Saturday, July 23, 2005


whether it be for cutting the ribbon at a new motorway opening, breaking a bottle over the bows at a new submarine naming, or declaring open a new civic building, a royal is still the celeb of choice, and it's hard not to ask - in these enlightened times - why?

we have a new hospital on the edge of town - rather a nicely designed, airy, single-storey building, small (only 36 beds), with a physiotherapy gym, an x-ray department (proudly sporting four rhino pics in the waiting area, incidentally), and a minor injuries unit - whose official opening, last week, is the major item in all of this week's local papers, for no better reason than that it was opened by the Duchess of Gloucester.

who she?

well, she was born simply Birgitte van Deurs in Odense, Denmark, in June 1947, the daughter of a lawyer. after moving to Cambridge, and a period working in the Danish embassy in London, her life took a fairly dramatic turn when she met and subsequently married HRH Prince Richard of Gloucester, the second eldest son of HRH Prince Henry, Duke of Gloucester, whose career as an architect had been curtailed by the death of his older brother, thus bringing him first in line to his father's dukedom, and necessitating his taking upon himself the usual royal burdens of representing his cousin, the Queen, at openings and banquets and such. as the grandson of King George V through his son, Prince Henry, Duke of Gloucester, he became, upon the subsequent death of his father in June 1974, nineteenth in line to the succession (he is currently eighteenth).

'a keen motorist', as they say, Prince Richard is president of the Institute of Advanced Motorists. on December 23rd 2004, however, he kind of blew that by getting banned from driving for six months and fined for speeding, this being his fourth similar offence in three years.

for some reason, whenever there's a royal needed around here, we seem to get one of these two - sometimes both. it's not as if they lived nearby - their official residence is at Kensington Palace and their country seat, Barnwell Manor, is in Northamptonshire. maybe they just like it here. anyway, many of the organisations of which the Duchess is Patron have either medical, educational, or welfare connections, and the Duke is interested in things like architecture and conservation, so between them they seem to be able to cover the more pressing local eventualities. this time, though, she did it solo.

as usual, she arrived by helicopter, which provides, I think, a significant clue as to the royals' enduring popularity. whenever Louis XIV put in a personal appearance at one of the masques he staged at Versailles for which his reign was famous, he made sure the designers had constructed for him something spectacular, like a golden chariot surrounded by clouds, that could be made to descend from the flies in appropriate Sun King mode. this self-appropriation of the ancient Greek theatre device of the deus ex machina was certainly intended, at the time, as a deliberate emphasising of the monarch's divine right to rule. and whereas few, now, would go so far as to maintain that the anointment of a modern monarch at his or her coronation was anything other than a symbolic acknowledgement of the constitutional relationship between church and state, there's clearly a tenacious residue of atavistic association at work across a wide swathe of society that still believes, deep down, that these people - these royals - are gods.

they descend from the heavens, and even C-list examples like this one seem to trigger a kind of cowering reflex, their mere presence transforming otherwise intelligent, coherent professionals into tongue-tied morons who happily suffer the ritual self-abasements - the bows, the curtsies, the fixed smiles, the fish-limp handshakes - and, simpering with pleasure, almost fainting with delight at being permitted to touch this person, engage in the kind of discourse that would discredit the intelligence of a braindead axolotol:

so how long have you been a person in a suit?
for as long as I can remember, ma'am.
how wonderful. and is it thrilling?
awfully, ma'am.
how simply splendid. well done.
thank you, ma'am, thank you.

I exaggerate. I have it on trustworthy authority that, as aristocrats go, they're really rather nice, quite intelligent people, these two, and, for no better reason than that she's a Dane and he's an architect, I'm inclined to believe it, being as irrational in my own Danophilia as I am rational about my republicanism.

perhaps that's the point - that the scorn I profess for those sorts of people who defer to rank for no better reason than its representing a form of social nostalgia - a nod at an older, better time, when everyone 'knew their place' - is a missing of the more important point: that even the most ordered, rational society requires its rituals, its traditions, its ways of marking significant events with something slightly more elevated than a three cheers and a communal toast, and that, despite their history of greed, psychotic acquisitiveness, and inbred psychosis, our beloved royals, who, in reality, owe the cringing respect we bestow on them to nothing more tangible than an accident of birth, seem, by virtue of the sheer historic inertia which they embody, uniquely qualified to fulfill this role - and it is, most literally, a role - better than anyone else.

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