Saturday, 15 September 2012

Royal Indifference

On 31 August 1997, we were staying at my mother-in-law’s house in a little village in upper Alsace, France. 

I stress ‘France’ because of the widespread confusion over whether Alsace is in Germany, a confusion the Germans spectacularly shared on three occasions between 1870 and 1945.

Friends of ours from England were staying in a hotel nearby and joined us for breakfast. Their first words as they came in were ‘do you know about Princess Di?’

We hadn’t heard about her death in a car crash that morning.

In a matter of instants I travelled from incredulity to grief. And that grief led me straight back to incredulity. Why on earth was I so upset?

After all, not a week earlier we had been royally dismissing her highness. She’d been on holiday in a seaside villa where she had complained vociferously about being photographed from boats on the bay and had then chosen to sunbathe on the roof of the house, in about as perfect a position for the photographers as any imaginable.

It seemed an odd way to avoid publicity.

And yet I mourned her death. As did most of my countrymen, though some went a lot further in their grief than I was prepared to follow them.

I never went down to St James’s House to lay flowers. I really couldn’t work up any enthusiasm over whether the Queen had flown a flag at half mast or not. I couldn’t get passionate about Tony Blair’s intense reaction to the event, which I assumed had owed a great deal to perceived electoral advantage anyway.

A sea of flowers in the ocean of grief for Diana's death

Even so, I'd joined many of my countrymen on the roller-coaster ride from disdain to despair, by which we had illustrated, as if illustration were needed, that the opposite of love isn’t hatred but indifference. Clearly, though I had thought myself indifferent to the royal family (a bunch of polo-playing jet setters: how could they possibly speak for me?), I had been less indifferent than I hoped. 

I was apparently caught up in that bizarre love-hate affair between the British people and the royal family that shows no sign of dying down to this day. The Queen’s Jubilee, her cameo performance at the Olympic opening ceremony, stoked the love; but it takes only the slightest provocation to bring out all the worst in prurient spite again, as we’ve seen in the publication of the nude pictures of Prince Harry and now the topless photos of Kate, Duchess of Cambridge.

Ironic that we should have a row over Kates breasts just days after the relaunch of the campaign to stop the Sun newspapers topless page 3 girls.

I seem to have made a little progress since 1997. Had they not been reproduced in a mass-circulation tabloid on sale on every street corner, I would have seen none of the photos of Harry; at least, I didn’t go looking for any.

Similarly, it was a relief to discover that I not only avoided googling Kate’s breasts, I didn’t even have to resist a temptation to do so. I found it more interesting to read about the murder of the US ambassador in Libya which struck me as potentially more significant in our lives. After all, the Kate business had generated vitriol, but Libya produces oil.

Perhaps I’m learning a little of the indifference I was lacking before. It would be a comfort to know that the nation was doing the same, and for two reasons.

First, because this swinging backwards and forwards between adulation and contempt can’t be doing any of us any good.

Second, if we’re ever going to solve some of the problems that beset society, we need to unlearn our cult of deference towards those who claim the prerogative to be considered our betters. Then we’ll be able to learn how to insist on the right to make our own destiny.

It will be a measure of our success that we stop ogling the royals and buying the papers that feed us all the titbits (and the pun
’s deliberate). That will mean mastering our thirst for publicity about them. 

Taking their statements at face value, that ought to please the royals. However, I wonder how happy they would really be at the prospect of drifting out of the public eye.

But by then, in our blessed indifference, why would any of us care what they thought?

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