whole of Aotearoa. Not just everyone back at home, but also all the Kiwis that are living all around the world that are feeling the grief ... I'll be taking their love, their spirit, and their respects."

    Cole says she's "really humbled and really honoured" to be part of the delegation.

    Strolling back to the classic Victorian-era villa where she works as a nanny by day, she says the thing she's most stressed about is finding an appropriate black dress and black hat to wear to the funeral.

    Before saying goodbye, Cole sings a jaw-dropping rendition of Whaakaria Mai, a Māori hymn popularised after Sir Howard Morrison sang it before the Queen when she visited New Zealand in 1981.

    Reserved and 'remarkably beautiful'

    Dame Silvia Cartwright stretches back into a merlot-red, velvet-look chair in the Studio One cinema at the Sea Containers hotel, in Waterloo.

    She's not long returned from spending a decent portion of her Saturday in Westminster at the funeral rehearsal. Dame Silvia says she has tired legs from standing and walking in heels for hours, but she's sitting upright again before the microphone turns on.

    The former Governor-General's immediate reaction to being invited to the funeral "was that this would be a marvellous experience".

    It meant she missed her own investiture ceremony on Friday (she was appointed to the Order of New Zealand - the country's highest honour - in the 2022 Queen's Birthday Honours).

    "My whānau was not impressed because everyone had made bookings [to go to the investiture ceremony] and I knew that I would be in deep trouble," she says.

    "However, I felt the Queen was more important, strangely, than my own family so I agreed to come."

    Dame Silvia Cartwright in the Studio One cinema at Sea Containers hotel in Southbank, London.

    Dame Silvia Cartwright is missing her own investiture as a member of the Order of New Zealand, in favour of attending Queen Elizabeth II's funeral. Photo: RNZ

    Ever since, it's been "an absolute blur of activity", Dame Silvia says.

    What has stood out to her is the hundreds of thousands of people queuing to see the Queen lying-in-state - the line passing right outside her hotel.

    How long people are waiting ("the waiting time was up to 24 hours at one stage") showed a great deal about the affection people have for the late Queen, Dame Silvia says.

    "I cannot believe their endurance and their sense of urgency about participating in this historic moment."

    In terms of her own relationship with Queen Elizabeth II, Dame Silvia says it was always "very peripheral".

    She met her multiple times and got to know her "a little", she says.

    "I have been reflecting a bit about those times, and the reserve that she exhibited - always. Although we talked very heavily together, I came away not learning anything about what she really thought about deeper matters".

    But there is one memory that stands out "with great pleasure".

    The Queen was in New Zealand in February 2002 as part of commemorations for her 50th Jubilee. It was her last visit to the country.

    "She was going to a state banquet and she came down the stairs at Government House in a long, white glittery gown with her tiara and her stunning jewellery ... she was the most remarkably beautiful, 70-plus-year-old woman that I've ever seen," Dame Silvia recalls.

    Being in London now, she feels "a little bit overwhelmed" about the funeral on Monday.

    Part of that is the rush about getting there. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs had to get her an Order of New Zealand medal to borrow because, as she missed her investiture ceremony, doesn't have one of her own yet.

    She also needs to find a black headpiece to wear - noting "it's just not part of our dress code at all" in New Zealand; an issue that used to haunt her while she was Governor-General too.

    "I did try to find a hat in Auckland ... but there was nothing that would cut the mustard in Westminster Abbey."

    Her friend, Kate Sylvester, ended up whipping something together from Spotlight.

    Dame Silvia muses over the posters around the walls of the cinema, before leaving to meet a friend for a drink.

    'We're five million'

    Opera singer Dame Kiri Te Kanawa and New Zealand Cross recipient Jacinda Amey take her spot.

    Both are dressed head-to-toe in black, Dame Kiri also adorned in pearls around her neck and wrist that chime together as she expressively moves her hands while speaking.

    Amey sits on the edge of her seat, explaining to Dame Kiri that she has to explain to people "all the time" she's not the prime minister when she answers the phone ("'Hi, it's Jacinda here' and there's this pause ...").

    She was sitting in her Haast home when she received the funeral invitation.

    "I was shocked, would be the fair thing to say ... but, well, if I've been asked, what a humbling and amazing honour."

