The Trouble with HRH

Christopher Hitchens

  • Princess Margaret: A Biography by Theo Aronson
    O’Mara, 336 pp, £16.99, February 1997, ISBN 1 85479 248 2

Amid all the wretched declension of the British royal family, many people seem willing to suspend their general disapproval, disappointment, boredom, nausea – you name it – in the case of our Sovereign Lady the Queen. Unselfish, dutiful, serious, modest, faithful unto death, she rises above the showbiz values, disco ambitions and petty neuroses of her clan and brood. But does she truly deserve such a dispensation? Monarchs may be able to elude responsibility for many things, but surely the state of the monarchy is not among them. And the Queen made at least two decisions of her own which contributed to the present zoo-like condition of her relatives. The first was her choice of consort: the hawkish and chilly authoritarian who made such a hell of his offspring’s childhood. The second was her resolution, so pious and so carefully meditated, to sacrifice her only sister’s happiness for the greater cause of family values and the high duty of setting an example. This is the House of Windsor, not the House of Atreus (let’s keep our sense of proportion), but still, here if anywhere was its original sin. Does Brenda, even now, look wistfully back on a time when marriage to a divorced war hero was considered the height of scandal and required the officiousness of the aptly-named Cantuar?

I wanted so much to be the first person to write about ‘the Royals’ and not to employ Bagehot’s rotund injunction about the danger of letting in ‘daylight upon magic’. But the damn phrase is inescapable. The fascination of Princess Margaret, I suspect, is that she was the forerunner of the public, vulgar Windsor style: now such a drag but then such a sensation. If you were a commoner of average social mobility in London in the Sixties, Seventies and Eighties, there was a better than average chance that you would have met her in some club or at some party, or even on the pavement outside. Martin Amis remembers her showing up at the end of a dinner, on the arm of Nicholas Soames, and seating herself at the piano to sing ‘My Old Man’s a Dustman’ (to which, of course, the only answer was ‘no he ain’t’). Two members of the New Left Review editorial board, known to me, were confronted by her at some do or another. It was the fashion in those days to address everybody as ‘man’, and they concluded later that HRH hadn’t objected to this informality because she thought they were saying ‘Ma’am’. I myself cannoned into her, flesh-tinted and well into the gin (her, I mean), as I entered a cocktail party. She was unescorted, and seized on me as a new arrival. ‘Know anything about china?’ she demanded. I truly did not know whether she meant porcelain or the Middle Kingdom, and was very grateful for whatever rescue eventuated. There she was, I mean to say, going around the place letting in daylight on magic like billy-oh. In those pre-Tampax, pre-Squidgy, pre-bulimic days there was an element of antic subversion involved, as well as some unhappiness and boredom and, one suspects, a teeny tincture of the vengeful.

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