Tuesday, 5 June 2012

Royal reflections

I'm sorry. I think this will do me good - a sort of therapy; and if I'm lucky, if I can get it out of my system, it will save Jane from having to put up with a somewhat cynical husband for another day. It may lose me some friends, but there we are; you win some, you lose some....

My problem is this. All this hooha over the Queen's Diamond Jubilee has been getting to me. As readers of this blog will be aware, I admire HRH immensely; I take some pleasure in having passed Prince Charles once or twice going to lectures on the Sidgwick Site in Cambridge (and personally I don't think he's as potty as his detractors try to make us believe); and I admit to having been thoroughly seduced by last year's royal couple. However yesterday in church we had a short video compilation of the coronation and, I am sorry, I saw the rows of ermine, that gaudy coach and all the ceremony (highly symbolic, I know) of gold, and crowns, sceptre, sword of state etc etc, and I thought, "Surely, please, we're not going to repeat all that in a few years' time, are we?" And the answer was of course a resounding affirmative. And next time the media juggernaut will roll into action with even greater hyperboles. The national anthem was sung at the end of the service: "Long live our noble Queen... send her victorious... long to reign over us..." - and I had heretical thoughts, such as, "Is it fair to pray that she'll get very old? Or to ask that she'll never be allowed to enjoy a retirement? And whom exactly do we want her to fight and beat?" At least the verse about frustrating her enemies' knavish tricks was left out.

Wantage Market Place festivities with the "Rockits"
No, it's not her majesty that's been getting under my skin. Neither is it communities coming together for celebrations. I think street parties like village festivals (of which Stanford's is a good example) are excellent occasions, bringing people out from their houses worshipping their one-eyed gods in the corner (or on the wall if it's a big-screen plasma one) and reminding them that they have a lot of neighbours who are human and indeed quite nice. Jane and I went yesterday to Wantage Market Place, where about 4000 people had been in spite of the rain, and this afternoon we sauntered down to Grove Rugby ground where there was a panoply of entertainments and stalls and many more people enjoying the sunshine. I understand these cost ratepayers nothing, unlike nearby Abingdon which had budgeted £50,000 for their weekend.

It's not even the money, however, that's made me reflect, although the message of lavish spending to celebrate the unusual length of a queen's reign should create pause for thought in a period of austerity when most people are being forced to economise and many are without jobs. We're told that the cost of the celebrations is being met by private donors - though that is clearly not the case, as Abingdon illustrates, and when such things as heightened security and additional policing, fly-pasts, broadcasting etc are factored in. But the message is still there, loud and clear, money can be found for some purposes after all - just not for the most disadvantaged. I heard someone on the radio this morning defending the expense by saying, "For once, can't we forget about bread, and give them circuses? We need both...".

I suppose that's the question. Has the monarchy just become a circus to entertain the hungry masses? Is that its real function? I don't presume to know the Queen's personal views, though we are told that if history hadn't lined her up for the throne she'd have chosen a quiet life in the country with horses and dogs. All the more credit to her for fulfilling her role of service to the country with such faithfulness. However all the pomp and circumstance, all the traditional razzmatazz, all the extravagance of the "court" could be regarded as circus entertainment, which is of course how the media treat it, when all the pseudo deference is stripped away. I'm left wondering not so much whether we want a monarchy, but whether we want a celebrity-style royal family, frozen in theme-park aspic.

My intelligent friends abroad had interesting reactions to the weekend. Mark, an Englishman in Sydney, commented: "So glad I'm in Australia, there is only so much of the Union Jack I can cope with..... And I've seen too much on Facebook alone!!" It's not that he's unpatriotic; but I think he is tired by jingoism and our constant apparent need to "big ourselves up" (to use the unpleasant but vivid modern expression), often at the expense of others. Jeannie in New York when I mentioned the Jubilee weekend commented that she was "not into the 'queen'" (by which I think she meant monarchy show), but she had been "a Diana fan", and she "likes Prince Charles's environmental stuff". Such a balanced assessment was refreshing to read after all the uncritical adulation or unthinking antagonism which occupied the airwaves of the BBC at times. I asked a Dutch friend who lives in the UK, "Do we REALLY do royalty so well? I know we do it expensively; but it seems to me we do it extravagantly. Should we go Dutch? I can't believe you're so prodigal. (NB I think good Queen Bess 2nd does royalty very well.)" She agreed that Britain could manage its monarchy at a much more modest cost, and that the Netherlands manage a constitutional monarchy with far more simplicity, "properly rooted in the Dutch calvinist tradition, sense of duty and profound awareness of God's grace."

