The Palace Papers 
by Tina Brown.
Century, 571 pp., £20, April, 978 1 5291 2470 5
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Listen to Jonathan Meades introduce and read this piece on the LRB Podcast

Asneaked photograph​ from the earliest years of this century shows the teenage prodigy Wayne Rooney leading his parents out of the sea on a Mexican beach. They are about to move into an unknown world, where they will, all three, lurch from idolisation to easy prey, from objects of pity to mean-spirited envy – the adolescent has a gift, the elders have his blood. Their fate is in their veins. In the eyes of the mob, the gutter press, the green-ink subscribers to Hatebook and the spite chorus that dances on reputation, they will soon be reckoned fair game: one false move, one barney in a Croxteth pub, one liaison with a granny of the night. These creatures irresistibly recall another unusual family whose every move is in someone’s long lens and for whom blood is everything: the Windsors, aka the Firm. Tina Brown, a smart ethnographer bearing a scalpel, engages with this dispiriting bunch as though they, like the Rooneys of that photograph, have yet to evolve.

The slice of world that is vouchsafed to the queen and her many dependants, to whom she doles out annual performance-related pocket money, is skew, widdershins, fighting time – as they stride confidently into the past weighed down by gongs that are no more than decorative. They greet yesterday with sashes and oriflammes, speaking in stiff anachronistic formulae standardised many years ago by the queen mother, the nation’s favourite charlady – a grasping charlady with a £4 million overdraft who believed she should be exempted from income tax, and who owned numerous racehorses and five or six cars with what Cecil Parkinson called ‘cherished number plates’. The milieu of the Firm, a name that unhappily suggests a cadre of tunbellied enforcers, is far away from what its subjects, who are determinedly not citizens, see and know.

What the Firm glimpses outside its many compounds, palaces and shooting lodges is partial, specific to it. An endless parade of folksy performances and tableaux vivants that might have been devised by National Geographic in the 1950s misrepresents the realm. These presumptuous enactments are at several removes from ‘reality’. Mute answers to the chronic questions ‘Are you based here?’ and ‘Did you come far?’ do not illumine their nation, at whose tip, according to the absurd blood myth and liege guff, they stand. Their nation, of whose actuality they seem to possess only the frailest knowledge: Prince Charles, already well into middle age, was surprised to learn from a bibliomane that Charing Cross Road had once been the centre of the London book trade. He is constantly bemused by farmers using pesticides.

What they do feel they know is that their subjects – the industrially injured with callouses like king-size buboes, the salt of the earth and their pneumoconiosis, the proud forklift drivers and the loyal company of chamfering machine operators – are pleased to stand to deferential attention for hours no matter what the weather and are proud to be just about decipherable in the blurred background of a majesty-mayoral-chain-lord-lieutenant-town-crier framed photo on a mantlepiece of honour in a spit and polish house just like all the houses of the house-proud little people they’ve ever seen. They know the scent of fresh paint, of just-crimped lawns, beeswax, Cardinal Red doorsteps. They are familiar with the lumbar groan of an ancient loyalist curtsying (they make skivs of us all). They recognise the swoon in a fawner’s eye, the brisk music of a colour sergeant’s bark. They are touched by the public’s fondness for plastic union flags in the drizzle. They believe that when it comes to Maundy alms, it’s the thought that counts. They appreciate the fealty of those maimed in the sovereign’s name who dutifully strive to give great forelock even if the stump can’t reach the hairline.

They are dazzled by the gleam of virgin sanitaryware. Immaculacy is more than fetishised – it is sanctified. It is the obligatory condition of the sovereign or the sovereign’s mother, the heir to the Virgin Mary, the carpenter’s wife cuckolded by God. The Annunciation according to the gleeful G.G. Belli:

Mary, eating soup for lunch, was still a virgin – just.
Gabriel, an angel, hurled by god, like a bolt, broke
through a window: these are the words he spoke
to her: ‘You’re up the duff. In the club. You really must
believe me. I’m here on God’s say so. He’s the dad.’

Even though this is ‘blasphemous’ it both miraculises that birth, and renders it rudely human: the screams, the blood, the placenta.

