Monday, June 25, 2012

Something New

We feature each week Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books

“OUR QUEEN” by Robert Hardman (Arrow Books/Random House, $NZ 29:99)
            No, I have not had a nervous breakdown and gone soft in the head, although you may think so when you note that this week’s “Something New” is a worshipful book about the Queen written by the populist-conservative Daily Mail’s chief royal watcher.

            Our Queen – first published last year and now “updated” with new material for the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee - is the work of Robert Hardman, who has made his career scripting television documentaries and writing regular columns about royalty. It is a book of what I would call the higher fandom. Publicity material gushes that it “contains the first author interview with the Duke of Cambridge” [i.e. Wills]. Surely this is material for the blue rinse set and readers of the Women’s Weekly and New Idea rather than for this respectable blog? The impression is reinforced by the bright royal publicity photos that accompany the text.

            My purpose is simple, though. Given that this is 354 pages of detailed, sourced and well-indexed prose, I wanted to see how good a case it could make for the monarchy and whether there is anything here that would modify my own views on the matter.
            Let’s call reading Our Queen an experiment.

            Hardman has not written a biography or a book arranged in chronological order. His technique is to take various typical events in the Queen’s regular routine and build chapters around them to illustrate what the Queen’s duties are and how they (and perceptions of her) have changed over sixty years.

            Nearly all chapters have titles beginning with the word “Her”.

            Chapter 4, “Her People”, is typical of Hardman’s approach. He begins with a particular event (in this case the state visit to the Queen by President Zuma of South Africa) and uses it as the occasion to talk about the royal household and how it is run. Thus there are details on household protocols, the ranks of servants, how the kitchens are run at Windsor and Buckingham Palace, and so forth. I was interested to note from Hardman’s account that HM’s chefs are now all British (for a couple of centuries they were mainly French) but the dishes they serve still have French names, maybe a compliment to a nation with a better culinary tradition. I was also amused at the way Hardman is at pains to point out (truthfully enough) that the Queen is not responsible for who her house guests are. She has had to play host to dictators and other dodgy characters in her time.

            Her recorded royal reaction to the genocidal Mobutu of Zaire is particularly amusing:

             Mobutu’s penchant for… executing  his opponents in front of large crowds must have made the small talk challenging. But what made the queen angrier than some had ever seen her was learning that Mrs Mobutu had smuggled a small dog through customs. Worse, Mrs Mobutu was ordering it steak through the royal kitchens.” (Pg.137)

            Clearly the Queen is a woman with well-ordered priorities.

            The proprietary nature of that possessive pronoun “Her” really irritates me in  Chapter 5, “Her Politicians”. Surely politicians are the people we elect and (disappointing though they often are) they represent us more than they do her. But then this is the chapter on the constitutional order, and how a constitutional monarchy functions. Everybody from HM’s Private Secretary to past and present British (David Cameron, Tony Blair) and Commonwealth prime ministers give the Queen positive references for her assiduous work and clear knowledge of how things are run in each dominion. Hardman had access to them.

            The chapter that should have been the most sociologically interesting is  “Her Image”. After all, image is what counts for most in a system based on mystique. But Hardman, for all his detail, doesn’t get much beyond saying how much royalty has modernised, become accessible and has the common touch. It is quite unlike the days when nobody but the titled got beyond the palace gates and journalists were banned if they published even the mildest of criticisms.

            What Hardman does not tackle is the devaluation of the royal image in an age when royalty’s natural home is the gossip column and the women’s magazine. Royal British personages are now, in effect, part of the same “cast of characters” as movie and soap-opera stars. Hardman’s observations on royalty’s changed image are true as far as they go, but fail to analyse the context in which royalty exists. Hardman does honestly admit, however, that British royalty is more the obsession of a few English-speaking countries than of anywhere else. Apparently when an official royal website was set up, it attracted mainly English and American visitors, with little interest shown by people of other nations.

            It is the author’s asides that most show his true colours. He excoriates all those horrible people who criticised HM for not paying taxes, arguing that she inherited a financial system and didn’t create it. Dutifully he expresses complete embarrassment over the asinine attempts of younger member of the royal family to be popular in the 1980s. (Remember the awful episode of It’s a Royal Knockout?) Dutifully he passes over in silence the three-in-a-bed nature of the first marriage of Charles, future Supreme Governor of the Church of England. He takes HM’s part in all matters pertaining to Lady Di, basically depicting dippy Di as a troublesome person who somehow managed to trump the Queen’s own PR machine.

            This is a book determined to present the Queen and her immediate brood in the best possible light. In this respect, the single most woeful chapter is ”Her Strength and Stay” where we’re told what a sterling chap the Duke of Edinburgh is and how unfair it is that he’s known too much for his gaffes. Philip’s worst gaffes are, of course, not mentioned.

            I am not pretending that I am surprised by any of this. The introduction alerted me to some obvious biases. Quotations from the introduction include:

            Only one other monarch [Queen Victoria] has marked sixty years on the throne” (Pg.2) [This is true only if you ignore the fact that the loony King George III was just a few months shy of 60 years on the throne when he died.]

