When I Met the King
An open letter from campaigner Alvin Carpio to a young colleague who asked him what it was like to meet King Charles
Krakow, Poland, Sunday 23 April 2023
It was a cold night, the sky that deep purple, not black, coloured by the bright lights of the city that had once been the centre of the universe, from which the majority of the world was once ruled. I had exited Green Park Station and walked through the park, with my card invitation in my inside pocket.
The dress code was ‘Lounge Suit/Day Dress/National Dress’. I wore my black Primani tuxedo trousers, black patent leather shoes, black beanie from Stratford market, and black Primani long overcoat. I decided to wear my father’s barong. I felt it apt to bring with me one of the last remaining items my dad left before he died, and I felt it apt to wear an item of clothing which represented the Filipino people. The barong tagalog is a translucent shirt, worn on formal occasions in the Philippines, which symbolises the reclamation of the Filipino people’s independence from Spanish colonial rule.
Midway through the park, I could see Buckingham Palace. A few steps later, I crossed the road, and stood in front of the tall gates. I looked through, took a deep breath in, and joined the queue. There were folk ahead of me wearing their best clothes and taking selfies. There was an air of excitement: lots of smiles.
As I got to the front of the queue, the police guards asked for my invitation. I showed it, with my ID, and was let through. I was in. I had entered the grounds of Empire.
My fellow invitees and I shuffled in, many taking as many photos as possible, despite the guards telling them to move on. There was a large courtyard inside, if that’s what you call it, and then steps to the entrance of the building. There were stewards dressed in uniform who guided us towards the cloakroom. I put my black Primani coat in with everything else unnecessary for an evening reception, then made my way to the room.
It was at this point when I caught the eye of someone who was looking my way. He had a smile and stuck his hand out to greet me. We shook hands. He was a man who had the record for administering the most NHS jabs in the West Midlands.
A steward pointed us towards the top of the staircase. As we made our way up, I thought to myself, so this is the most expensive house in the world, huh? So, this is where the King lives? These are quite a lot of steps to walk up every day. Now, of course, I don’t expect they do live in these quarters and that this part of the Palace is reserved for public events.
Anyway, to the top we walked. We got to the top, and I wished him well, and hoped he had a lovely evening. Ahead of me was the entrance to the hall. I entered. It was grand. The grandest of halls. I thought: Given that this is the King’s Hall, this must be the grandest of all halls in the world? Historic.
I wondered how many had entered these walls, and stood amidst this huge room, the highest of ceilings, walls decorated with paintings of old, dead, white people, each looking at all of us East and Southeast Asians attending the reception. Gold frames. The finest furniture. This is how the word “opulent” was conjured.
I made my way through the crowd of people who had gathered. I walked to one end of the room that was much quieter, with more space. It also turned out to be the side nearest to the kitchen: the Palace staff came out with drinks and canapés. I opted for the lychee mocktail. It was decent. The staff were kind.
Stood there, sipping on my drink, I met a bunch of interesting folk. There was an investment banker who spoke of his plans to help the monarchy and country fulfil its vision of a Global Britain. There was the woman who did work with influencers, who approached me by complimenting my barong. There was the Korean curator at one of England’s top museums. There was the Burmese human rights campaigner. There was the first person of Chinese heritage who had been elected as a Member of Parliament. There was the volunteer for the Prince’s Trust for those in need. There was the Filipino nurse, the Filipino small shop owner, the Filipino migrants support worker.
Then, a kerfuffle stirred. I turned to see a crowd hastily move towards a person: It was the King. The time had come. I knew what I wanted to say. I knew it without even having to think about it. I stood in what became a queue of people either side, lined up parallel to each other, making a pathway for the King to greet people.
One by one, they had their say. Nearest to me, in earshot, I saw one man bring out what I think was a newspaper clipping or poster showing the last time they met. They posed for photos. The King then turned to the other side of this flanked queue. The person next to me was getting in my personal space and pushing.
