The royal family is a rock – and it has some pretty unsavoury things beneath it. But it is changing and the Duchess of Sussex is helping achieve that
Walking through the dark, the way illuminated by discreet Klieg lighting and torches on stands, the smell of fresh flowers in the air and the sound of distant voices laughing on what seemed like water, this was a scene straight out of The Great Gatsby.
Not the movie, but F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel. I was in the world of Tom and Daisy Buchanan, a privileged world ‘wherever people played polo and were rich together’, where ‘men and girls came and went like moths among the whisperings and the champagne and the stars’.
I was in Windsor Castle to do a newspaper review for one of the broadcasters. It was the night of the wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle and it is important to state now: Windsor Castle really is a castle. Battlements, stone and all.
I had been there once before, invited, for some reason, to a party thrown by the Queen to celebrate the reopening of Windsor Castle after the fire in that year of her annus horribilis, 1992. What amazed me then was the amount of smoking being done in a banqueting hall that had survived the fire. But no one seemed to care because there were ashtrays as well as tiny plates of food and loads of drink and an orchestra on a balcony playing the kind of music that BBC Radio 3 feels like on a Sunday afternoon.
Suddenly, HM herself just seemed to be there, in the midst of us. She was perfectly shaped like some magic granny, full of robustness and no-nonsense.
You are never supposed to speak to the Queen before she speaks to you and, even then, you do not engage in conversation; idle chat; and certainly not ask her a question. In the kind of shindig I was at, it was understood that it was only a matter of time before she came up to you. At royal receptions you are supposed to wait in small packs, tiny conglomerates of the hopeful.
At Prince Charles’ summer garden parties in the grounds of Buckingham Palace, you can always tell if you are going to meet him by the number on your tent. The higher the number the better the chance. The low numbers are simply lucky to be breathing the same air. Charles is very warm. But regal. You are expected to know your place.
The Queen, at Windsor that day of the reception to reopen the castle, carried her trademark handbag on her wrist.
She just walked around. When she finally came to my small grouping, some people curtseyed, others just bowed their heads. I did a quick curtsey. I was taught that in somebody’s house you follow their rules.
The royal family are the last silent movie stars. Most of us will never hear their voices. Yet they are given voice, given emotions and wills and intentions. By us.
I once asked a friend of mine, no monarchist, why the Windsors were so important to the British. I call these type of enquiries: ‘An Immigrant Asks’. He explained that there were always kings and queens on this island, which must mean that royalty is liked. Maybe even desired.
While doing my newspaper review at Windsor that evening back in May this year, I could hear the muffled sound of a party deep within the castle walls. There were voices, too, down on what seemed like some body of water, everyone laughing and calling out in the dark.
The steady beat of pop and hip hop rattled through the old walls. Outside, the television people struggled with camera positions and lights and chairs.
One shot was meant to be on the battlements and, as I climbed the wobbly stone up to position, I thought about the people I had seen during the day.
Earlier on, I had been part of a television comment team, housed in a kind of tower overlooking the road from the chapel where Meghan and Harry were married and which led up to the castle. Before that, I had seen a group of boys from Eton College, dressed in uniform and walking in groups like little ducks. They loved the television equipment.
The people lined on the route waiting for Harry and Meghan to emerge were the ordinary people, the ones formerly known as ‘the plebs’. They are part of the great cultural machinery that keeps royalty alive.
Looking down at them on a perfect and sunny day high up in the makeshift broadcast tower, it looked like a medieval pageant. There were hats and bells and whistles and masks and ‘best wishes’ signs. I realised that this was how some people lived their lives.
The French executed their aristocrats but kept the spirit of them going in the rich. The Paris Commune of 1871 tried briefly to get rid of class itself, but failed. The Russians accomplished it with ruthless and murderous efficiency, but you might say that Putin and his oligarchs have kept the spirit alive.
Of course, the monarchy underpins every institution in this country. Even the Labour Party, whose leader cannot receive sensitive information unless he/she joins the Queen’s Privy Council, thereby becoming the ‘Right Honourable’. You cannot sit in parliament or any number of things unless you take an oath of allegiance ‘to the Queen and her successors’.
There is something funny and strange and cruel about all of this. The monarchy is a rock, with some pretty unsavoury things beneath it. Things like class and privilege. Things like Boris Johnson and Jacob Rees-Mogg. Not royalty. Not even aristocrats. But people who promote themselves as a kind of quasi-royalty. The royalty of the ‘We Know Better’. We are meant to bow down to this in a metaphorical sort of way.
This attitude is deeply embedded in the culture. It goes beyond them and us. It is a cultural trait that carries with it exhaustion, not verve. It is the stance of the spectator; of the one who watches and does not get involved. So it is possible for Johnson to find an outlet for mischief, bile and nonsense. And for Rees-Mogg – as Shakespeare wrote: ‘a poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage… full of sound and fury, signifying nothing’ – to have a voice. A place.
If I think about the royal family at all, I think about my fellow-countrywoman, Meghan, the new Duchess of Sussex. There has never been a Duchess of Sussex before and so, like the professional actor and business person she once was, she should create something memorable out of her new role. Maybe something new for the onlookers. This week she and Prince Harry are making their first official joint trip to Sussex, to Brighton to see the Pavilion. This structure is what is known as a ‘folly’. It was a place of big eating, and ‘r and r’ for George IV, son of the King who lost America.
Now a citizen of that land has joined the family, at a senior level, so, in a sense, things have come full circle. The historic irony of this – some might say revenge – is something I thought about as I made my way up the stone stairs of Windsor Castle on the night of the royal wedding.
I was there, too, at this castle. The family seat. And so was the guy hooking up the lights whose granddad had sold fruit and veg in a market. And the lady powdering my face who had been born in Bangladesh. We were all at the castle. It was just another job.