Australian politics, society & culture

Falling Stars

The Plight of the Windsors

President Obama and the First Lady trade smiles with Her Majesty, April 2009. © Anwar Hussein / Getty Images

Peter Conrad

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“I did but see her passing by,” Robert Menzies sycophantically boomed in 1963. He was quoting a minor sixteenth-century poet, Thomas Ford, who called the transitory lady “sweet and kind” and vowed to “love her till I die”. The lines were not Menzies’ tribute to his homely wife Dame Pattie but to his sovereign, Queen Elizabeth II; the trite couplet asserted Australia’s devotion to an astrally remote head of state. Courtly lovers like the one in Ford’s poem often professed spurious emotions about unattainable females, and it was this infatuation with a distant, unresponsive beloved to which Menzies condemned us all.

February 2011

I, too, once saw her passing by, for a few seconds in 1954, on a scrubby hill in Hobart during her first Commonwealth tour. She passed by in an open car as we all flapped our patriotic pennants; in return she signalled her lukewarm enthusiasm with the slow-motion wave of a gloved hand. I had never seen anyone so white and unweathered, and when I heard her voice on the radio later that day I marvelled at its strangulated vowels and clipped, executive precision. This, combined with her northern pallor, made her seem like a drop-in from another planet: as the Sex Pistols put it in their version of the British national anthem, “She ain’t no human being.” Since then I haven’t often seen her passing by, despite living for more than 40 years in the disunified and kingless United Kingdom. I glimpsed her once at the opera, looking glum. Every so often she visits my Oxford college, causing an obsequious tizz as the areas through which she is due to pass are repainted and arrangements made to sequester a lavatory for her exclusive use, with a hermetically wrapped seat – a throne, as my unmonarchical father would have put it – delivered the day before she arrives and collected the day after. I always manage to be out of town when my colleagues line up to do obeisance and make stilted small talk.

Last November, when David Cameron declared that the marriage of Prince William and Kate Middleton would be “a momentous occasion” for the loyal nation, I remembered Menzies’ effusion. His poetic spasm may have been embarrassing but Cameron’s puffery seemed bogus and hollow, which is why he had to bribe work-shy Britain to rejoice by declaring 29 April a holiday. For the Windsors, however, the wedding of the heir’s heir will truly be a critical moment – perhaps a last chance to justify their otiose, expensive existence.

For the time being, the monarchy is preserved by public apathy, but there is also plenty of antagonism out there, ready to be mobilised. Those who used to love the Queen with Menzies’ flushed ardour are now reduced to admiring the dutiful obstinacy with which she trudges through the same ceremonial chores year after dreary year. She has made a virtue out of ignoring modernity, while the Prince of Wales, peddling his influence to frustrate architectural projects he dislikes, actively campaigns against it. In the early 1950s, the Queen symbolised rejuvenation for postwar Britain; now she is an icon of obsolescence – withdrawn and emotionally throttled, despairing of her own dysfunctional brood and burdened by the obligation to go on mothering an ungrateful or indifferent country. Completing her life sentence, she must wonder how long the family firm will survive without her. The biographer Sarah Bradford reports that, when Diana pleaded for advice about rescuing her marriage, the Queen sighed, “Charles is hopeless.” Soon after William’s engagement, protesting students in Regent Street besieged a car that carried Charles and his consort. Seeing the vehicle as a motorised tumbrel, the rioters yelled, “Off with their heads!” A window was smashed and, as the home secretary later delicately admitted, “some contact was made” with the blanched and wilting Camilla Parker Bowles: translated, this means that an enraged citizen poked her with a stick. Although the “Tory scum” – as the insurgents called them – got safely to the London Palladium to be serenaded by Kylie Minogue, the omens do not look good.

A generation ago, the attempt to renovate the fuddy-duddy charade by co-opting Diana ended – thanks to her vendetta against her in-laws and the surge of popular resentment after her death – by almost destroying it. Now it may be too late. William and Kate, affably ordinary as they are, confront a society that no longer automatically defers to those who inherit their privileges; they can expect to be hounded by paparazzi and snooped on by investigative hacks, who will record their phone calls, publicise their peccadilloes, and wait for an opportunity to bring them down.

