Nothing like a right royal spectacle to reel us in
What is it about royals, asks MAEV KENNEDY
IN THE last week the world has gone mad. In the Guardianoffices in London, we’re drowning in royal wedding tat and I have a Throne Up sick bag on my desk, sent by a friend who felt I might need it. We’re besieged by foreign television crews, reduced for want of any hint about the really important questions (What will she wear? Where will they honeymoon? Is Cherie Blair spitting tacks at not being invited?) to seeking clues from the paper which came out for a British republic 10 years ago. We’ve already had a letter from a man cancelling his subscription, a pre-emptive strike against the acreage he believes the paper will carry tomorrow.
Well, nothing to do with me, Guv. I’m a citizen, not a subject. When they all sing the national anthem, I sing God Save Your Queen– and secretly wonder what grandfather JJ Mulkerns, interned in Frongoch with Michael Collins after 1916, would think even of that. An Irish neighbour snarled this morning, in the shadow of the fluttering blue white and red already up for a street party, “reminds me of the Twelfth – if they start painting the kerb stones I’m off”.
And yet, and yet. . .
I know I will find myself doing the ironing this morning as an excuse to turn on the telly and gawk at a scene which, even if most of the flummery is of very recent invention, will look like a medieval tapestry come to life.
Among the people camping out for three nights now by Westminster Abbey, there is an audible scattering of Irish voices. So there was for the Queen Mother’s funeral, for the strange days when the centre of London reeked of rotting flowers before Diana’s funeral, for Fergie and Andrew, and of course for The Real Royal Wedding in 1981.
When Charles married Camilla in Windsor, and the authorities were so unsure of public interest they barely bothered to put out crowd control barriers, I met two nice women from Tipperary who’d come over specially.
“She seems nice,” was the best explanation they could manage.
What’s it all about?
When the 30-year-old Queen Victoria visited Ireland in 1849, it was about as bad a time for a royal visit as, well, now. The economy was in shreds, the Famine barely over, the coffin ships still loading up their human freight.
Despite the fears then as now, she was mobbed only by hysterically enthusiastic crowds. One old woman was recorded running after her coach, shouting: “Oh! Queen, dear, make one of them children Prince Patrick and all Ireland will die for you.”
She arrived in Cobh and promptly wiped the town off the map, graciously consenting to “the change of name which has been sought by the inhabitants”. Queenstown it remained until 1922 when the government changed it back again – but I’m prepared to bet that many new-born Free Staters felt a stab of nostalgia as they got their proper place name back.
But nostalgia for what, exactly? Not for the actual embodiments of monarchy, surely? Not for stocky little Victoria, nor for any of her 42 grandchildren who colonised the thrones of Europe: a charmless crew, as today’s turnout will prove again, long on ceremony but notably short on looks, dress sense and in the case of the men, hair.
In the 25 odd years I’ve lived and worked in London, I’ve bagged a few royals, and seen at first hand their extraordinary effect. I’ve met Philip and Charles, been at several events where the Queen made terrible speeches, and went to a bizarre party for the media at Windsor Castle – “The Lord Chamberlain is Commanded by the Queen to Invite Maev Kennedy” the invitation read, managing to convey that he was doing so with severe misgivings – where avowed republicans and fully signed up contrarians filled the astoundingly grand state apartments.
At one point there was a sort of mass intake of breath in St George’s Hall, a room approximately the size of O’Connell Street, and I looked in from the adjoining drawing room – merely the size of Stephen’s Green – to see a whirlpool forming in the centre, a great seething mass of best suits eddying around an invisible core which I realised must be the Queen. I turned and asked Princess Anne, the only one my father had any time for because he was impressed by her HGV driving license, if they didn’t hate having us all cluttering up their house.
“Such a nice evening,” she said, possibly through gritted teeth, and glided regally on to reduce otherwise perfectly sane grown-ups to quivering masses of jelly.
I can say, hand on heart, that I was asked more avid questions afterwards by friends and family than of anything else I have ever done as a journalist.
Mostly I think it’s the spectacle. Even if it rains today, the Firm is guaranteed to put on a damn good show. When we got Cobh back, we lost the carriages, the white horses, the swords, the feathers, the sashes, the medals, the palaces, the diamonds as big as the Shelbourne.
We don’t quite know how to do really big state occasions: frozen imported majorettes on March 17th don’t entirely compare.
But there’s a bit more to it. Most of us have heads full of kings and queens and princesses by the time we can talk: Sleeping Beautyand the Children of Lir, Good King Wenceslasand Old King Cole.
The good kings, the beautiful princesses, stand for chivalry and nobility, the bad ones for the natural order subverted. We don’t want that, we want all the confusion and terror of free grown ups – but that doesn’t entirely kill off a treacherous hankering for the simpler certainties of fairy tales.
I was named for a queen, and I carried a stone up to her Sligo grave. I hope no archaeologist ever proves she is not in fact there, buried standing up, spear in hand, glaring out to sea, outraged by death. But I could just as well have been Etain, Fand or Bert the big-foot, since I believe the inspiration was JM Synge’s fine poem:
Seven dog-days we let pass
Naming Queens in Glenmacnass
All the rare and royal names
Wormy sheepskin yet retains...
Queens whose finger once did stir men,
Queens were eaten of fleas and vermin.
Synge wouldn’t be hanging out the bunting today – but he knew there is something mythic, fantastic, enduring, not about the real flea-bitten women but about the ideal of a queen.
Seven dog-days we let pass
Naming Democratically Elected Women Politicians in Glenmacnassjust wouldn’t have done the job at all.
Maev Kennedy writes on arts and heritage at the Guardian. She is a former reporter and Dáil sketch writer for The Irish Times, where she worked until 1986 before moving to London.