Stick with the picture books

MARK STEYN April 24 2006

Stick with the picture books

MARK STEYN April 24 2006

Stick with the picture books


As the Queen turns 80, there's a lot of writing about the royals—and little of it’s good


When it comes to royal books, a picture is worth a hundred thousand words. Especially the picture on the back of Happy & Glorious. It shows the Queen in Cairns, Australia, with an Aborigine in native dress—i.e. naked except for some war paint and a few strands of twine dangling over his naughty bits. She’s in traditional dress, too—light blue frock with white spots, pearls, brooch, big hat, white gloves. Not so long ago it was the uniform of every white middle-class woman in the British Empire, but these days Her Majesty pretty much soldiers on alone.

What I like about the photograph, though, is the way both parties are having a grand old time: he’s explaining the finer points of some Aboriginal ritual and she’s watching intently, and they’re both beaming with delight. If the Queen’s prime ministers sometimes give the impression they no longer have much use for the Commonwealth, this picture sums it up perfectly, at least from her point of view: how would you rather spend your day? Opening a new shopping centre in Liverpool before a crowd of whey-faced Scousers in ghastly Brit leisure wear? Or being brought ashore in Tuvalu or Papua New Guinea in a dugout canoe by semi-naked subjects in grass skirts? If the “Queen of England” really were merely Queen of England, life would be a dreary affair indeed—as dreary as the King of the Belgians’. Even the churlish Maoris’ recent custom of baring their bottoms at Her Majesty whenever she arrives in New Zealand has somehow become a quaint tradition of its own, and certainly it’s livelier than most other expressions of anti-monarchism. Perhaps John Manley could be per-

suaded to drop his pants the next time the Queen’s on a walkabout over here.

The Aussie pic is one of 80 from recent years in this collection by royal photographer Robin Nunn. There are plenty of Canadian snaps, including the famous puck-dropping in Vancouver, and Happy & Glorious effortlessly lives up to the first of those adjectives. The Queen is a pro—she’d never show up as sour and ill-humoured as her sister could be—and she appears to take more pleasure in the opening of a new wing of Government House in Regina than most of us would in her situation. My guess is the smiles are genuine: in contrast to her great-greatgrandmother, her reign seems to have got jollier as it’s gone on.

It’s the books that aren’t full of pictures that are the problem. In the course of my life, I have had one brief conversation with the Queen, and I haven’t a clue what she really thinks about anything. But that’s one more conversation with her than most “royal watchers” have had, and they claim to be privy to her innermost thoughts. After the 1999 referendum on the monarchy, Christopher Morgan reported in Britain’s Sunday Times that “the Queen was ‘hurt and disappointed’ by the strength of republican feeling in Australia.” Really? On the night of the referendum, I happened to be dining at Bucking-

ham Palace, and as the only journalist on the planet within six feet of a royal facial expression that day I can exclusively reveal that I haven’t the foggiest as to the Queen’s or the Duke of Edinburgh’s feelings. Nor does Mr. Morgan. But the great thing about covering the House of Windsor is that that’s no obstacle. The template for royal-watching career-progression is Anthony Holden, who’s dedicated much of his life to writing biographies of the Prince of Wales.

Why, you may be wondering, would the Prince’s life require so many books? Surely one would do: as Columbia Records did with the Johnny Mathis Christmas album for many decades, they could reissue it every year in a different coloured cover. But Mr. Holden is cannier than that. In the eighties, he was a conventionally sycophantic courtly hackone thinks of his 1989 TV documentary, Charles at Forty: A Prince for our Time. Unfortunately, times change, and by 1993 Mr Holden was cranking out books like The Tarnished Crown and demanding that a future King Charles III lay off the orb and sceptre and ermine and demonstrate that he was in touch with his subjects by agreeing to be crowned in “a Marks & Spencer’s suit.” By the turn of the millennium, even the king’s new clothes availed him nought and Mr. Holden had embraced full-blown republicanism. Perhaps his pendulum has swung back a bit by now. Given his current semi-Islamification, by the time the Prince of Wales is crowned

it’s likely to be in robes and a turban as the first emir of the British Caliphate of Nations. How long can Holden hold off on Charles bin Windsor: A Prince for our Wails?