A detail in Stephen Frears’s film The Queen neatly sums up the change that has doomed the uncomprehending clan. Roger Allam, playing the Queen’s private secretary, tells her about the guest list for Diana’s funeral, which is to include “actors of stage and screen and other … celebrities”. He pauses for a muted grimace before whispering the last, odious word.  The Queen, Helen Mirren, acidly purses her lips, while Sylvia Syms, playing the Queen Mother, asks with quavery-voiced incredulity, “Celebrities?”, like Oscar Wilde’s Lady Bracknell querying the propriety of a handbag as a birthplace. Documentary footage later shows Cruise and Kidman, Hanks and Spielberg – people Diana scarcely knew but regarded as peers because they were fellow luminaries – entering Westminster Abbey for the service. This new aristocracy of flashy performers, regularly topped up by exhibitionists from Big Brother and wannabes from The X Factor, has ousted the dowdy dodderers of the ancestral establishment. Why, after all, do we revere the Queen? Only because she took the trouble to be born. Celebrities are admired because they are beautiful, and sometimes even talented. Whenever they make flouncy, exorbitant demands – such as Mariah Carey insisting on an entourage for her puppy dogs – they are merely claiming the perks that we lavish on the monarch (and pay for out of our own pockets). In November, Us magazine reported that David and Victoria Beckham were assured of an invitation to William’s wedding. If so, it will be a demotion for them. Once when they gave a party at their Hertfordshire mansion, nicknamed Beckingham Palace, Becks and Posh draped themselves in glittery regalia and perched on gilded chairs to receive the homage of their guests; they may sniff at relegation to a lowly pew.

The Queen confronted this upstart culture when Annie Leibovitz and her troop of 11 assistants arrived at Buckingham Palace for a photo shoot in 2007 (see cover image). Leibovitz specialises in arranging tableaux of crazed baroque extravagance: Demi Moore naked and bulbously pregnant; Whoopi Goldberg romping in a tub of milk; Susan Sontag after her death. She wanted to photograph the Queen on horseback in the state apartments but was informed that she would have to make do with the Queen at floor level wearing the robes of the Order of the Garter. Leibovitz complimented the sour-visaged sovereign on doing her own hair and make-up; this amateur celebrity badly needed someone to fluff up her cast-iron perm and thin out the mask of powder on her unamused face.

Leibovitz started the session by suggesting a reversal of the coronation. She asked the Queen to remove her tiara, saying that she would look “less dressy” without the “crown”. Diana, who knew that her rank depended on costume, would have understood. Sending a favourite Victor Edelstein gown to be auctioned for charity at Christie’s, she wistfully remarked, “When I put this on, I actually felt like a princess.” But her former mother-in-law, remembering that she was once anointed with holy oil, bridled at the idea. “Less dressy?” she shrilled, looking at her robes. “What do you think this is?” Imagine the Statue of Liberty’s reaction if a cheeky stylist had said “Honey, lose the torch.” The Queen – who smiles as a matter of policy but seldom laughs, and has only ever been seen to cry when she attended the decommissioning of her yacht Britannia – then let out a cackle like the rat-tat-tat of a firing squad.

States do not remain static, and periodically need to renew themselves by changing their figureheads. In 2009 the Obamas called on the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh at Buckingham Palace, and the contrast between the two couples was shaming. The Queen looked wan and withered, and the Duke, making his usual inept banter, resembled an ancient crocodile. Their American guests, so much taller, aglow with health and oxygenated by popularity, did not kowtow. A constitutional monarch’s only remaining power is to make others feel inferior: in the Frears film, Mirren directs Michael Sheen’s Tony Blair to kneel before asking him to form a government, then wipes off the spittle he leaves on her hand when, like an unctuous poodle, he kisses it. Barack, to his credit, nodded rather than bowed, and shook the Queen’s hand rather than briefly grazing it with his palm as protocol prescribes, while Michelle – provoking none of the outrage that Paul Keating excited in 1992 when he placed his hand on the untouchable royal back – reached down and put both arms around her stooped hostess, sensing that the old dear could do with a hug.

