It is with very little pleasure that I saw a BBC breaking news announcement from the Palace (as we say over here) about the wife of William Windsor, Duke of Cambridge, heir to the throne of England, Wales and, for the time being, Scotland. The Duchess of Cambridge, is pregnant, the BBC told me by email and text, a service usually reserved for vital and urgent world events like wars and the sacking of football managers. She’s probably only in her first month and it wouldn’t have been made public except for the fact that she’s in hospital with hyperemesis gravidrum, which is Latin for very bad morning sickness. It sounds really awful and she has my sympathy.
It is more or less traditional and wise for people to wait for the first trimester to be over before they make a public statement of pregnancy, but, even just days after the Leveson Inquiry on the conduct of the press and media reported and called for much tougher oversight for newspapers following the scandals that shut down the News of the World, the Palace knew there wasn’t any chance of keeping the Duchess’s condition out of the news. The following morning the Daily Mail had fourteen pages on the subject of the royal fœtus, including, in especially good taste, a forensic artist’s mock up of what the putative royal prince or princess, currently not much more than a handful of dividing cells, will look like when he or she is older. On the morning after the Leveson report calling for firmer regulation was published, the Mail – who is virulently against any kind of legislative press regulation – produced fifteen pages of vituperation, so Leveson wins the popularity poll by a whisker. It’s unlikely, however, that Duchess Kate will ever be referred to in the sort of terms the Mail described Lord Justice Leveson leaving the press conference: ‘Old liverspot waddled off with his hands behind his bottom.’
When I was younger they always played the National Anthem at the end of an evening at the theatre or cinema. I, being as anti-establishment as anyone, remained in my seat while the rest of the audience stood up and to attention. I received severe looks of disapproval and loud tutting in my direction. Very occasionally there was fellow refuser sitting, too. I’ve never had much time for patriotic ceremony or inherited privilege and I thought the royal family were grossly over-advantaged, reactionary, out of touch and a huge waste of public money. I still think all those things, but these days I’d just leave rather than bother to make a point about not standing for the National Anthem. They do have their uses, I’ve come to see. When Princess Diana died and a friend woke me with the news, my first sentence was ‘Oh no, how are they going to fill up the papers now?’, though it was a sorry and sad death. More than anything, I now don’t think the royal family matter very much in the vast field of injustice. There is so much else in this country that keeps the poor poor and the richer richer that the royals have become to me no more than figureheads of privilege and unfairness, just as they are figureheads politically. There’s more to be angry and distressed about than the continuing smugness of the House of Windsor.
Nevertheless, their existence can be instructive. Take for instance the relative amount of reporting in the newspapers between one very early pregnancy, and over two million children currently officially living in poverty in the UK. And I have no idea why so many people were content to be lulled into warm fuzzy feelings over the summer, by the royal jubilee celebrating one woman’s highly paid employment shaking hands over some decades, while increasing numbers of people are being made unemployed and told to work for nothing in order to get social welfare benefits to which they are entitled.
Perhaps, you think, they represent a steadiness in this turbulent time. But our royal family hasn’t been functioning calmly and distantly enough to ignore for centuries. Even these days, when they are supposed to be political ciphers, they make idiots or worse of themselves, interfere with politicians, city planning, and, it turns out, have a right of veto in laws where their own private financial interests might be affected. The Windsors hardly represent the ideal family, consisting as they do, of divorcees and catastrophic marriages in the last three generations. They don’t offer wisdom, (though the Queen’s long experience is said to be useful to Prime Ministers) having notoriously no interest in anything intellectual, the arts or philosophy, while the heir to the throne, Prince Charles, believes in a horrible right wing mixed-up mysticism about spiritual spirals ruling nature, and a feudal faith in the ‘right’ order of things. But if they’re not the perfect family, neither are they Everyfamily. They have no idea how the world really is, having never actually lived in it. A friend of mine was given a medal by the Queen for services to the arts. During the audience with the Queen, my friend told her about a mentally ill woman she had come across who was the basis for something she wrote. There was a silence, and then the Queen replied, ‘But how do you meet such people?’ It was a real and baffled question, and genuine, because it’s unlikely that Her Majesty has met anyone accidentally, since, years ago, a mentally ill man broke into the palace and sat on the end of her bed.
So the British royal family seem to serve no other purpose than to fill the tabloid newspapers and magazines when hard news is either lacking or not attractive enough to sell papers. After a brief explanation of the Latin name for her unwellness, Kate’s and Will’s baby will give us nine full months of babble and nonsense, with no real content. It is like some crazy town crier walking around, ringing his bell and shouting incomprehensible gibberish, filling the air with noise, because silence is unacceptable and frightening. Or, if you want to be more modern, it is spam, filling our inboxes, so we don’t have to notice that no one emails us except for debt collectors.
This piece was written for my regular monthly column at the Goteborg-Postens for translation into Swedish.