The subsequent birth of a sibling is human tout court. No miracle. The unfortunate is known as the ‘spare’, the next in line whose likely lot is to watch for ever from the bench, unless the heir fails in his reproductive mission or acquires a twice-divorced American. The Princess of All Our Hearts would never have attained that title had she not ‘preserved’ herself as the bespoke receptacle. With a euphemism to make the sentient wince this prospective victim of an arranged marriage spoke of having ‘to keep myself very tidy’ until, evidently, her prince came along. Here’s another privately educated euphemism, found in the Spectator, this time referring to the former Kate Middleton: ‘She may still have her V-plates intact … the age-old requisite for future queen consorts.’ The equation of young women and toilets is gross and the far side of misogyny but it’s only to be expected in a tampophiliac family with a fondness for ‘robust’ wardroom language, a capacious repository of bodily fluid gags and lavatory jokes, and a subscription to a prurient polarity – virgins or whores.

Fair enough: the defenders of the faith need some respite from maintaining the laws of God, the true profession of the Gospel and the Protestant reformed religion established by law. God, then, returns the favour by being on hand to bless or chide when a decision is being made about the suitability of this or that late adolescent broodmare to be covered and bear the mystically endowed child. And if God isn’t decisive enough then the Firm will also call on haematologists and award-winning gynaecologists. These days, members may marry out but only slightly out, and in the prescribed direction. Although Meghan Markle is often on the point of entering the lists she does not yet appear to be regarded as a mistake of the calibre of Sarah Ferguson and Diana Spencer.

The latter prompts Tina Brown to remark: ‘What a pity that the queen, so gifted at reading the bloodlines of horses, misread so profoundly the Spencers’ suitability to join with royal stock. Yes, in terms of pedigree, they were flawless.’ Ah, the paramountcy of stock! The glamour of pedigree! The duff studbook that the queen consulted might as well have addressed selection through phrenology, the sort of science the superstitious, gullible Firm have faith in. One problem, which the Sunday eugenicist Keith Joseph would readily have identified, was that many young, ill-educated women were breeding indiscriminately, so ‘weakening the race’. This was not restricted to sump-estate CDs with Croydon facelifts; it equally affected the ill-educated from aristocratic or at least AB backgrounds. A second problem – blithely unrecognised by the Palace, which may have callously reckoned she had served her purpose, hence the tardiness of its response to her death – was that Diana had become, inconveniently, more than a pliant vessel, more than a machine for producing an heir. She was glamorous, famous and wilful. She was neon when the rest of the Firm was a fifteen-watt bulb. Peter Mandelson told Charles that he was reckoned ‘glum and dispirited’. If only the studbook had gone beyond genealogy and had recorded the malicious speculation, ruthless jockeying for favour and backstabbing that pervades the Palace.

From the Firm’s most entitled familiars down to its ‘high-born’ nabobs and sycophants in waiting, all the way down indeed to its ill-paid secretaries and resentful menials: everyone seems willing to ‘reveal’ the family secrets to Brown. Bullying, cruel sackings, evictions from grace and favour houses, cousins buried in psychiatric hospitals, Tupperware at dawn, adult princes with a nocturnal dependency on teddy bears, younger princes who were the very incarnation of the princes in the Tower though they avoided the smothering pillow. Stories, too, of the Parker Bowles family – providers of sexual services to the Crown. Brown tells Andrew Parker Bowles that she doesn’t hunt and doesn’t fish: ‘“Real intellectual, are you?” he said with a slight patrician sneer.’ One minute he’s watching racing on the telly with the queen, the next he’s charvering his way through London’s upper-class totty, including Princess Anne: when did this vigorous brigadier find time to get his soldiering done? Meanwhile, in front of him at a dinner, his wife is groin-grinding with the heir to the throne – which shocks Lord Soames’s staff in Southern Rhodesia (or, as officials called it, Bongo Bongo Land). Brown supplies a useful guide to the conventions of aristocratic and triple-barrelled adultery.

