Watering down the Windsors

You’ll never live like common people
You’ll never do what common people do
You’ll never fail like common people
You’ll never watch your life slide out of view, and dance and drink and screw
Because there’s nothing else to do.

(Pulp, Common People)

Earlier this month, Queen Elizabeth II became the longest-reigning monarch and her grand-daughter-in-law had her hair slightly trimmed. These two newsworthy events (one more than the other) have prompted me to mutter and muse on the whole concept of royalty and inherited privilege.

This morning I saw an online article talking about ‘Royality’ [sic] and the similarities between the late Princess Diana and the current Duchess of Cambridge. It was, indirectly, a decisive moment for me — and not even because of the illiteracy (the headline too, not just the category) and the mention of an aura or two.
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Until today, I have always considered myself to be a lukewarm monarchist: I’d rather have an unelected, ineffectual figurehead who brings in lots of tourist income (and doesn’t cost Joe Public nearly as much money as people seem to think) than an elected maniac like George W Bush (who just might cost them their lives) any day of the week. That was my view when the Royal Family was royal — i.e. born into what must be a horrid job but mercifully for them not knowing there was any alternative.

My non-monarchist friends (i.e. most of them) say the Royal Family does nothing and yet revel in a life of luxury. Maybe they do enjoy the best of everything, and they probably don’t have to do their own vacuuming or remember to stack the dishwasher before they go to bed, let alone more menial tasks than that; but the constraints imposed on them may well outweigh the privileges. They have no choice in what they do or when they do it. No matter how tired they are, or how ill, or how many other problems they have, they still do their duty.  They don’t have the luxury of saying ‘Nah, y’know what? I think I’ll give it a miss. I’m not in the mood for getting all dolled up and besides, I really want to binge-watch Game of Thrones on Netflix. Tell the Obamas I’m coming down with a cold or something and I’ll catch them next time round.’ Despite being in their eighties and nineties, Liz and Phil turn up for every function, are present at every parade, smile at yet more orphaned babies and disabled war veterans, even though their bunions are killing them, their backs are aching, and their false teeth are chafing – and they just have to put up when the press say they look miserable or uninterested.  They probably are miserable, and I certainly wouldn’t be interested in all the events they have to dress up for and attend graciously.

They can’t pop down to Tesco because they don’t know what they want for dinner and think they’ll just wander around until they spot something that takes their fancy.  They can’t just nip down the pub for a quick pint, or ring a friend and see if she’s free for a coffee in Starbucks. They can’t suddenly decide to dye their hair purple and start wearing ripped jeans. ‘Ordinary’ celebs can do these things. They might need to take bodyguards with them and they run the risk of being mobbed by fans and the paparazzi (though the latter are probably there by invitation), but they can do these things. The Royal Family can’t. They are a brand, and they have to stay loyal to it, even if that means that their lives are controlled, regulated, and they have less freedom than Nelson Mandela did during his 27 years of house arrest.

Which is why I say that mercifully they don’t know there’s an alternative. This is the life they’ve been brought up to expect — well, the older ones, the pre-Diana ones, have at any rate. They may have been told how common people live, they may, like Pulp’s Greek student, want to live like common people, and do the things that common people do — Prince Philip once famously complained ‘I never see any home cooking – all I get is fancy stuff’ – but it’s not going to happen. At best, even if they try, their attempts at commonerhood will be about as realistic as mine would be if I joined the Sealed Knot and ran around pretending to be a Roundhead. I couldn’t live in the Seventeenth Century; I need what I’m used to – hot water on demand, a comfortable bed, my computer, the internet, my car – and could not contemplate sacrificing any of these things. We all get used to a certain standard of living, and, although we might be able to adjust if we were deprived of it, it’s not something most of us would wish to contemplate (yeah, yeah, I know, there are always a few who dream of eschewing modern life and ‘living off the grid’, and spend hours blogging about it… on their computers).

