It may be that by the time this issue of the LRB is published, the monarchy-obliterating secret that lurks on Fleet St will have been revealed and the last of the Windsors will be preparing for exile in Bermuda, or some other far-flung corner of their former realm: Port Stanley, say, or Balmoral. Paul Burrell will have packed their bags for them one last time. The ‘irony’ of which, as Burrell would say (the only words that he misuses more often are ‘surreal’ and ‘enormity’), is that he’s a die-hard monarchist, as he reveals in his memoir, A Royal Duty (Michael Joseph, £17.99), a book at once agonisingly boring and shamefully fascinating. Much the most interesting bits are the insights into such things as what the Queen has (or used to have) for breakfast: ‘one slice of granary toast, a smear of butter and a thin layer of dark, chunky marmalade’, since you ask. She enters her dining-room every morning prompt at nine o’clock, ‘carrying her old-fashioned Roberts radio tuned permanently to BBC Radio 2’. One of her two personal footmen (Burrell, from April 1978 to August 1987) butters the toast, but she makes her own Earl Grey tea, in a silver teapot, with water boiled in an electric kettle. I was rather impressed by her mucking in like this, until I learned (not from Burrell) that it’s one of the many royal traditions started by George III. Shortly before one o’clock, she ‘often made herself a large glass of her favourite pre-luncheon tipple, gin and Dubonnet, in equal half measures, with two lumps of ice and a slice of lemon’. I don’t suppose this practice originated with George III, but you never know. Burrell once entered the royal sitting-room, ‘late at night, not long before bedtime, and there she sat, in a smart silk dress in her chair at the desk near the window. She was wearing the Imperial State Crown. And her pink mule slippers.’ She wasn’t revelling in being Queen just for the hell of it, but getting accustomed to the weight of the crown for the State Opening of Parliament the next day: at least, that’s what she told Burrell.
After he’d left Buckingham Palace to work for the Prince and Princess of Wales, the Queen rang Highgrove one day to speak to her son, as mothers do. The butler, as butlers do, answered the phone. ‘Hello Paul,’ she said. ‘Good morning, Your Majesty,’ he replied, before launching into a series of questions about the state of the Queen’s health and how the corgis were, remembering no doubt the many happy hours that he and the Queen had spent together on their hands and knees, feeding the dogs their cough medicine. ‘Is His Royal Highness there?’ she interrupted. Burrell realised he ‘had obviously talked too long’. He persists, however, in the belief that he and the Queen had a special, personal relationship, when it’s pretty evident, from his own account, that his ardent feelings for her weren’t entirely reciprocated. Burrell has a thing for women in positions of authority, and not just the Queen and Diana. Mrs Justice Rafferty, who presided over his trial, fascinated him, too: she was ‘the image of elegance’, ‘far too glamorous to be a judge’.
The heir to the throne leaves memos rather than talking to his staff in person, asking them to do things such as rummage through his wastepaper basket for a mislaid letter from the Queen. He has a special silver device, like a small sardine-key, for squeezing out his toothpaste. Whether Charles squeezes it out himself, or gets his valet to do it for him, Burrell doesn’t say. Once, at Balmoral, when Burrell was still a footman, Charles ‘stood in the hall and shouted for assistance’. Burrell came running, to see ‘two giant salmon’ at the Prince’s feet, which he was instructed to take to the kitchen. He didn’t know how to pick them up. ‘Prince Charles watched me juggling pathetically with them. “Oh, come here!” he said impatiently. “Don’t mess around. Look.” He took one of my hands, and pushed two of my fingers deep into its gills. I thought I was going to pass out.’
If Charles is more comfortable handling cold fish, Diana couldn’t have been snugglier with her devoted butler. Maybe they were close friends; maybe she was needy and manipulative; maybe it was a bit of both. She wasn’t shy of reminding him who was boss (he calls her ‘the Boss’). There’s a revealing story about going to see Don Quixote at the Royal Opera House. Burrell hadn’t been to the ballet before. When, back at the palace, Diana asked his opinion, he told her he thought it was amazing, then asked her what she thought. ‘“Rubbish,” she said, and burst out laughing when she saw the surprise on my face.’ Not that he seems to mind.
Waiting for the lift at Russell Square Tube station, as I read Burrell’s not quite breathtaking account of how he contemplated suicide in a lay-by off the A41, the woman standing next to me asked, in an accusing tone: ‘Is that really worth the read?’ I said that, surprisingly, it was, but added, like a coward, that I hadn’t paid for the book. ‘Nothing wrong with a bit of gossip,’ she said. ‘As long as it’s harmless.’ Over the last decade or so, the monarchy has been thought to be in danger on a number of occasions: the events that constituted the Queen’s annus horribilis, the death of Diana, Burrell’s trial, Burrell’s book, and now the allegations that the Mail on Sunday wasn’t allowed to print, which are this evening (6 November) being denied by the Prince of Wales. But it’s not at all clear that the institution stands or falls according to the activities of its incumbents. Just because Paul Burrell can’t distinguish the monarchy from the Windsors doesn’t mean everyone else has to make the same mistake: the case for republicanism doesn’t depend on the bad behaviour of members of the royal family. Their antics are a distraction from the larger questions – but no less enthralling for that.