The Palace’s employees will compete to sell unsubstantiated calumnies to anyone. Mainly, of course, to the tabloids and the mob’s blogs, to such emperors of the moralistic gutter as Murdoch, Dacre, his loyal valet Stephen Glover and the blowsy fishwife Piers Morgan, with their prying snout for dirty laundry and ear for intercepts they know nothing about. As Vanbrugh had it, ‘they have too much zeal to have any charity; they make debauches in piety as sinners do in wine.’ These base people, remarkably without a single criminal conviction between them, are involved, as Brown says, in ‘a race to the bottom driven by ever-receding profitability’. The Nazi politician Robert Ley said that ‘there is no longer such a thing as a private individual.’ Half a century after Ley’s suicide at Nuremberg, Morgan, as editor of the News of the World, ensured that this was the case in Britain. Every parasite has its parasite. Every grass has its grass. They take their cue from the top, where casual callousness is a weapon, a hatpin through the brain. Profits may recede but the world’s delectation of rich royal swill remains undiminished. Old trash, new media. There is no politician in the UK who would dare offend the sensitivities of the tabloids. In America, as Brown points out, ‘no president … except Donald Trump … would grant access to the editor of the National Enquirer.’

The Blair/Campbell secular benediction ‘the People’s Princess’ was surprisingly more than a slogan: Diana pre-empted the media, the conduit to the people. She got over being described as a Pinner hairdresser, just as Kate Middleton had to put up with some crass digs about her taste in interiors being ‘very Buckinghamshire’ and her mother’s alleged failure to adhere to Alan Ross’s snobs’ charter on U and non-U. The Middletons have been further mocked for having commissioned a coat of arms. Certain patterns of behaviour recur. With a sure populist instinct Diana gave the people what she wanted to give them in controlled doses, achieving a sort of privacy that wasn’t notably private. She was manipulative, adroit and impressively active in determining how she was to be perceived. She got her retaliation in first. She taunted her putative tormentors. She used them to her advantage, whatever that was. It might be seeing off the rugby player Will Carling, a lover she was bored by. Carling’s friend Gary Lineker warned him: ‘That woman is trouble.’ The element of play in her dealings was perhaps an end in itself. She appreciated her power. She outmanoeuvred Charles – who, as Brown puts it, ‘spun furiously; he was just less good at it.’

The frail truce with the press which Diana achieved has not endured. The game she devised was peculiar to her. The editors she flattered and wooed were left bereft. The current kettle of circling guessworkers, soi-disant royal experts, remain the Firm’s antagonists. The family is regarded as no more or less than a quaint tribe, a target, a purposeless cultish minority that loudly advertises its exceptionalism. Prince Andrew, as ‘international trade ambassador’, complained, at a Jeffrey Epstein party of all places: ‘I don’t know why people don’t pay us royals more respect.’ Brown ascribes this boorish clot’s problems to the Dunning-Kruger effect: people believe they are smarter and more capable than they really are. The Duke of York may not be the only member of the Firm to suffer from this syndrome. The proposition that the queen is the personification of the nation is laughable: it depends on a belief in the sacralisation of an immensely wealthy human whose long life has been devoted to being rather than doing: ‘I have to be seen to be believed.’ She has to be seen, too, ‘not only for the monarchy’s enhancement, but for its survival’. The volume of the Firm’s special pleading and entitled clamour is in inverse proportion to its usefulness. Even though it is constitutionally permitted to do so, it doesn’t dare try to rid itself and its country of a squalid braggart of a prime minister, despite the fact that he lies to the queen, probably harbours ambitions for her crown and comes fully equipped with a ready-made, impatiently waiting court of heirs, cousins and nephews – the personae of a dynasty.