The alternative to royal watchers is insiders. Princess Elizabeth’s governess, the much vilified Crawfie, got the ball rolling with her tell-all volume revealing that little Lilibet liked to get up in the middle of the night and rearrange her shoes and was wont to shout “You beast!” during spats with Margaret. The cash-in courtiers have widened their field of expertise since those innocent days. Paul Burrell, confidant to the Princess of Wales, reinvented himself as The Butler The

Palace Can’t Gag, and in A Royal Bootywhoops, sorry, A Royal Duty—he gives us a Queen who’s part-Oprah, part-Gandalf and part-paranoid CIA spook just before his body’s found in a trunk at the airport. “I remembered,” writes Burrell, “the note the Princess had left me about the Queen: ‘I long to hug my mother-in-law.’ ” If only that chilly sovereign were as touchy-feely and huggyweepy as the butler, history might have been very different. Even Her Majesty concedes Burrell’s unique intimacy with Diana, though she frets that, despite being head of state, she’s unable to guarantee his safety: “Looking over her half-rimmed spectacles, she said: ‘Be careful, Paul. No one has been as close to a member of my family as you have. There are powers at work in this country about which we have no knowledge.’ She fixed me with a stare with eyes that underlined her words. ‘Do you understand?’ ”

It’s a disappointment to realize that she confides this dark warning to the burbling

butler in a sitting room at Buckingham Palace rather than at midnight in an underground parking garage while wearing a hat pulled low over her face. But thanks to Her Majesty fixing him with her half-rimmed stare, Mr. Burrell lived to pen another book: In the Royal Manner: Expert Advice on Etiquette and Entertaining from the Former Butler to Diana, Princess of Wales. Given that, dinner party-wise, the Princess is best-known for bulimic vomiting and Mr. Burrell was subsequently prosecuted for stealing the crockery (“Item 15: One plate with Prince of Wales crest”), he was stretching his expertise way beyond plausibility here. Among ^ the shock revelations: “The Queen delights in making her own pot of tea, in a silver teapot, of course. During my career, I must have served thousands of cups of tea at receptions, meetings and garden parties,” adds the royal confidant. “The essential element, of course, is boiling water.”

But who needs garrulous servants when the royals themselves are willing to spill the beans? My Story was written by, as puts it, Sarah The Duchess Of York Ferguson, which makes her sound like Sammy The Bull Gravano, who, come to think of it, might have made a better royal consort. The quickest way to précis the descent of the Duchess is to skip the text and look her up in the index, under “S” for “Sarah ‘Fergie’ Ferguson, Duchess of York.” It’s a perfect capsule biography:

“Royal position and duties of, Self-deprecation of,

Self-sufficiency and desire for independence of,

Skiing of,

Stress of Royal life on,

Tapped ’phone lines of,

Topless photos of...”

The Duchess’ previous book was a children’s volume called Budgie the Little Helicopter. By this stage, the Queen was probably grateful Camilla’s agent hadn’t got her a six-figure deal to do Charlie the Chopper (a pop-up book).

So skip the word books and stick to the glossy 80th birthday pictorial souvenirs you’ll treasure forever. Looking at those Lizziewith-the-laughing-face photos of Robin Nunn’s reminds me of one queenly volume I’d be interested to see: We Are Amused: The

Royal Sense of Humour. I’m especially fond, in our over-celebrified culture, of her hilariously subversive attitude to alleged cultural icons. Last year, the Queen found herself in a room full of legendary rock guitarists, and hadn’t a clue who they were. Introduced to Eric Clapton, she politely enquired, “Have you been playing a long time?” Passing on to Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page, the monarch asked, “And are you a guitarist, too?”

Magnificent. The increasingly desperate Hollywood should sign her to host the Oscars: “Ladies and gentleman, to present the Award for Best Sound Editing in a Documentary Short please welcome George Clooney! Don’t tell me you’re another one of these actors, Mr. Clooney!” M