Thursday, 21 February 2013

Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh and fine consort to our noble Queen, long to reign over us, popped round to see us yesterday. 

I mean, he didn’t drop in to my place for a cuppa and a chat, but he did go to our local hospital, the Luton and Dunstable, and open a new cardiac care unit there. Which was kind of him: I’m sure we need one. Not, you understand, that he paid for it himself or anything, but it’s the thought that counts, not what you spend.

He has a bit of a reputation for his little quips, and he did tell a Filipino nurse that her country must be half empty, as her compatriots were all over in Britain running the NHS for us, but that got him a smile and no-one seems to have been offended. Getting up someone’s nose wouldn't have been at all unusual: for instance, he told a bunch of British students in China that if they stayed too long they’d end up ‘slitty-eyed’, or commented on some lousy electrical work that it must have been done ‘by an Indian.’

Prince Philip chewing the fat with a Filipino nurse at the Luton and Dunstable
... and, miracle, not getting on anyone's nerves

The official comment yesterday was that hardy perennial of all royal visits: it provided a great boost to morale. Naturally, I’ve nothing against that: today’s economic woes rather tend to undermine morale, so anything that builds it back up is to be applauded. It just worries me that we get such a kick from something as banal as a visit by someone whose most striking achievement was getting born in the right place.

OK, in his case, he followed that one up by making an expedient marriage. Because he was born into a family justly celebrated for having done little of value for generations, and married into another, it only takes him to show up somewhere for us all to feel better. It may just be me, but that sounds basically nuts.

These issues have had a little more ventilation than usual this week thanks to comments by Hilary Mantel. They came from a thoughtful and thought-provoking speech, as one might expect from a talented novelist, well worth reading in full here. However, it contained a few uncomplimentary sentences about a woman I persist in thinking of as ‘Kate Middleton’, though I’m told she ought now to be referred to as ‘Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge.’ Sorry, Kate, too much of a mouthful.

Now this is a blog and I try to keep the posts short, but I’m nonetheless going to quote a little more of Mantel’s address than the papers have tended to reproduce. Mantel was talking about Marie-Antoinette, the unfortunate Queen of France, who:

as a royal consort was a gliding, smiling disaster, much like Diana in another time and another country. But Kate Middleton, as she was, appeared to have been designed by a committee and built by craftsmen, with a perfect plastic smile and the spindles of her limbs hand-turned and gloss-varnished. When it was announced that Diana was to join the royal family, the Duke of Edinburgh is said to have given her his approval because she would ‘breed in some height’. Presumably Kate was designed to breed in some manners. She looks like a nicely brought up young lady, with ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ part of her vocabulary. But in her first official portrait by Paul Emsley, unveiled in January, her eyes are dead and she wears the strained smile of a woman who really wants to tell the painter to bugger off. One critic said perceptively that she appeared ‘weary of being looked at’.

Unsurprisingly the papers who sprang to her defence, supported by that intellectual heavyweight David Cameron, have fixated on the remarks about Kate’s plastic smile and design by committee. But it’s much more telling that Mantel focuses on our strange view of royal women, viewing them as people whose main purpose is to be looked at; I love the suggestion that Kate ought to be telling some of the spectators to bugger off. That sounds like a call to Kate to stand up for herself, to assert her personality and to stick a finger up to the whole complex of image and flummery and obsequiousness which, by her marriage, she sadly joined.

If Mantel criticises Kate, it’s principally for being the accomplice or the dupe – possibly both: a willing dupe – of a thoroughly unhealthy set of social relations which it would be an immense emancipation to reject. We suffer so much indignity, and indeed privation, for the belief that there are some who, by birth, marriage of simple naked wealth, particularly deserve our deference. Mitt Romney ran a whole presidential campaign on that premise, and what a relief it was that he went down to defeat.

Mantel does us all a great service by drawing our attention to the problem. Even poor benighted Kate with her permanent smile could benefit.

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