Tina Brown​ left England for New York nearly forty years ago, in 1983, more than a decade before Diana’s death – before even the launch of the UK version of Hello, which set new standards in vacuous sycophancy and ‘informed’ gossip. In those days Northampton was apparently in the North, and Milton Keynes was a bastion of Middle England. The Firm was yet to be struck by emotional incontinence and an embarrassing appetite for candid outpouring. No one yet needed to tell them to keep their traps shut. Brown’s faintly proprietorial assertion, directed at Meghan Markle, that ‘no one is a bigger brand than the Firm’ might have been on the money back then, though it wouldn’t have been expressed in that way: the word ‘brand’ was applied to chocolates, dog food and toothpaste. Brown is astute and beady-eyed but her focus is concentrated on the Firm, her range straitened. She doesn’t underestimate the extent to which ‘caustic’ Britain has changed in her absence. Nor does she underestimate the extent to which she has been changed by New York. Yet she writes of the 2012 Olympics: ‘For the first time since the height of empire, Britain’s capital felt truly global, the culturally effervescent magnet of Europe with the financial buzz of New York City.’ This PR guff precedes a weird shop-soiled account of the actuality of that period: the 2011 riots (and Charles’s laudable determination that something must be done – by him), Cameron’s ineptitude, Clegg’s treachery, the loutish mayor of London’s purchase of water cannons without the home secretary’s say-so, the regeneration of areas through galleries, restaurants and fashion outlets (usually chimerical).

Brown does not look far beyond the lifers in their pinchbeck cage and the sordid galère of dependent hangers-on staring through the bars: secular confessors, commentators, scriptwriters, ‘insiders’, ‘historians’, informal advisers, scum-of-the-earth journalists whose expertise is in stalking and having astonishingly dodgy friends. It appears that the Firm suffers a collective gullibility and heightened enthusiasm for flattery and bungs, no matter what the source. Toadying has been democratised. Sir Jimmy Savile, knighted for services to necrophilia, ingratiated himself with Prince Charles by preparing a guide on how the Firm should react to disasters: the fireman was a pyromaniac. Charles, a repository of worthy wrong-headed convictions, believed that Savile ‘knows what’s going on’ – which is one way of putting it. The Prince’s Trust accepts gifts from philanthropists desirous of a gong, no matter that the philanthropist’s gofer may make threatening phone calls to former female MPs. The Tory Party – whose current co-chair, Ben Elliot, is Charles’s nephew by marriage – is similarly responsive to gifts. Cosy. A riled former secretary-general of the Commonwealth, Don McKinnon, wondered why Charles preferred to meet ‘dictators and not democratically elected leaders’.

Ghislaine Maxwell, plausibly the victim of Captain Bob’s incest, famously introduced lo-sweat Prince Andrew and his party hands to some similarly abused young friends. According to his problematic ex-wife, Sarah Ferguson, he is ‘a giant … that dares to put his shoulder to the wind and stands firm with his sense of honour and truth’. This is baloney of the order once spoken by the mendacious Jonathan Aitken. Rolf Harris, an ignorant nation’s best-known painter, soon to become the people’s paedophile, was commissioned by the BBC to make a Bayswater Road portrait of the queen for her eightieth birthday. Lucian Freud’s 2001 portrait is, on the other hand, simply a splodgy act of lèse-majesté. Over the past forty years the House of Windsor has made questionable attempts to proletarianise itself. Much of the best work has obviously been done by the free-falling, downwardly mobile Prince Andrew.

Even without him the family no longer holds an unrivalled position of paramountcy in the perilous society of influencers, pop musicians, ambassadors for tequila, ‘philanthropists’, light entertainers and, in an exciting recent development, hereditary celebrities from football, ‘reality’ TV and talent contests. The Rooneys have evolved. They have adapted. So too have the Beckhams, the Kardashians, the Jenners, the Hiltons, the Vardys, the Richies, the Osbournes, the Winklemans and countless mini-dynasties of similar eminence. The bloodline is as vital as the Windsors’. A bereavement of self-knowledge is also useful. They are hardly aware of their ephemerality till everything turns to dust. That’s a relief the Firm can’t share – even in Californian exile they will never escape the fate they were born to. Dramatic irony is the common humour and the bond of the new sleb class. A routine dinner discussion of the merits of botox/balayage/Bollinger/Bandit vodka may last for hours. Louis-the-Decorator-Back-from-Miami is the favoured ornamental mode of their comical ‘mansions’. The slebs don’t incur the mob’s resentment because they aren’t supported by the little people’s taxes.