            Having inherited an Edwardian… institution in 1952, she has not merely kept it going. She has put it through the most vigorous reforms of modern times.” (Pg.11). [Really? Did she really put it through these changes or were they proposed by others and imposed upon her?]

            It is her devotion to the Church of England which endears her to so many of Britain’s minority faiths as they, like her, deal with an increasingly secular world” (Pg.14) [Hmmm. Given that actively-practising Anglicans now make up only a minority of actively-practising Christians in England itself – let alone the rest of Britain – I wonder what many British Catholics, Presbyterians and others would have to say about this. Not to mention British Jews, Muslims etc.]

            The introduction also includes a standard, many-question-begging royalist argument when it contrasts Watergate with the scandal over British MPs’ expenses. With approval, it quotes Stephen Jay: “We can have a terrible political scandal but not end up despising the state because it’s the monarchy, not the government, which links nation and state.” (Pg.18). I would counter-argue that the illusion of monarchical stability in such cases makes the British public too accepting and non-critical of the deficiencies of their state. They are infantilised and don’t kick up the stink they should.

            As I read Our Queen, I was naturally on the lookout for any references to New Zealand. Whether I like it or not, the Queen is officially New Zealand’s Head of State, and many of the negative things I think about monarchy have to do with this fact.

            A couple of hundred people are thanked in Hardman’s opening acknowledgements, in which the author remarks “No study of any constitutional monarch would be complete without recourse to that monarch’s prime ministers.” He thanks the British ones who granted him interviews, then adds “I would like to thank in particular John Key, Prime Minister of New Zealand, and Malcolm Fraser, former Prime Minister of Australia, for their time in relation to this book.” [Does this mean the Daily Mail’s man isn’t as happy interviewing non-Tory Commonwealth MPs, or wouldn’t they speak to him?]

            We are told (Pg.164) that Westminster studies New Zealand’s manual on what to do if there is a hung parliament. We are also informed that “in 2002, the then New Zealand premier Helen Clark turned up for a state banquet in a trouser suit. The queen, dressed in ball gown and tiara, merely stared and said nothing.” (Pg.167)

            The second-to-last chapter, “Heads and Tails”, weighs up the Queen’s reputation in the Commonwealth and mentions republican feeling in Australia and New Zealand. Hardman is honest enough to admit that the notorious 1999 Australian referendum on a republic was rigged by John Howard’s conservative government. It proposed as the only alternative to the status quo a republican system with the president appointed by politicians. Nobody – including republicans - wanted this system and it was duly defeated. What was really interesting was how strong the republican vote still was. When he turns to New Zealand, Hardman leans heavily on what John Key told him, and gives a sunny PR account of Prince William’s visit after the Christchurch earthquakes.

            How do I sum up Our Queen?

            This is the book of a privileged (almost “embedded”) journalist who has been allowed access to leading palace and political figures (not HM herself, of course) and who has interviewed them. He believes what they say. The book amounts to a series of references for the Queen, interspersed with Hardman’s editorialising. The image presented is of the Queen as a dutiful, hardworking, dedicated person who faces a formidable round of appointments every year, who has the best interests of her people at heart, and who has worked hard to modernize the monarchy while avoiding the type of populist vulgarity to which some of her offspring have stooped.

            I’m not being contradictory when I say that I can accept this portrait. I am sure that Lizzie Windsor herself is a very pleasant and sincere person. But – as royalists have to be reminded – this is not the issue. The issue is whether an hereditary, non-elected person should really be the head of anybody’s state.

            I’m not being nasty to a nice old lady when I say that, even after reading this book, I still don’t think so.

1 comment:

  1. The Jubilee celebrations were an opportunity for many commentators to speak their minds about the monarchy and I found the most interesting to be those which contrasted the assets, lifestyles and privileges of the royals with the average Briton. Not surprisingly, some followed this line: 'How come you live in 7 huge houses while people in your own country cannot feed their families or heat their homes?'
    David Hare (himself a recipient of the Queen's honours) took a less predictable line and, as a dramatist, focused on the fact that since the Theatre Act of 1968, it has been legal to impersonate Her Majesty. This led him to the observation that eminent actors who have played her (Prunella Scales, Helen Mirren) have succeeded because Elizabeth is herself a very competent and experienced actress. He identifies the primary feature of this role being silence. Reading our head of state with a stage director's eye, Hare then gives an insight into her attitude to Cameron and Co by way of her contemptuous and 'unelected' glare - that she agrees with the public at large that Blighty could do without this currently-elected crop of spivs in suits. Though her own lifestyle and assets remain unaffected by the shameless profiteers in the City of London, it seems that she sympathises with their millions of victims.
    But given the fact that, as Hardman says, her role requires her to be dutiful and hardworking, one wonders whether, given the crap weather in the British isles, she's ever considered emigrating. The Gold Coast would be nice.