It was interesting for me to read about the Dutch monarchy, and also to google pictures of Dutch royal ceremonies. Pictures of pageants and pomp are strikingly missing. Only Queen Beatrix and her consort, and the heir apparent and his are paid stipends (linked to the civil service's rate). The rest of the extensive royal family have to earn their own living. I seem to remember her mother, Queen Juliana, used a bicycle. The queen is provided with one official residence and one work palace. For state occasions there's the Old Palace in Amsterdam, which open to the public at other times. This unshowy royal family have between 85 and 83% approval rating. According to Jenni Bond, the former BBC royal correspondent, our Queen's approval rating in the polls is 80% (Radio 5 this morning), when she's never been more loved. From which I conclude that all the flim-flam industry with which we surround our monarchy is dispensable. (And please don't give me the tired and irrelevant "It's good for the tourist industry" line!)

I tuned in to a heated exchange on Radio 5 Live this morning, including one Dicky Arbiter, once the Queen's press secretary and now public speaker. I think it was him that made a comment, to justify monarchy, that seven of the most stable democracies have monarchies, by which I guess he meant Belgium, Denmark, Norway, the Netherlands, Spain, Sweden and the United Kingdom. For some reason he didn't mention states like Saudi Arabia, Brunei, Swaziland, Omar, Dubai, Qatar, Morocco, Bahrain etc. I'm sorry. It's empty arguments like that which make me consider democracies such as Ireland which elects its impressive non-executive head of state. However for the moment I'm grateful for ITV4 which has been showing the diverting French Open Tennis, which has provided welcome relief from saturation coverage of plastic-flag-waving jubilifications. And to be honest, I am more grateful and full of admiration for the woman standing alone in the centre of this picture, while at the same time I wish her husband a speedy recovery.
from Huffington Post


  1. Louise Halling7 June 2012 at 01:07

    Michael, I love you! This blog is v interesting and v much reflective of some thoughts and questions I have also had. Funny you should quote Mark in your post. It is difficult to be 'critical' without sounding like a party pooper (especially when one is living in AUstralia. People get even more annoyed by that e.g. 'well, how could you possibly know? You don't live here any more'etc and that is true but Michael, I am 99% sure I would feel exactly the same if I WAS living there).

    So, the thing that has 'got' to me about it all (and this may be unfair because is a far-away perspective) is that (much as with the Royal Wedding)... what I observe is in general: David Cameron's GREAT BRITAIN! Wonderful stuff, here we are all having a jolly middle class hoorah with lots of wonderful TRADITIONAL values, all very moral and upright, 1950s throw back, aren't we all happy families, stay at home mums (baking cakes), smartly dressed to wave our flags for the Commonwealth, push on through the hard times (post war?), aren't we all clever. David Cameron must be LOVING IT !! What a bonus for him these 2 events have been. And, as much as I do not wish to pee all over the bonfire of joy (and like you, wouldbe one to encourage communal events/community/ coming together etc), I just wonder.... is this the only way we can 'do' community? And what decade are we living in? Is this reflective of a multi-cultural UK? (nevemind 'Great Britain') What role does the 'Commonwealth' really play now? And what about the reflections of Scotland, Ireland and Wales? Can't bear the flag waving (horrendous!)-but maybe that's just me(as Mark said, 'the God I believe in doesn't DO nation states!), Tell me how all this is relevant to the millions of unemployed young Brits living on council estates and trying to get through the day without being hauled into a violent gang? I mean, a public holiday makes no difference if you have no job!

    Hmmm, am I a big party pooper? Or is it that no one else in the UK is talking about these issues? Or are people talking about the issues somewhere that I havne't found? It just all seems like a bit of a charade (despite the good and positive elements which I applaud) and one that a LOT of people seem extremely happy to blindly buy into without pondering the other side???


  2. The feelings are, of course, mutual, Louise!

    Jane tells me you and I aren't alone (see: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-18332510!!) Even our music-loving daughter was switched off by the corny/obsequious comedians linking the evening concert.

    As for how it's all relevant to the millions of young unemployed, I don't know if you came across this rather demeaning story about the Workfare pageant stewards, bussed in from the West Country and dumped under London Bridge at 3 am and paid nothing. Everyone, from management, the charity to Downing Street, has been rowing back on it - either apologising, blaming the coach driver, or of course saying "Nothing to do with us, guv".

    And by the way I love the image of you peeing on the bonfire! Reminds me of the poem with which I used to shock my children. It came from Ireland and began "Mr Maguire, he pissed in the fire. / The fire was too hot, so he pissed in the pot." Having googled it I find your version is:
    "Mrs maguire she peed in the fire,
    the fire was to hot so she peed in the pot,
    the pot was to wide so she peed in the clyde,
    and aw the wee fishes ran up her backside." :-)

  3. I hope you will never lose a friend simply through expressing deeply help views (however dotty they are!). Blessings......

  4. I'm comforted that dottiness puts me in very good company! Thank you.