The drawing room in the Ramsay Gardens flat where Michael Shea works, has a collection of splendid murals which were executed by his godfather John Duncan. It is very elegant indeed and Michaelâ€™s distinguished career as an academic, a diplomat, a writer of over twenty published books and for 10 years as Press Secretary to Her Majesty The Queen would entitle him to the description â€˜grandâ€™. However he vigorously denies any such thing.
â€œI am not grand at all,â€ he says emphatically. The reality is of an energetic, enthusiastic man who, approaching the age of 68 gives the impression of still having lots of things to do, mountains to climb, books to write and a vitality that belies his years. With a most engaging smile, he tells us that he is now two stones lighter than he was twenty years ago and that he regularly works out at the gym.
When asked what drives him Michael replies, â€œKeeping my mind active and interested in a range of things. I was never just a diplomat. Maybe I have always spread myself thinly, writing novels and other books. It started with editing Gambit at Edinburgh University, which I found very stimulating and I have been writing ever since then.
â€œHaving a book published gives such a buzz of excitement. This keeps my mind alive and I will never retire. As well as 26 fiction and non-fiction books so far, I have also written TV and film scripts. I am ambitious, but not for wealth. I need to be pleased with what Iâ€™ve done and write for personal satisfaction. Happiness, family life and agreeable surroundings have meant more to me than receiving awards and honours.â€
You can quite see why the Queen entrusted him as her Press Secretary and bulwark against the intrusions of the media world for twice as long as any previous or subsequent holder of the post. But his appointment came as a total surprise.
â€œI was in New York in the mid-70s, about to go to Chicago to deliver a lecture and literally going to get the plane when I took a phone call from the Foreign Office requesting me to come back for an interview. I was told to book into a hotel in Sloane Square and was contacted by Sir Philip Moore who told me that I was to meet the Queen for lunch at Windsor. So I took the train to Windsor Castle and was asked to wait. At mid-day I was called into the Queenâ€™s study. She was sitting on a couch and patted it saying, â€œCome and sit here. I am glad that you are going to join us.â€ He added, with a distinct twinkle in his eye, â€œThat was it; that was the only interview that I had.â€
He describes himself as being â€˜pretty lucky with family and friendsâ€™. During his time with HM The Queen he travelled with her to a staggering total of 65 different countries over his ten year tenure. He says that he has always been treated very well on these tours, even having his own footman to look after his clothes and the other tedious details of being perfectly turned out at all times.
â€œMy family never let me forget the time that I arrived home from a tour of State visits and had to unpack for myself. During this process I exclaimed, â€˜Dammit, my footman has forgotten to pack my toothbrush!â€™ I never lived it down.â€
A drawback of his time at the Palace was the need to be on duty night and day. He would be phoned by the media in the middle of the night at times. â€œYou could never ever switch offâ€.
â€œMost of the Royals appreciated the importance of good relationships with the media,â€ he says, â€œbut it could be tedious when the Press tried to make crises out of events.â€
This was apparently compounded by the infamous invented stories for which the Press code was TGTC â€“ which stands for â€œtoo good to check.â€ These stories were run and denied as appropriate but the damage had often been done.
He also gives some insight into the rumour that The Queen and Lady Thatcher did not get on well together when she was Prime Minister. Michael robustly describes that as â€˜a load of rubbishâ€™.
Each phase of his career thus far has been conducted with great enthusiasm and commitment. It was a little surprising that, when asked what his greatest achievements were to date, the reply centred not on great state or royal occasions but on his own writing and his various contributions to the public good. He cites his chairmanship of the Royal Lyceum Theatre as a very happy and productive role. He will admit to perhaps â€œspreading myself too thinly, perhaps I have done too many different things which may have diluted my achievements but I look forward, donâ€™t regret the past and donâ€™t linger over it.â€
His family is of paramount importance to him. Michael and his wife, Mona, have been married for 38 years. They have two daughters. Michael and Mona met through work and had to carry out their brief courtship in German as her English at that time was not well-developed and he spoke no Norwegian at all. He admits to an â€˜instant attractionâ€™ and she has clearly been an enduring and invaluable influence in his life.
His heroes are, unsurprisingly, The Queen and, perhaps less obviously, the late Alistair Cooke, who continued to broadcast his famous â€˜Letters from Americaâ€™ almost up to his death in his mid-nineties.
Michaelâ€™s latest project is a new book called â€œThe Freedom Yearsâ€ subtitled â€œThe Trail Blazer Generationâ€ (published by Capstone). Illustrated by cartoonist Frank Dickens, this is a wonderful, practical yet entertaining handbook on how to live well during the â€˜extraâ€™ years of life. It is packed with advice and tips on â€˜Cresting the Age Waveâ€™, â€˜Switchover Tacticsâ€™ from employment to liberation, â€˜Ditching the Downsideâ€™ and helpful advice on ways to deal with what he charmingly calls â€˜Twinges at the Hingesâ€™.
He says, â€œPeople I have known in the past, when they retired, have put on their slippers and cardigans, done a bit of gardening whilst sitting in front of the embers of dying lives and awaiting the first gin and tonic of the day. I want to send out the message that people of my age, of 67/68, can look forward to 20 years of active life. Bad life styles can be improved; the mind can remain active as well as the body. I want my book to be inspirational yet light-hearted, to inform, encourage and inspire people to realise that retirement is not the end but the beginning.â€
Currently he is working on a proposed television series that will explore the lives of famous and not so famous people who are living examples of this theory.
This year The Queen will celebrate her 80th birthday and The Duke of Edinburgh his 85th birthday. Michael will be taking part in a number of documentary programmes on radio and television in celebration of these landmark birthdays. He sees his book as a celebration of these two unique landmarks for, as he says, â€œThe Queen will never abdicate; The Duke will never retire.â€
And neither will Michael Shea.
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