A republican watches the royal wedding with the ultimate royal watcher, fact checker, sharp-tongued etiquette stickler. It’s all washed down with booze.
Months ago I arranged a date for to visit my mother. My heart sank when she telephoned with the words no mild-mannered republican wants to hear: ‘Darling – I will get some fizz and we can watch the royal wedding together when you visit.’
So I found myself watching the wedding with the ultimate royal watcher, fact checker, sharp-tongued etiquette stickler. Two glasses of cava have disappeared down the hatch just for the act of buckling up for the ride.
The wedding guests walked a gauntlet of cameras, fashion critics and commentators.
‘Why are we talking so much about the women and not the men?’ I asked, a pretty poor attempt at floating a little bit of #metoo controversy into the proceedings. Poor because there’s no avoiding the fact that the women dazzled while the men just looked all the same in their outfits.
‘Modern women don’t know how to wear hats? They never wear their hair up when wearing a hat,’ was her sniffy response, as usual never quite answering the question.
My mother always notices hats. She’s the only woman I know who has a special room for her hat collection. Every time her doctor pronounced she would be dead soon, she celebrated by adding another one to the collection. She’s still alive, the doctor’s probably dead and the hats are now part of the national collection. A commentator announced that someone’s hat was designed by John Boyd.
‘Of course. That’s my milliner. Oh what wonderful tailoring!’ she exclaimed as the cast of Suits walked to the church. ‘The Americans are doing it rather better,’ she said in a tone that that suggested her dismay of how far as a country we’ve fallen to be out-classed by our ex-colonial commoners, and certainty in the knowledge that the natural order would be restored as soon as the royals showed up. Wills and Harry duly appeared for their turn to walk the walk.
‘What regimental dress are William and Harry wearing?’
‘Blues and Royals. I thought I raised you better to know that,’ my mother replied in a withering tone. I downed another glass. The fog of cava was beginning to thankfully thicken.
Meanwhile the commentators were breaking into paroxysms of gushing joy, congratulating the royals for smiling, for looking nervous, for showing the slightest sign they were human and not animatronic figures moving through pre-ordained movements set by royal flunkeys.
I wondered whether my republicanism was caused less by the royals, and more the behaviour of all those who were drawn into their orbit. The way everyone bows and scrapes, courtesies and bobs. I’m not known for my polite manner when the obsequious tones of the royal correspondent, Nicholas Witchell, infiltrates my sitting-room. When the spell was broken would the commentators later knock back cheap whisky, repeatedly head-butt the wall and scream ‘this is not me’? Or did they spend a happy hour scrubbing their clothes cleans of the stains of their over-excitement.
By now it was becoming obvious that the wedding was starting to celebrate Meghan’s mixed-race. I started to feel nervous.
My mother is well-travelled, sophisticated and owns an address book that beats anyones for international diversity. When it comes to prejudice my mother is Schrödinger’s cat, she is both prejudiced and not prejudiced and, like her politics, she can veer from sounding like Enoch Powell to Jeremy Corbyn in a heartbeat. At first I thought her prejudice was against anyone who didn’t have the decency to be ruled by the British empire. Then I thought it was anyone stupid enough to be ruled by the British empire. I gave up trying to find the logic. Often she’s just the ultimate troller. A wind-up merchant that leaves you searching, and hoping, for the wink. Is there a wink? Please tell me there is a wink.
One time she said we were going out for dinner with the neighbours. Marvellous, I said, happy as always to socialise. What she didn’t tell me was that it was a fundraising event for the local Conservative Party. I must have been promised as a special exotic guest because I was handed a drink and promptly surrounded by men in red trousers interrogating me about the Scottish Question. Someone sidled up to me and said in a conspiratorial tone:
‘You’ve never voted Conservative in your life have you?’
I laughed and said no. ‘Is it that obvious?’
‘Neither have I. But around here, they hold the best parties. Keep it under your hat my dear boy. Up the liberals.’
Then there was the time she tricked my brother and I into attending the local hunt. Amongst the tweed and red coats, my brother and I stood out in our urban clobber. He rapidly descended into teenage like sullen silence while I, always keen to keep the social show on the road, swallowed my distaste for the sake of politeness and a morning glass of sherry. The huntmaster shouted to the party that they would be hunting legally today and stared at me as if I was an undercover police officer. We all laughed at this until we remembered that my brother actually is a police officer. The huntmaster couldn’t be blamed since my brother was sinking in the mud audibly swearing ‘oh for fuck sake, this is unacceptable’ at pretty much everyone, especially at his mother and his brother. We couldn’t be blamed because we always forget he’s a police officer, or we try to until we need to scramble him for some off the record advice when caught in unusual predicaments.
Back to the royal wedding, and as I finished off a cava bottle, I wondered whether I gave it all away far too cheaply for a glass of good quality booze. The flowergirls and pageboys clustered at the church door looking sweet and slightly out of control.
‘I hope those children behave. They do need a nanny. Children are not raised by nannies anymore.’
We toasted the arrival of the bride and sympathised with the bride’s mother who seemed dignified yet alone. As Meghan walked up the aisle my mother spotted something.
