The Queen likes doing jigsaws. More specifically, she likes tackling them at parties, and her guests often find her engrossed in a 1,000-piecer – apparently, so that they are not intimidated by a formal introduction. None of that curtseying at the door business but an opportunity to say, I imagine, "What about this edge piece, your Majesty?" or "That's brilliant, Ma'am! How can you tell one bit of sky from another?"
This little snippet is one of probably tens of thousands that have emerged about the Queen during her reign. Her breakfast is stored in Tupperware. She reads the Daily Mail. She likes horses and hunting. She doesn't like police protection officers eating her Bombay mix. Thousands of little jigsaw pieces floating out from the court of Queen Elizabeth II. But none of them tells us what the Queen is really like, what she thinks and feels. We will never have the complete picture, just fragments of gossip and whisperings from "courtiers". She is, arguably, the most famous person in the world that the world knows least about.
Last week, the stage version of Hilary Mantel's novels about Henry VIII's court, Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies, received rapturous reviews. The novels and plays are imagined dialogue of real historical events. Yet, although Henry VIII and our current Queen's reigns are 500 years apart, we know no more about Elizabeth's personal thoughts than we do about what was going through the mind of the Tudor womanising fatty (apart from a desire to womanise, eat and behead). As with Henry in Mantel's novels, we have only the imagined words of Elizabeth – usually spoken by Helen Mirren – in The Queen, The Audience and so on.
I have never particularly been a royalist but I want to know more. Wandering around our offices in Kensington the other day, I spotted an old London Evening Standard front page hanging on the wall. It was from 7 February 1952, and carried the first report of the death of George VI. The story quoted a royal aide describing how the king's daughter, Princess Elizabeth, took the news that she was now monarch with this electrifying but simple line: "She stood it very bravely, like a queen." Today, when I speak to the Queen's aides about what she is like, I'm told that she is a "strong individual". Yes, but what else....
In her 62 years on the throne, the Queen has never given an interview. Prince Charles has given plenty, and makes his feelings known through letters to Cabinet ministers. Perhaps he is too political. I am not asking for the Queen's thoughts on the bedroom tax, or for a royal Twitter account of banter and selfies, but her annual Christmas Day message feels insufficient and impersonal. And, when the time comes, her monarchy will probably pass without her ever having given an interview, her aides say. They tell me that, while her duty to serve is her "raison d'être" – "I will serve you all my life, be it long or short", as she said when she became monarch – her private life will remain private: "Her duty is to serve and to do, not to talk."
This is the Queen as enigma. If she says too much, it ruins the mystery. This strategy has served her well throughout her reign. So royal watchers and her subjects instead project what they want on to someone who is both constitutional monarch and an elderly great-grandmother, all augmented by those gossipy jigsaw pieces. But there is surely a compromise between her public, constitutional duties and her private fireside thoughts. Does she really want to die without telling us her version of an extraordinary life? Or, to put it another way, if she is serving us, and we are paying for her, don't we have a right to know a little bit more of the jigsaw?
Contrast the closed life of the Queen to that of a woman I learnt about this last week – Sarah Baring. She was a Second World War code-breaker at Bletchley Park, where she met Alan Turing. Before the war, she was introduced to Philip Mountbatten, had the "best legs in London" and worked for Vogue. After her war effort, she married Viscount Astor, who became a Conservative MP.
I discovered her wonderfully full life only when David Cameron mentioned at PMQs that his wife, Samantha, had a relative at Bletchley Park, who turned out to be Baring. This remarkable woman, who died aged 93 last year, later wrote an account of pre-war London society and her time at Bletchley Park, called The Road To Station X. In certain ways, her life reminded me of two other great 20th-century women: Lee Miller, the artists' muse and later photojournalist, and Lesley Blanch, the novelist and traveller who died, aged 102, in 2007. Their obituaries read like great adventures, combining war, society, Vogue and love. And, unlike the Queen, their lives were documented in their own words.
On the phone to an MP's office to fix a date for lunch the other day, his secretary said: "Shall we compare diaries?" "Hang on," I said, scrabbling in my handbag with one hand. It was only then that, a full week into the New Year, I realised that, for the first time in 28 years, I don't have a diary. I was given my first when I was 12. Since then, each has gone from cringing attempts to emulate Gerald Durrell, through school-room crushes and university essay cramming schedules, to a mundane but thorough record of appointments, lunches and holidays – save for 2010, the year my daughter was born, which is full of accounts of how much milk my newborn drank, how many times she woke up in the night and, later, a puree calendar. I remembered that, at some point in December, I decided not to have a diary for 2014 – I would just use my BlackBerry. I now realise this was a mistake. Even if it is of no interest to anyone except my future self, I need a permanent, paper account of my daily life.
Another visit to the opera, another Cabinet minister. In October, I spotted Theresa May getting away from the fallout of a tumultuous reshuffle with a trip to the Royal Opera House to see The Marriage of Figaro, and, last Monday, on the day that George Osborne announced that more welfare cuts would be needed, I noticed Michael Gove and his wife, Sarah Vine, enjoying Carmen from the royal box at Covent Garden. At least they seemed to enjoy Bizet's saucy foot-tapper, but they departed as soon as Carmen was murdered by her ex-lover, and missed the cast's curtain call, which you might call impolite. Maybe they just wanted to miss the crowds. Or maybe the opera was a bit too Latin for the Wagner-loving Education Secretary.Reuse content