Who advises (or orders) Kate Middleton to dress like a Women’s Institute frump? The Firm is not much more than a sideshow in this harsh milieu. They are not street fighters. They lack the nous and low cunning of Diana and our new slebs, quick learners all. It’s their world now: bling, glitz, flash. The Palace press officers and advisers are recruited from a tiny segment of society. They are out of their depth. The prurient, hypocritical red-top mentality leaves them incredulous and perplexed. They would rather not touch. When they do touch they find they are tiny pions in the dripping maw of cannibalistic brutes.

Brown’s excoriation of most of the British press is often exhilarating. No doubt Murdoch’s treatment of her husband, Harry Evans, axed from the Times, was at the front of her mind. Even without that spur the verdict of guilty of just about everything would have been returned. Yet without a reliance on the press’s archive this would be a thinner book. Brown successfully excepts herself from the crowd: she is not just a strawberry blonde but a vivacious strawberry blonde. She makes it very clear that she belongs to a higher form of life than the royal expert: her immodesty is entirely justified. Her prose is glossy and slick, her wit is deft, she allows her subjects to stitch themselves up with their own pomposity. The Firm is sui generis. It is so odd that journalistic realism and reportorial precision can’t hope to represent it. The TV series The Crown is similarly handicapped. It provides a stage for some fine actors – Emma Corrin, Pip Torrens, Alex Jennings, Claire Foy – but it pretends to actuality. It doesn’t admit to being speculative. Its distortion dissembles itself.

The sitcom The Windsors is much more the ticket. It’s a cartoon. So for that matter are Craig Brown’s savagely insolent study of Princess Margaret, Ma’am Darling, and 101 Things You Didn’t Know about the Royal Lovebirds by Talbot Church, ‘the Man the Royals Trust’ (an alias of the late Willie Donaldson).* Gross exaggeration, magnification, absurdity, grotesquerie, a willingness to give offence, a taste for abuse and joyous ridicule: these are the modes most capable of capturing the brazenly bizarre opera buffa that keeps delivering.

As well as Epstein and Maxwell it can offer such bit players as John Bryan; Steve Wyatt, ‘a hunky Texan oilman’, and his biological father, Bobby Lipman (who killed a young woman while tripping); Ruth, Lady Fermoy; Major Ron Ferguson’s loyalty to the Wigmore Club (a massage parlour); the queen mother’s lodged fishbone; James Hewitt; Kate’s wife-attacking Uncle Gary; Beatrice and Eugenie and their fascinators; Charles’s ex, Whiplash Wallace; William’s nightclub-owning friend, Guy Pelly; Pippa Middleton; Peter Ball, the kiddy-fiddling bishop of Gloucester (played, in a brilliantly creepy performance of self-righteousness, by Donald Sumpter in the TV show Exposed); Ashley Cole and his unusual billets-doux; James Middleton’s dog-inspired mantra; Edward’s Ardent Productions; Tom Markle; Meghan Markle … and so many more besides. The Firm makes its own bad luck. It’s as accident-prone as the Kennedys. But not quite as royal.

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Vol. 44 No. 12 · 23 June 2022

Canada may have an answer to the question that Jonathan Meades doesn’t ask: what next for the monarchy? (LRB, 9 June). Canada’s solution is the Crown without a monarch. We have been fashioning a Canadian Crown since the days of New France under the sometimes watchful, more often distracted eye of absentee monarchs both French and British. All manner of Canadian ‘Crown institutions’ – government, legal, judicial, cultural, social, even sporting – have been developed. The governor-general is the ‘queen’s representative’, but is in practice the head of state. Appointed every five years, the governor-general is the representative both of the Crown and of the diversity of the Canadian population. No dynasties there; no Firm in formation. Moreover, given our federal system of government and the presence of lieutenant-governors in each of our provinces and territories, we are already well versed in divided sovereignty. Take out the monarch, and our parliamentary democracy would stay essentially the same; the result would be a typically Canadian middle way between monarchy and republic, neither of which has much to say for itself these days.

Susan Mann

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