102 Years of Small Talk
I was twice in the presence, approximately, of the Queen Mother, who died on Saturday. The first time was when, in my twelfth year, she came to open a new wing of my school. (That a senior royal should turn up to open a new wing of an undistinguished provincial boys' school was testimony to the tremendous political skills of our headmaster, a formidable personality of whom we boys, the school staff, and also I believe the education bureaucrats at the town hall were all terrified.) The second time was shortly before I left the ould sod for good in 1985, when she showed up in the royal box at Covent Garden opera house for a performance of Der Rosenkavalier. Of the first occasion I remember only an overpowering impression of pastel, and noticing that she had very bad teeth. (This, in England.) Of the second, I recall being somewhat surprised at how little attention was paid to her. She was applauded briefly when she appeared in the box, but people sat down without waiting for her to do so, and nobody was a tenth as interested in the Queen Mother as they were in Kiri te Kanawa up on the stage.
I am sorry to speak so unenthusiastically of a lady so recently departed. The truth is, I am not much of a monarchist, and I don't know many English people that are. When the news came out on Saturday I got several very touching emails from readers offering condolences. I thank them all, and take their words of sympathy as characteristic expressions of American warmth and open-heartedness. At the same time I can't suppress a small voice inside me saying: Was the battle of Yorktown fought in vain, then? The Queen Mother, after all, represented the monarchical order in its older style, before the openness and reforms — not to mention scandals — of recent years. She was, amongst other things, the last Empress of India. As red-blooded rebels against the Crown, shouldn't you Yanks be shaking your fists in defiance at all that?
The Queen Mother was, in fact, the very emblem of all that anti-monarchists detest. Even among lukewarm monarchists, you will often hear the cliché: "I don't mind the Queen and Philip, but I don't see why we should support all these secondary royals." The Queen Mother took some supporting. As well as her palace in London, she had another home on the Queen's vast Balmoral estate in Scotland, and a castle of her own, also in Scotland. (She used to boast that this castle was "the coldest house in Britain.") Her permanent personal staff numbered about 50. To some degree, she got away with this by trickery. When the royal finances came under intense scrutiny in the early 1980s, the Queen Mother — who was born in 1900 — begged that an old lady not be deprived of her familiar comforts for what must surely be, on an actuarial basis, the last year or two of her life. The government yielded, whereupon she mocked the actuarial tables by living another 20 years, no doubt enjoying many a secret chuckle into her gin at the vexation she was causing among the cost-cutters.
There was precious little monarchist sentiment in my upbringing. My parents both came from coal-mining families, stalwart Labour Party voters all. Mum and Dad themselves were merely republicans; but some of my uncles and aunts were strong socialists, who nursed fantasies of themselves brandishing the red flag over the ruins of Buckingham Palace. The town I grew up in was strong for Parliament in the Civil War; a great center of leather-working, we made the boots for Oliver Cromwell's army. (He never paid us.) Americans generally do not realize that republicanism is rather common in England, and even more so in Scotland and Wales. Large swathes of the British working class are indifferent or hostile to the monarchy. There are some exceptions, but they are in the same relation to the rest of the working class as the "church ladies" of black America are to the black proletariat at large. A typical British monarchist would be the elderly widow of a professional man — a lawyer, army officer or small businessman — living genteely on a modest pension in some seaside bungalow.
The general, though I believe very mild, affection in which the Queen Mother was held seems to contradict this — as does, more obviously, the clear popularity of the late Princess Diana. In fact these two women were both liked, in so far as they were liked, for anti-monarchical reasons. To be more precise, for anti-Windsor reasons. The Windsors are, let's face it, an unappealing lot, even if your theoretical inclinations run to hereditary monarchy. The best that can be said of them is that they have a sense of duty, a willingness to spend their lives making small talk with strangers in return for being allowed to continue in the extravagant lifestyle of their ancestors. Not all of them have even had that: for example, when the late Duke of Windsor (briefly Edward the Eighth, before he abdicated) found that he could have the lifestyle without the chores, he jumped at the chance. And even the best of them, like the current Queen, are a cold, dull lot. The tone was set by the first monarch of her line, George the First, of whom Doctor Johnson observed: "He knew nothing, and desired to know nothing; he did nothing, and desired to do nothing." My father used to refer to them as "these bloody Germans." That was a bit unfair to the Windsors, who are five generations removed from the House of Hanover, but something of the stage-German still clings to them, something puddingy, unimaginative and humorless.
The Queen Mother in her time, and Princess Diana in hers, brought a little color and sparkle into this drab performance. Neither of them was at all German, or "German." The Queen Mother, a Scot, was in fact the first Queen Consort of actually British origins since Catherine Parr, who died in 1548; and Princess Di, if she had attained the title, would have been the first English one since that date. (English people like to grumble, again a bit unfairly, that we haven't had an actual English dynasty since Harold Godwinson fell at the battle of Hastings in 1066. Subsequent dynasties have been, in order: Scandinavian, French, Welsh, Scottish, Dutch and German.) The presence of these two women on the team roster thus enabled people who didn't like the Windsors — which is to say, pretty much everybody — to none the less like the monarchy.
Some years ago the historian Paul Johnson wrote a very fine essay* about the interaction between charm and power. He started out with some American examples, comparing Herbert Hoover with FDR:
Hoover was a much abler and more knowledgeable man than FDR, and their policies did not substantially differ, but whereas Hoover radiated a repellent gloom, FDR made people feel good, wanted, useful and so happy. J.F. Kennedy's charm successfully concealed an abyss of weaknesses; Richard Nixon's lack of it, despite many stirling assets, was a key factor in his downfall. Ronald Reagan, overcoming his age and limitations, made his charm work hard for him; Jimmy Carter and George Bush, without the gift, remained one-term presidents.
Johnson then continued with a quick canter through the history of the British monarchy, ending with the charmless Windsors, and the advice: "Royals who lack charm should marry it." Prince Charles did just that, but then threw it away. (Although it must be said that while Princess Di possessed charm, she had no other worthy attributes, unless you count her much-advertised virginity.) Sixty years earlier, poor stuttering Albert, Duke of York, had done the thing much better, getting himself a bride who smiled her way doggedly through an infinity of petty social engagements, produced two healthy children to continue the dynasty, cheered up her country during a ghastly war, invented a title and role for herself when her husband died, was a devout Christian, became an expert and dedicated angler, consumed untold quantities of gin, and lived to be nearly 102.
The Queen Mother's life was more useful than that of most modern royals (I am thinking of her exemplary behavior in the war) and she did no harm that I can see. I hope she may rest in peace. That's about all I can summon up for the occasion. With only seventeen more days as an Englishman, and never having had any strong feelings about the Crown in any case, I view the whole show with cool anthropological detachment.
I hate to end on such a flat note, though; so in a spirit of service to fellow members of Britain's lower orders, I'd like to point out that fifty well-trained flunkies are now without employment. If you are looking for the very best in butlers, footmen or Ladies of the Bedchamber, it's a buyer's market for a while.
* At this point I would normally include a link so you can read it for yourself. However, I've been unable to find the essay — one of Johnson's best short pieces — anywhere on the web. If you can do better, let me know and I'll post a link in The Corner. The essay, titled "When the Royal Theatre Goes Dark" appeared in the London Spectator of 2/20/93.