The assumption is that the Royal Family live lives of unspeakable luxury, like Middle-Eastern Potentates in One Thousand and One Nights, and certainly the accoutrements of the job are worth a bob or two, but I remember the hoo-hah a dozen years ago when it was revealed that they keep their cornflakes in Tupperware and have yogurt in pots on the breakfast table[1]. But it matters not – however they live is the norm to them, and giving it up, especially at their age, or Charles’s, is not something that anyone can realistically expect them to do. I was friends with a very sweet old man who’d been a ‘Lloyds Name’ and lost everything in the crash in the early nineties. He put a brave face on things, but he never truly adapted to having to buy food he didn’t much care for from the ‘reduced’ shelf in Tesco when previously he’d been able to simply phone Harrods and have them deliver whatever he fancied.

Not only that, the older Royals must surely be totally institutionalized by now. As I said earlier, they do what they’re told, when they’re told, where they’re told. It would be interesting to know how many decisions they really make. My money would be on very few. Another friend of mine, when I was studying for my PCGE, was one of the groundsmen at the college. He was in his mid-fifties and had spent most of his life in prison. His probation officer, whom he adored, had got him the gardening job, so, for her sake, he didn’t want to mess up. But once he was released from her care, it was his intention to commit another crime and get sent back to jail. Like Morgan Freeman’s character in The Shawshank Redemption, he hated life on the outside, but he had no beachside paradise awaiting him. He just had another thirty-odd years of having to prepare his own food and do his own washing and make friends with people whose entire lives had been different from his. He wanted what he knew – the constraints and concomitant security of being banged up.

It saddens me that would-be Republicans think that the Queen could and should throw up all she knows and embrace a life that is so alien to her – not because I believe that one particular individual is more deserving of power and wealth than any other, but because the abolitionists are so short-sighted and envisage living in a world that is far too ideological to exist in the way they want it to exist. Monarchies can be deposed and overthrown – and heads can be displayed on poles to prove the point – but I don’t think that’s what the anti-royalists want. I think what they’re hoping for is that the Royal Family will just go without protest, preferably of their own volition. But they won’t; they don’t know how. Before I was born, my mother decided that I was going to be the first in our family to go to university — and I was. I never questioned that this was my destiny; it had been inculcated in me from birth. Had anyone suggested I leave school and get a job at the age of 16 or even 18, I’d have gaped at them open-mouthed. If that was so unthinkable to me, how can any member of the Royal Family possibly consider opting out and living like the rest of us?

‘Living like the rest of us’? Now that’s a whole other matter. Just because That Woman Over There is my age and falls into the same financial and (apparent) ethnic demographic group as I do, does that mean our lives are in any way similar? Who’s to say there aren’t more similarities between one of our lives and the Queen’s than between each other’s? She has to attend her children’s sporting events even though it’s raining and she has no interest in football or rugby or netball or lacrosse or whatever it is that little Rowan and Rowena are playing this term, and go to mind-numbingly dull  functions with her husband whom she married largely because her parents thought he was suitable and she wasn’t horrified by the prospect of bearing his children; she never leaves the house without co-ordinating her vegan leather shoes and hand-woven handbag; she’s a dutiful wife and mother and member of the PTA and the Women’s Institute and CND; she organizes bring-and-buy sales and coffee mornings for causes she knows nothing about and signs online petitions as if her life depended on it – and through it all, she smiles and accepts that that’s her lot in life. She’s not going to pack it all in and go and live in another country without her husband and kids; she’s not going to embark on a whole different career at the age of 53; she’s not going to be friends with people from many different walks of life, with different life experiences and different political beliefs from her own; she’s not going to cause the slightest wobble in the status quo. She’s more like the Queen, whom she condemns as a sponger and a hypocrite, than she is like me – all we share, That Woman Over There and I, is the year we were born and the tax code we’ve been assigned.

But enough of her and her eco-toff ways. I was talking about Her Maj and her immediate family and how they just wouldn’t have the faintest idea how common people live. To ask them to cope with what we take for granted would be like expecting an inbred lapdog to go hunting with wolves. And I have no problem with that. Let the lapdog stay indoors and the wolves do their thing ouside.  Indeed, I have nothing but respect for the Queen, who, whilst born into that rarified atmosphere, wouldn’t have been its focal point if her uncle hadn’t decided to step quietly out of the limelight, leaving her, at the age of 21, to take on the top job after her father died. She may or may not have relished the prospect; but she accepted the role and has unstintingly done her job ever since.

