Stockings and silk for HRH

Meeting Prince Philip leaves Erin O'Dwyer with renewed respect for the ancients.

I'm in London the week Michelle Obama takes her girls to see The Lion King. At the Courtyard Theatre, Jude Law is starring in Hamlet; Ethan Hawke is playing in The Cherry Orchard at the Old Vic; and Tom Stoppard has updated Arcadia for a season at Duke of York's.

It's a fantasy dinner party wish-list come true. And an exquisite irony that I am here to meet just one rather ageing celebrity: Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh. But as I make my way up the front stairs of Buckingham Palace, I stifle a little skip of excitement. I am wearing high heels (pink), black stockings (borrowed) and a flowery silk frock that gets worn so infrequently I have to air it out of my hotel window before I leave.

I've even paid £30 ($59) for a shampoo and blow-dry. Given that no member of the British Royal Family would make it onto my dinner party guest list, this anxious anticipation is baffling. And I'm not the only one.

Among our tour group of 75 mostly post-colonial journalists, not one is a royalist. Yet we've all studied the protocol and considered the question of the curtsy at length. You'd expect someone might flash a camera, ask an improper question or even throw a shoe. Not one.

Michelle Obama might have the audacity to hug the Queen. But not even a bunch of hacks are game to cosy up to the Duke.

Indeed, there is something about the royal protocol – formal attire, no photography, please, and the Duke to be referred to as HRH – that demands respectful obedience. Fame might be the new royalty but the House of Windsor still has us very much in its thrall. We line up dutifully in semi-circular groups. Cups of tea in fine china and plates of organic biscuits are passed around. Finally, he arrives. And makes his way towards our antipodean group of three.

"Where are you from?" he asks.

"Sydney," we say in unison.

"Have you been to London before?" he asks.

"Yes." We smile and nod.

A New Zealand journalist curtsies and wishes him happy birthday. "I'm sorry," he says, not quite catching her accent. "Can you repeat that?" Then he makes his way back to us.

"What else is on your itinerary?" he asks our guide. "Have you got time for shopping? Girls always need time for shopping." It's as effusive as the Prince gets before he's whisked off, leaving us to fall about with excited laughter.

The man has turned 88 today. Of course he thinks all women love to shop. Just as we love to wear stockings and heels. So we do, at least for today.

Later, I remember it as the moment I realise none of this matters. The stockings and heels. To curtsy or not to curtsy. To be a republic, or just bugger it. The British Royal Family is history – enduring history but history nonetheless. I'm as excited to be here as I would be to see the Rosetta Stone or Tutankhamen's tomb.

And for the record, I'd have 10 Tom Stoppards at my dinner party.