‘Oh this is interesting. If I’ve remembered the chapel correctly Meghan is about to walk over the grave of George III. Who was the last king of America.’ Brilliant, I thought, absolutely brilliant. Disappointingly, no- one picked up on this potential nugget. Maybe it was all a little awkward. Best not mention it. British-style.
‘Frightfully dreary music’, judged my mother, who then cheered up at the first notes of a Welsh hymn. She likes Welsh hymns. ‘Who are these people?’ As the camera picked out yet another celebrity who, unlike the royals, dared to be there for talent and achievement.
‘Isn’t he wonderful. Mesmerising,’ she muttered about the engaging black American preacher, Bishop Michael Curry. Then thirty seconds later ‘I wish he would shut up now.’ The look on some of the royal faces of the congregation was priceless. Were they so ignorant of their kingdom that they had never come across this kind of black preaching? You don’t have to go to America. I remember a black church in my south London street but that’s another story.
‘Looks like you have to be black to get on this show,’ muttered my mother. Five ways later she was eulogising the black choir and the influence of Meghan. ‘She’s wonderful for the royals.’
See? Prejudiced? Not prejudiced? Is there a wink? Befuddled, I decided I needed to replenish the food and drink. Anyone looking in through the kitchen may have seen a tall man sinking his head against the wall, muttering to himself and downing another drink.
I staggered back to see they were interviewing members of the crowd.
‘A lot of people are saying cool and amazing a lot. I still don’t know what cool means. Why can’t people speak properly and use the gift of the English language?’ complained my mother.
Our own Archbishop, staid and sedate after the energy of Curry, used his stole to bind the wrists of Meghan and Harry.
‘Oh that’s interesting,’ I said. ‘Is that based on an old pagan marriage ritual? I’m sure the Celts did something similar.’ My mother’s frosty silence informed me she was not interested in pursuing this subject. ‘Because of course, Christianity borrowed lot from the pagans, like Christmas,’ I finished lamely, more to cover a dignified retreat. I opened a bottle of Somerset’s finest cider.
The happy couple, now married, started their ride around Windsor. My mother’s attention was now on the horses. Like hats, horses are another subject of expertise and interest. A black horse leaned it to say hello to Meghan, as if to say ‘I was promised a carrot for this absurd nonsense if I was a good boy. Who’s got it otherwise I wind-up the white mare? She’s ready to blow.’ My mother perked up when the white mare started getting frisky and nearly bolted.
Meanwhile the crowds gasped and cheered and waved their plastic Union Jack flags. Don’t we laugh at the North Koreans for this kind of thing? As the carriage swept past armed policeman scanned their crowds with their fingers on the triggers, fervently and silently praying ‘not on my watch’.
The TV commentators, increasingly strung out by the occasion, piled on the hyperbole. ‘…and the world is seeing the best of the British,’ said was one especially imbecilic comment. ‘This sends a signal to the world’ said another, and promptly lapsed into silence, desperately hoping that she would not have to explain why or how. Was this signal, by royal decree, the only one to be received by the world, drowning out those other rather unfortunate signals from the Windrush scandal, Brexit, the culture wars, a country spectacularly exploding its soft power? There was nowhere else to go: I hit the whisky, one of Islay’s finest.
Following a helpless silence someone had to step up: ‘…this wedding was unifying the nation’. They clearly couldn’t hear the 32,000 Celtic fans singing exactly where you could shove your royal wedding. Mind you, that mob are still sore about the psychic vandalism of their Paradise in 2014.
Someone else said the wedding was modern, which increasingly seemed to be code for black, as if the royals were ahead of the game on this. As if the rest of the world were not aware of our black actors, musicians, rappers, sportsmen, poets, film directors, leaders. Everyone was working overtime to pull off the trick that this modernity distracted from the snobbery, a class system, the echoes of the old feudal ways still stalking the lands.
But here’s the thing, all this did send a positive signal. It was wonderful that black and American diversity and culture was inserted into a ceremony for a mixed-race royal marriage. Forget the royal angle, who doesn’t like a love story, a happy tale that does have fairy tale qualities about it. And the visuals were gorgeous. The beautiful flowers, the splendour of St George’s Chapel, the camera purring as it tracked over the pomp, the ancient streets of Windsor, the dramatic shots of the carriage sweeping up the long drive to the castle, shining in the sunshine. This is England, even if we’re a long way from Kano’s This is England.
Maybe the world was seeing a stunning, voluptuous England. The back lanes of south Shropshire were ablaze with pink and purple clematis, swathes of white Queen Anne’s Lace, yellow laburnum. The woods and fields rich with spring fecundity. Swifts swooped and skimmed over wheat fields feasting on insects. Bees droned through the warm air, lambs and foals frisked in vivid green fields. Deep blue sky and birds singing. This is England, even if we’re a long way from the folk horror of Blood on Satan’s Claw (on second thoughts, around these Shropshire parts, we’re really not).
Despite all this, my republicanism is still intact, the country is more royal than ever and I did not fall out with mother. Job done. My reward? A few miles from my mother’s house I walked to the village of Bedlam. Once or twice a year I go there to see if the rumoured Wit’s End Cottage will ever appear, like an old Shropshire myth.
Sometimes going to Bedlam is the only place where things make sense in this country.