    It was "incredible" she'd been asked to be one of very few people in the world to be invited to the funeral, she said.

    Dame Kiri interrupts ("please excuse me").

    "We managed to be one of the people chosen to represent our five million," she says. "They might not all agree with what we're doing, but we represent those people who do love our Queen."

    "We're representing our country and I know a lot of people are behind us with that ... it's not 'we're just one', but we are five million."

    Amey nods in agreement, with a solemn closed-mouth smile. "Really beautifully said," she says.

    Amey received the New Zealand Cross, the country's highest award for bravery not in the face of the enemy, in 1999. She rescued a colleague from a shark while snorkelling near the sub-Antarctic Campbell Island in 1992.

    She never met the Queen and feels she is here to represent "the vast majority of New Zealanders who haven't met the Queen either".

    Dame Kiri steps in as something of Amey's hype-man.

    "But also, Jacinda, you are a hero," she says.

    "The Queen knows all about you; it's not as if [because] you haven't [met the Queen], she doesn't know about you - that's important."

    Amey is aware of that - she's received commemorative medals from Her Majesty's 50th and 70th Jubilees - but ultimately says it's quite a weird thing to reflect on.

    She expects the pageantry on the day will be "distracting", while the actual funeral will be "incredibly moving".

    There's also the fact it's in Westminster Abbey. "The location, you know, it's steeped in history. Many, many amazing things have happened there that have shaped our countries, our Commonwealth, and the past," she says.

    "I hope there's going to be some singing."

    Dame Kiri comments on how "huge" the Abbey seemed to her during the rehearsal.

    She has many memories with the Queen. "They're treasures - everything's a treasure now because you can't hold on to them."

    Dame Kiri remembers being told the Queen asked her to join her in the car to go to church one day - "I thought, 'gosh, that's amazing'" - and then it happened again the next time she was invited to Sandringham.

    "Two times in a row? This is amazing," she recalls thinking.

    "And then at one point I said to Her Majesty, 'would you like me to put the rug over your legs?' And she said, 'oh that would be nice'."

    A broad smile spans Dame Kiri's face as she explains how nice it was to have such simple, human moments with the monarch.

    'She was such a wonderful, wonderful lady'

    Sir Peter Vela also met Her Majesty on multiple occasions. Most often at Royal Ascot but the final time was at the Royal Winter Horse Show, he says.

    He's attending the funeral as a representative of the New Zealand Thoroughbred Breeders Association, something he's "absolutely delighted" to do.

    Sir Peter was already in the United Kingdom on "another matter" when the Queen died.

    "I actually arrived in Windsor the day she passed."

    He was there for the week but is speaking over the phone from St Stephen's Green, in Dublin. It's early Friday evening and he's made a quick detour to the Irish capital to attend a wedding.

    "It's the most beautiful park and the sun is shining; it's lovely."

    Looking forward to Monday, Sir Peter has "an overwhelming sense of apprehension and excitement".

    He's been reflecting on his encounters with the Queen, fuelled by witnessing the public response in Windsor that has "just been non-stop since she passed", he says.

    The phone line goes quiet momentarily, the silence of contemplation almost speaking for itself.

    "It's worthwhile to remember that even at 96 she was riding a pony in the Great Park less than a year ago, so it's all happened rather quickly."

    Being able to have lunch, dinner or afternoon tea, or go racing or talk about horses with Her Majesty was always a special occasion, Sir Peter says.

    He also admits it was "always" very nerve-wracking.

    Farewelling the Queen is "not going to be easy", he says. "She was such a wonderful, wonderful lady."

    Victoria Cross for New Zealand recipient Willie Apiata and Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern in London on 15 September 2022.

    Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern greets Victoria Cross for New Zealand recipient Willie Apiata, who is one of the delegation representing New Zealand at Her Majesty's funeral in London. Photo: RNZ / Nick Monro

    On Sunday afternoon, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern gathered with the New Zealand delegation at the New Zealand High Commission in London.

    She told media it was "a very difficult exercise" to form the group.

    "Within that group we have representatives of sports, of business, cultural activities, and of course - incredibly importantly - Māoridom," Ardern said.

    "I think, ultimately, the request from the palace was to have those who could demonstrate the Queen's connection ... and the areas where she's connected with New Zealand."

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