As the King turned, he was turning to pass me, as the other person sought his attention. It was at this point I stuck my hand out, and, as I did, the King obliged and shook my hand. He has rather small but thick hands and a decent handshake. My body stood square to his, and I looked him in the eye. He was positioned perpendicular to me, his head turned, eyes tilting towards me.
I spoke: “First off, I would like to thank you for welcoming us members of the East and Southeast Asian communities to the Palace. It means a lot. I wanted to say two things: First, we must work together to celebrate the work of Filipino nurses and domestic workers here in our country.” “Yes,” the King said, “we couldn’t survive without them.” My brain thought, quickly, and repeated what he said, “We couldn’t survive without them.” Interesting.
“Second, I am wearing my father’s barong, his traditional Filipino dress. He was a waiter who died 25 years ago. It would mean so much for him, this moment. Thank you once again.” That was my thirty-or-so-seconds. I think, in response, he said something like my dad would be proud. Or, my memory isn’t serving me well, and maybe I am projecting.
The King went on to greet the next person. I then turned to the King’s staffer who walked immediately behind him and said thank you. I then mentioned I would be in touch. That was it. I felt my job was done. The first step, taken. The first word uttered.
Son of working-class brown immigrants speaks with the King of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. The Prince of Plaistow meets the King of England. Take a breath. Turn around, exit the queue, and seek another lychee mocktail.
As I sipped a second serving, I met more and more people. Each distinguished in their own way. What a wonderful gathering of a diverse range of people, most of whom I had never met before, strangers brought together through the proximity of our motherlands and fatherlands.
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Brown and yellow people, brought to the King’s house. It was a pleasant reception. Yet, all I could think of was, what will this actually lead to? I’ve been to so many of these types of events. I realised how privileged I had become when I thought to myself, “Yo, these canapés ain’t even that extravagant.” Dead.
By this stage in my life, I was no longer the boy from Plaistow. I was the man who has had the fortune and had worked my way towards being in places and events where I have engaged in conversation about workers’ rights with the billionaire fashion brand owner Bruno Cuccinelli; had a three-course meal sat next to the CFO of Google weeks after organising a protest outside her UK office HQ; been mentored by the current Mayor of London; briefly talked about anti-poverty measures with Prime Minister Trudeau; launched a class action against Facebook, one of the most powerful companies ever to exist; shook hands with Kofi Annan, and stuttered when asking fellow Filipino and our first Nobel Peace Prize winner Maria Ressa a question at her book launch event in The Conduit club.
This is after a childhood filled with trauma, and angry teenage years, periods of my young life when the most powerful people who stood in front of me were the other gang of kids in Clapham Junction who held out a knife when trying to jack me and my friends, or the bully who would cuss me and name names, who I beat up and silenced, or the English-folk who threw stones at me and my two brown friends, chasing us out of Clacton-on-Sea, telling us to f**k off back to our country.
When meeting the King, to me, he was just another man. Biggie’s philosophy which has stuck with me goes something like, “why should I fear someone else when they breathe the same air as me, have the same blood as me?” For me, in life we are all equal as humans in two ways: we are all born, and we will all die. Stood in front of me, in his big house, was a man.
I felt sorry for him. I really did. This kid from ends felt sorry for one of the richest and most powerful people on earth. Because, well, while he owns many things, he does not have one thing. He has those golden frames and all those assets and all those rooms, but he does not have something which both you and I have: Freedom. Freedom! Liberty! Liberté! Let us not take this for granted.
One of my best friends during university days once described his employment at Google, a situation he was stuck with, as “Golden Handcuffs”. He had many privileges, working there: A guest chef, offices around the world, benefits, free health coverage, a large salary, and so forth. Yet, he didn’t really love what he was doing, which was, put simply, helping a tech company sell adverts to other companies. But if he left, he would lose all the treasure.
The King has the biggest and brightest and heaviest Golden Handcuffs of all. All those jewels and gold and things. His family are the most extreme version of materialism. What are Kim Kardashian’s assets worth? What are the Royal Family’s assets worth? Divide one by the other, and you have the multiple of other other’s materialism. I told you that, if I have to make a judgement, (whilst knowing, as Tupac said, “Only God Can Judge Me”, however you may define God), it is by personal experience with them, rather than through hearsay.