In a broadcast on her twenty-first birthday, Elizabeth II promised to devote herself to the service of her subjects – a paradoxical undertaking – for the whole of her life, “whether it be short or long”. It has been long, as she is wearily aware. A BBC documentary filmed a few years ago eavesdropped as she circulated at a reception for organisers of the 2012 Olympic Games. “Of course it will be too late for us,” she acknowledged; the games, she added, would be “for the boys”. She was referring to William and his brother, Prince Harry, and seemed to be hoping that mortality would hurry along the succession.

But the hereditary enterprise depends on breeding, so the boys must first be matched with suitable girls. Will the recruitment of Kate extend the firm’s tenure? The spectacle is fascinating to watch, because it is at once grossly primitive and airily fantastical – a fertility rite but also a conjuring act that depends on the recitation of impressive-sounding verbal formulae. At its crudest, it is about reproduction, engineering an encounter between a stallion and a mare. Noting that William’s stag night is due to be organised by Harry – who was caught cavorting with a mega-boobed stripper by the Sun in 2006 – the rapper Snoop Dogg has composed a priapic ditty for the occasion and sent it to the royal household for consideration. The chorus will suit the rabble of spunky toffs that Harry is likely to round up: “Tell me baby, are you wet?”, it asks, before yelping “I just wanna get you wet, wet.” The Duke of Edinburgh complained early in his marriage (according to Kitty Kelley’s wonderfully scurrilous book The Royals) that he was nothing more than “a bloody tadpole”; if William is a wriggly swimmer, Kate is now the designated egg. After spending years shacked up with him, Kate has at least been dispensed from having her maidenhead verified by the royal gynaecologist, which happened to Diana before her engagement.

Of course these tribal mating practices cannot be openly celebrated, especially in a family whose conduct is determined by the hypocritical propriety of a Victorian moral code. Hence the reliance on a fanciful linguistic sorcery. To use two words coined by Shakespeare to point out how tenuous the whole business is, Kate will be “royalised” and eventually “monarchised”, made worthy by being graced with titles that are no more than flattering tags, like Michael Jackson’s honorary status as the King of Pop or Peter Andre’s self-aggrandising decision to call his daughter Princess. The Windsors owe their eminence to such flim-flam: their meanest, silliest revenge on the divorced Diana was to revoke her HRH, as if some sanctifying spell resided in those three letters. Because this capacity to ennoble or to excommunicate is mere mumbo jumbo, it has to be solemnly regulated by customs and conventions that try to lend it some legal force. Problems lie ahead, as William blunders through this thicket of fatuous nomenclature.

Reports in the press allege that he has no interest in receiving a dukedom as a wedding gift from his grandmother, perhaps because he is embarrassed by the way that counties or cities are reduced to decorative trinkets to be given away on such occasions. Prince Edward, for instance, was due to be renamed Duke of Cambridge when he married, but wheedled to be called Earl of Wessex instead. The earldom was a pure invention, as a courtier recently told the Daily Telegraph: Edward – fondly dubbed Barbara Windsor or ‘Babs’ by his theatrical chums, in homage to the squealing Carry On actress – came across the title in the cast list of the film Shakespeare in Love, and persuaded the Queen to pluck it out of thin air and confer it on him. William apparently wants to remain a prince, with Kate as Princess Catherine. This, however, would be an unseemly breach with tradition. According to the rules, his bride ought to be called Princess William, because as a commoner she can only receive the title as a by-product of marriage and must always be seen as her husband’s appendage. Those who fuss about such things point out that “Princess Diana”, as her fans called her, was never officially that. Her correct title was The Princess of Wales (with the definite article punctiliously capitalised) during her marriage and Diana, Princess of Wales after it (with the comma reducing her royal status to an afterthought). The fear is that waiving precedent to accommodate Kate will prompt Prince Michael of Kent’s wife – the daughter of a Sydney beautician – to ask to be upgraded from Princess Michael to Princess Marie-Christine. These onomastic quibbles suit an operetta realm like Anthony Hope’s fictional country Ruritania; the fact that they are preoccupying bureaucrats in contemporary Britain suggests that the country’s unwritten constitution is a tissue of fictions.

