From a Brit-in-America perspective
Good writing returns to you; it can illuminate moments or thoughts that you have an imprecise grasp on.
Over the last week, as an Englishman in America, I’ve had to avoid discussion about that news, that little baby. Though I wish him personally the best of health, my issue is more about his future, that it has been mapped out from the moment of conception as the head of state, my head of state on account of his lineage.
I’ll admit that outing myself as a small “r” republican (though I’m in two minds as to whether that is the right description for me as I don’t confess myself as being overly thrilled that any of the current crop of British politicos being invested with the title of “President”—even if that office is largely ceremonial) seems churlish when I’m dealing with the natives here in America who keep bringing that news up to me.
Anyway, the piece of writing that I’ve been returning to over the last week, a piece that acts as a counterpoint to some of the more banal Royal Baby conversations that I’ve have to endure in the United States, is Hilary Mantel’s essay for the London Review of Books: “Royal Bodies”. Surprisingly, it managed to achieve something very rare indeed—it’s a piece of literature that has also been written about in the British tabloid press.
Of course, the British tabloids don’t turn their attention to literary matters because they admire the style, but because they have the opportunity to manufacture a controversy. This case was no different. Mantel’s humanizing essay (initially delivered as a lecture and is mostly concerned with Anne Boleyn) about the mundane demands that we place on royalty was spun as FRUMPY WRITER DISSES OUR KATE. Politicians are always eager to jump on a popular bandwagon and provide an empty soundbite, so it was of little surprise when Cameron and Miliband joined in the critique.
If, however, any of those outraged had bothered to read the essay they would have found that this double Booker-prize winning author has taken an even-handed and nuanced view on royalty.
There is one insight of Mantel’s in particular that I’ve been returning to over the last week. I must admit that as a very recent father myself, I am a little resentful of the coverage—a little resentful that one baby has a future mapped out for it based not on any meritocratic qualities he might have. Mantel gets to the root of the issue when she says that we entrap our royalty, condemning them to live as exotic creatures within the shabby, carpet-fraying world of British institutions.
Poor George, one week old and his life will be measured out in an endless procession of hospital openings, civic events, and all those bloody awful Royal Variety Performances. The French, by comparison, were merciful to their royalty: they just guillotined them. We make ours watch Joe Pasquale.
If you haven’t read Mantel’s essay, at least read this passage, where she compares royal persons to pandas:
I used to think that the interesting issue was whether we should have a monarchy or not. But now I think that question is rather like, should we have pandas or not? Our current royal family doesn’t have the difficulties in breeding that pandas do, but pandas and royal persons alike are expensive to conserve and ill-adapted to any modern environment. But aren’t they interesting? Aren’t they nice to look at? Some people find them endearing; some pity them for their precarious situation; everybody stares at them, and however airy the enclosure they inhabit, it’s still a cage.
A few years ago I saw the Prince of Wales at a public award ceremony. I had never seen him before, and at once I thought: what a beautiful suit! What sublime tailoring! It’s for Shakespeare to penetrate the heart of a prince, and for me to study his cuff buttons. I found it hard to see the man inside the clothes; and like Thomas Cromwell in my novels, I couldn’t help winding the fabric back onto the bolt and pricing him by the yard. At this ceremony, which was formal and carefully orchestrated, the prince gave an award to a young author who came up on stage in shirtsleeves to receive his cheque. He no doubt wished to show that he was a free spirit, despite taking money from the establishment. For a moment I was ashamed of my trade. I thought, this is what the royals have to contend with today: not real, principled opposition, but self-congratulatory chippiness.
And then as we drifted away from the stage I saw something else. I glanced sideways into a room off the main hall, and saw that it was full of stacking chairs. It was a depressing, institutional, impersonal sight. I thought, Charles must see this all the time. Glance sideways, into the wings, and you see the tacky preparations for the triumphant public event. You see your beautiful suit deconstructed, the tailor’s chalk lines, the unsecured seams. You see that your life is a charade, that the scenery is cardboard, that the paint is peeling, the red carpet fraying, and if you linger you will notice the oily devotion fade from the faces of your subjects, and you will see their retreating backs as they turn up their collars and button their coats and walk away into real life.
Of course, all of the above is written with the benefit of thinking about these issues for a full week. My initial thoughts as featured on my personal blog were a little harsher. For completeness, I include them below.
Thoughts on the Royal Spawn or why I hate it when Americans attempt to engage me on the Royal Family
When I was 14 my Dad died, something that nobody—outside of immediate family and friends—gives two shits about. A few years later, a guy who I’ve never met loses his mother. All very sad, but acquaintances and strangers here like to bring up this death in conversation and tell me about how sorry they are for his loss.*
In my late-20s I got married. All very nice, but again, nobody—outside of immediate family and friends—really gives a flying monkey toss about it. Why should they? A little bit after me that guy I’ve never met and who’d lost his mother got married himself. Great for him, I wouldn’t begrudge him his happiness, but yet these same curiously odd people who corner me at parties and insist in trying to engage in small talk when silence really would be preferred tell me about lovely his wedding.**
A few months back, I became a father. It has been earth-shattering to me, but beyond immediate family and friends, nobody really gives a fuck. Now that guy I don’t know, who lost his mother and had a wedding, has also become a father. I’m not surprised by the news as over the last few months overly familiar troglodytic morons when they hear my voice have been asking me how his wife is doing with the pregnancy.***
I’ll be clear, only if they name him Eadwig, Harthacnut or Rylan will I be interested in the royal sprog—though fair play to the fetus for landing himself such a cushy gig.
Commiserations to Carol Ann Duffy , who is now going to have write an excruciating poem.
For the next month I will be trying to live clandestine in the US in order to avoid having excruciating conversations with people who get really excited about nonsense like this. I think I’ll put on a French accent.
*In fairness, strangers might be stopping him to tell him how sorry they are about my loss.
** Again, in fairness, he is probably cheesed off with the number of people droning on about my wedding to him.
*** If we ever meet, we’re going to laugh about this. Complete strangers were constantly asking him about how my wife’s pregnancy was going. Must be some crossed wires, we’ll say.
STAY TUNED for tomorrow’s post, the first in our TCK TALENT series.
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