When I saw the King mobbed by all these strangers, I thought, what kind of life is this? Wherever you go, you have people wanting to take selfies with you, you have cameras and photographers and flashes everywhere, it is a prison made of eager fanatics, caged by tripods. Every move he makes, every hand shaken, every hand missed, every word stated, hung onto, critiqued. That sounds rather hellish to me.
Now, of course, we could have learned this by watching cultural creations like Roman Holiday, or Prince Harry’s recent memoir, and other films and songs and books which describe and illustrate the demons that come with fame and wealth. To see it in the flesh just hits deeper.
I saw and caught up with a couple of people I knew, from the Southeast Asian Centre. It was lovely to see familiar faces, and to hear of how the work they’re doing is going. I then bid adieu. Before I left, the Conservative MP, Alan Mak, who I met through the World Economic Forum Global Shapers community probably eight or so years ago, came up to me out of his own accord and said hello. I appreciated that he did this. He stated that he has been reading my writing, which was a nice reminder that this writing does go somewhere, that people who aren’t just my closest friends and family (not even they always read my work, understandably, lol), also take interest in my thoughts.
So, what happened after? What thoughts were in my head after the event? There are three major parts: First, I wanted to see if the King and his people would act after the event: put bluntly, I wanted to test whether or not words and receptions translate to real outcomes that lead to real change, or not.
Second, what would happen if I asked the King and his people directly if they would like to work together to address the problems faced by migrant labourers, including enforced labour and modern-day slavery.
Third, the results of parts one and two would define what I think of the King, based on my own lived experience, to know what is true.
Let me now take these in turn. First, can these events lead to real change? Look, I don’t agree with people who think gatherings don’t in themselves achieve outcomes. Truth is, the work of bringing people together can lead to many good things: new relationships being formed, which lead to new connections and potential opportunities; a way to celebrate – celebration and joy in themselves should be recognised; and, what I assume is one of the primary goals of such an event, the gathering cemented the relationships between leaders of residents of the nations, thereby solidifying support for the institution.
This form of soft power has a very solid impact on the “subjectification of subjects”. But I ask, support for what? So, let’s turn to the second point. Second, will the King respond to a direct and specific request for a conversation to discuss how to address a specific social injustice faced by “his people”?
Now look, the King is of course a very busy guy. He’s got 70 million people he’s leading as the Head of State, and many millions more across the Commonwealth. He’s got other Heads of States and the media and other powerful forces to address. Yet still, if a King cannot address the problems facing his most marginalised subjects, I wonder who one needs to become for change to happen. If not a King, then whom?
So, what did I do? Simple. I sent an email to the Master of the Household. This is the person who manages Buckingham Palace, and the person who organised the reception. I say person: Of course, the Master has a team.
I received acknowledgement that they received the message. I sent my first email. My literary agent suggested I asked that it be sent to the King’s office. So I requested it did. I received no reply, so I did as I usually do, chase. Of course, gently and with understanding. Still no reply after a few weeks.
Initially I had sent a simple email which, strategically, was excessively nice and open in tone. Later, I mentioned directly the knowledge that there exist Filipino slaves in the United Kingdom, and if a meeting could be organised for ordinary folk and citizens to speak with the King’s team to figure out how monarch and subjects can address this matter. Then later, I received an email which stated that it had been forwarded to the relevant department.
Still, months later, at 14:18, Sunday 23 April 2023, I am yet to receive a proper response. Okay. Bloody hell, what am I expecting? Would a King and his team really bother responding to a person they invited to a reception to meet the King as a thank you for his contributions to country, and as a representative of his community, to figure out how to address slavery together? Bah, humbug (is what I imagine an old Englishman saying at this statement). Come on, lad (is what the Cockney lot in East taught me to say in these sorts of circumstances).
How arrogant to think I, as an ordinary man, can call to attention the needs, the lives and experiences of the most marginalised to one of the most powerful persons in the land. He has an upcoming event, the Coronation, which takes precedence. Excuse me for my sarcasm. I must stop. This may land me in trouble.