The transaction is also commercial, a relaunch for the dwindling firm and a boost for the manufacturers of tacky souvenirs. When Diana panicked about the match with Charles, her sister Sarah told her she had to go through with it because her face was already on the tea towels. Royalty can inflate monetary values in the same way that it invents titles. The Royal Mint is charging £9.99 for engagement coins that have a face value of £5; plated with silver or gold, they cost £55.50 and £85 respectively. But in a mass market, cheapening is inevitable. William’s choice of a sapphire over a diamond for the engagement ring delighted the Natural Sapphire Company, whose CEO hoped that the stone would now seem less like “an unusual, left-wing thing”. Within weeks, ‘simulated sapphires’ were being advertised on American television for US$39.54. Some feminist critics complain that during the decade Kate spent waiting for William to propose, she worked for only one year, as an accessories buyer for the fashion label Jigsaw. I’d say this was astute training for her role, since she is to function as an accessory. Already she is treated as merchandise, the separate bits of her price-tagged as everything she wears is traced back to its source – a blue dress for the announcement of the engagement that cost £399 from Issa, a £95 embroidered blouse from Whistles for a Mario Testino photo shoot – and rapidly copied for sale in discount outlets. Kate seems to have no qualms about being transformed into a commodity, since the fabrication of princesses is the source of her family’s wealth. Her mother, after retiring from service as a British Airways trolley dolly, founded a mail-order company called Party Pieces, with princess outfits among its offerings. For a price, small or large depending on budget, anyone can play at being royal.

In 1867 the essayist Walter Bagehot called monarchy a mystery, and warned against exposing its magic to democratic daylight. The institution has since been cruelly demystified – by social changes that have done away with deference, and by a series of intrusively intimate technological innovations. In Tom Hooper’s film The King’s Speech, the stammering King George VI, played by Colin Firth, is terrorised by the microphone. As his father tells him, a king can no longer get away with merely looking respectable and staying upright on a horse: radio requires him to be an orator and an actor. Next came television, which the Queen’s courtiers superstitiously battled to exclude from Westminster Abbey during her coronation. These days the paparazzi specialise in snapping what they are not supposed to see: Princess Margaret in a wheelchair after her stroke; Diana and Charles exchanging glances of poisonous contempt; Harry partying in the uniform of the Third Reich’s Afrika Korps. And now the semi-public confidentiality of internet chitchat has made popular disgruntlement audible. Soon after the engagement, the Bishop of Willesden – a blokey republican called Pete Broadbent – caused a fuss by Tweeting that William and Kate were “shallow celebrities”. He estimated that their marriage wouldn’t last, and for good measure denounced the Windsors on his Facebook page as freeloading philanderers. He recanted when slapped down by the Church hierarchy, and smarmily insisted that he was praying for the lifelong happiness of the betrothed pair; all the same, his apology could not unsay words that until recently were unspeakable.

When Gough Whitlam was sacked by vice-regal fiat, he remarked, “we may well say ‘God save the Queen’”, adding, “nothing will save the Governor-General.” The first part of his proposition, conditionally phrased even in 1975, sounds much shakier today. Only God can save the Queen, and divine intervention looks unlikely. To misquote Thomas Ford, we are content to love – well, tolerate – her until she dies. It will then be time to get up off our knees.

Peter Conrad

Peter Conrad is a writer, academic and regular contributor to the Observer. His books include Verdi and/or Wagner, The Art of the City and Modern Times, Modern Places.
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