I like the Queen. I started this piece by describing myself as a ‘lukewarm monarchist’. I also like Prince Philip, and Charles, and Camilla; I’m totally indifferent to the rest of them (though the late Queen Mother went up in my estimation when I learnt that she was a self-serving bitch and not a sweet, if rather gin-sozzled, fairy godmother [2]).

My lukewarm monarchism took a turn for the distinctly chilly with Diana. Diana, bless her, was a callow girl who dreamt of being a fairy princess. Charles married her because she had ‘good child-bearing hips’ or whatever and he was told he had to. So far, Diana is a bit dim but ultimately blameless. Probably nobody told her she was a brood mare and, as she wasn’t the sharpest tool in the box, she couldn’t be expected work it out for herself.

Her marriage to Charles went wrong — as have countless other marriages — he was still in love with and seeing Camilla; she had more than a few affairs; divorce loomed. These things happen. I almost felt sorry for her.

However, she then became vindictive. She tried — and failed — to destroy the Royal Family. There are, as I said, many who would happily see the monarchy topple, and that’s fine; far be it from me to say people should be royalist if that goes against their beliefs; but Diana had been — she’d married into the family, for crying out loud. You don’t get much more pro than that. When the fairytale went awry, she could have kept quiet about her marital woes, continued her charity work, lived off the public purse, remarried or taken any number of lovers, and generally accepted her new status graciously. But no, she wanted all the public’s sympathy for herself — and all the public’s opprobrium for Charles and his family, and in large measure she got it. Her ego took over, and her sense of unassailability grew and grew (well, it did until she hubristically thought she was too important to need to wear a seatbelt).

I have always found public mud-slinging to be distasteful — whether the slingers are two ordinary women outside Tesco (as I witnessed the other day) or individuals whose every move is captured and commented on by the media. Diana, I feel, from the Martin Bashir interview onwards, behaved like the cute pretty girl in the playground who runs and tells tales to the unprofessionally biased teacher  — and anyone else who will listen — that the awkward ungainly boy pulled her pigtails but omits to mention that she threw his homework over the fence.

And the Royal Family, because of their position, could do nothing but attempt to distance themselves from her. They didn’t sink to the level of saying ‘Yes, but do you know what she did? No? Well, let me tell you all about it.’ They just had to carry on regardless and hope the status quo would restore itself in time. Maybe it will — but I’m not so sure.

Diana’s legacy lives on. People (who weren’t me) liked her because they felt she was one of them (she wasn’t; but she was a step down from proper royalty) and that she was making the Royal Family more ordinary. But who wants an ‘ordinary’ Royal Family? If they’re going to be like everyone else, then they’re pointless.  Any clout they once had in a political, gubernatorial sense will be diminished; no one will really care if the guard is changed or the colour trooped; and American tourists will no longer spend millions coming to gawp at an ordinary family just because they happen to be a bit odd, a bit dim, very rich, and live in big houses (they already have the Kardashians if that’s all they want). The watering down started with Diana; it has been continued with Kate Middleton (and yes, I know she’s really Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge, but doesn’t the fact that people still think of her as Kate Middleton just prove my point?). William and Harry might be posh, but one gets the feeling they probably could survive in the real world, amidst common people.

I don’t think the Queen should abdicate (unless she wants to take it easy in her twilight years now she’s broken the longest-reign record), and I do think Charles should be King (poor thing’s been waiting his entire life for it), and Camilla Queen. But that’s as far as it need go. I have no idea how we will avoid getting lumbered with a Dubya-clone, but with the Royal Family being no different from the rest of us, if it’s going to happen, it will. Indeed, a strong (but sane and fair) elected leader might be what we need; after all despotic dictators just love preying on weak monarchies.

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[1] Neil Tweedie, “’Footman’ exposes Tupperware secret of the Queen’s table”, The Telegraph, 20 November 2003 << http://www.telegraph.co.uk/education/3323191/Footman-exposes-Tupperware-secret-of-the-Queens-table.html>&gt;


[2]
Johann Hari, “Can We Finally Tell the Truth About Britain’s Vile ‘Queen Mother’?”, Huffington Post, 24 November 2009 << http://www.huffingtonpost.com/johann-hari/can-we-finally-tell-the-t_b_299297.html>&gt;

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