Truth is, one of my thoughts after the reception was: Is the monarchy simply a big events company? The most extravagant of them all, yet, put simply, a group of people who do events? Far more extravagant than the events my fellow students and I arranged when we organised the Halloween Spook fundraiser at SOAS to raise funds for the Campaign For Human Rights, and far more extravagant than my cousin’s son’s recent baptism party in Pangasinan, still, all the same.
Finally, so what do I think of the King? When I heard news of the Queen’s death, I was sad. She was a fixture of our society and my generation’s existence. She would be missed. I then saw arguments on all sides on the monarchy. There were a few things that stood out. Again, I will take these in turn, this time in letters rather than numbers.
A) Paul Powlesland, a barrister who I interviewed for the second series of our video podcast, went to the place of protest after hearing people were being threatened with arrest for writing signs that called into question the existence of the monarchy. He took a blank piece of paper with him and held it up. He then asked a police officer what would happen if he wrote on it, and the officer said he could be arrested.
As a man of the law, he knew what was well within his rights – unlike many folk who were protesting, who were not trained lawyers. He knew that he had the right to protest, and the right to free speech. Yet, we saw people being arrested during this time. Forgive me for this, but I had always thought, growing up in this nation and being taught by its institutions, that only foreign regimes silenced their citizens. Russia and China and North Korea and Hong Kong – it was only in places far away from the British Isles where you could not speak freely. And yet, Mr Powlesland showed that this democratic principle was not held up when tested.
B) A few folk who shall remain nameless, as they spoke with me privately, stated that they would not have attended the palace reception. And one, who was invited, decided not to attend. They instead spent their time with a family in need. They decided this because they believed engagement in this sense was legitimising an institution they principally disagreed with. I would want to live in a world where it is no longer the case that one baby is born into riches, and another is born into poverty. This is not the world we live in. Still, principally, given this belief, I also have sympathy for this view.
C) Culturally speaking, the Royal Family’s brand is strong. The numbers are oft quoted: Specifically Royal Family-related tourism brings in more than £1.75 billion to the UK economy and creates a cultural glow. There are many folk in the Commonwealth, despite some of its bloody past, who are in love with the institution.
D) Then there is the governance question, and the question of the alternative. This is the one which really hit me, when considering it logically. Republicans seek the removal of the King and the institution of the monarchy. The Republicans are a varied group, some believing in the values set forth in the founding of the United States of America, in France during its revolution, others basing this conclusion on Marxist, Communist principles.
Whatever the case, if it did happen and they got what they wanted, one must consider what might happen next. One pathway would be the creation of a directly elected President. Imagine. A British President, elected by its people. Let me ask you again: Imagine. In a place which voted for Brexit in its most recent referendum.
If the United Kingdom had a directly elected President, we might risk having Nigel Farage as our leader. Instead, we have a system where the monarchy plays a role in somewhat providing a bulwark against a Prime Minister, who is chosen within a party-political machinery, amongst members of Parliament who are elected by constituents. Britain is the mother of Parliaments, and we have a system which has developed over centuries and has enabled it as a tiny island to remain the fifth largest economy globally. I am not sure the alternative is better than what we have.
So, are you confused? I mean, I am. It shows how complex these things are. But it would be wrong to not at least try answering the question raised. One can ask it as a matter of principle, emotion, experience, or a mixture of all three. To end, I must say that, if you asked me now, directly, should the King exist? I think, let me say this.
When I was invited to meet the King, the most powerful person in the land, I knew what I was to say, and ask of him and he has not responded. And because of that, I am disappointed. I wanted to prove others wrong, to prove that change is possible through dialogue. But clearly, in this case, that has turned out not to be true.
It is now 14:49 CEST, 23 April 2023. I have just looked outside, and the Polish skies are bright. The day looks pleasant. I shall now make the most of my remaining time in the forest, by getting changed into walking gear, and having a stroll in the woods.
Strangely, I fear that even writing this on my laptop and publishing this, things may happen. I just hope that one day, the King decides to help us end the slavery of Filipinos in our countries and beyond.