In writing an autobiography focused on his years as a Buckingham Palace press secretary, Dickie Arbiter allegedly incurred the displeasure of Prince Charles. But the heir to the throne need not have worried. On Duty With the Queen, just out in the U.K., is a gentle book, more miss and quell than kiss and tell, and all the more enjoyable for that.
In his admiration for the royals, Arbiter paints a picture of life at court that conveys better than some of the more sensational accounts the true oddness of life on Planet Windsor. Here’s Arbiter engaging in repartee with the Queen after a lunch: “With hands immersed in the suds, I quipped ‘I’ll wash, you dry.’ ‘No,’ she said in a quiet but firm voice. ‘I’ll wash. You dry.'”
Arbiter joined the royal staff in 1988 and retired in 2000, three years after Diana’s death. The princess could be a difficult boss, refusing to speak to Arbiter if he delivered unsavory news. But she was also kind, giving him “a bottle-green cashmere jumper” for his 50th birthday that he never found an occasion suitably important to wear. “Today,” he confesses, “it still proudly sits in my wardrobe, as pristine as the day she gave it to me.”
There is poignancy too in his account of the royal courts trying, and failing, to cope after the news from Paris. His was one of the voices urging the royals to show their sorrow rather than hiding away, all while he suppressed his own grief.
Arbiter has carved out a post-retirement career as a royal expert, but you can tell he misses his old job. “Five minutes waiting for a bus feels like an age,” he writes. “Five minutes with the Queen flashes by in an instant.”
This appears in the October 27, 2014 issue of TIME.