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A Very Middleton Marriage

Pippa Middleton, the sister of the Duchess of Cambridge, is due to marry James Matthews, financial whizz-kid and billionaire, in Berkshire on 20th May 2017. In typical fashion, the details of the upcoming wedding have been breathtakingly revealed bit by bit – until last week, we were treated to an actual statement from Kensington Palace about which royal family members would be actually attending the nuptials. Considering that neither Pippa nor her family are actually part of the royal family, this seemed a step too far to many royal observers.

The Middleton family have an unfortunate habit of making themselves seem publicity hungry. Their apparent desire to be front and centre, rather than taking a side seat like other royal in-laws, has caused them to be called social climbers, showy people who want a slice of the lifestyle their daughter and sister has access to, being the wife of Prince William. ¬†They have gone from being a quiet, affluent family living an a typical middle class village home to living in the local manor house and wearing crest-engraved signet rings. The British have never been fond of those who try to be something they are not. The whole concept of the popular sitcom, ‘Keeping Up Appearances’ was that the audience could laugh at the character of Hyacinth Bucket (“Bouquet”), a working class woman who created an upper middle class fantasy life through her immaculate home and expensive china tea-sets. We all know people like Hyacinth, to greater or lesser degrees. However, it feels more than slightly incongruous that the family of the Duchess of Cambridge should be perceived as behaving like this – we somehow expect the royals to marry into families who are equally illustrious, like the Spencers for example who had been aristocracy for hundreds of years. Those families without such background should have the class to stay low-key and maintain a quiet dignity. Sophie Rhys-Jones, who married Prince Edward, was from a less grand background but her family have stayed private figures, rewarded for their decorum by several invitations to spend time with the Queen and her family.

The Middletons have apparently chosen not to take this path. The fact that Pippa’s upcoming wedding is being sold as the ‘wedding of the year’ and every snippet of organisation for it apparently leaked, might suggest that there is a certain enjoyment of the celebrity this endows to a couple who would never have been heard of had the bride’s sister never met Prince William.

It remains to be seen how much of the wedding will be photographed, since Prince George and Princess Charlotte are to be pageboy and flower girl. This strange hybrid of private family wedding and quasi-royal event seems to sum up the problem of the Middleton family themselves. Neither private nor royal, their half way house style of managing things is unprecedented and raises quizzical eyebrows amongst traditionalists. In a media-hungry culture, when people may become stars from reality shows or merely drawing attention to themselves, is it so unlikely that this family have allowed themselves to become the sort of celebrities who apparently have no claim to fame, other than close proximity to someone who married a famous man?

 

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Kate Middleton and the Requirements of Royalty

When Kate Middleton was first pictured in the national media, kissing Prince William on the ski slopes, my alarm antennae went off. It seemed to me that William’s new girlfriend was more interested in checking whether the journalist was getting the photograph than her prince. My opinion didn’t change throughout the courtship of the prince and Kate (sorry… Catherine) – so many breakups; so many reports of Kate glaring at any other woman who went near William; so many falling-out-of clubs-and-not-working photographs.

On the 16th November 2010, my heart sank even further. The news came that William and Kate were engaged, and even worse, that he had given her his mother’s hugely recognisable sapphire engagement ring. Sitting in front of the TV, I felt he had made a huge mistake. As someone who had seen the engagement of Charles and Diana – a young woman who had already made a living caring for children and cleaning when she didn’t have to – I felt that Kate was not likely to pull her weight and was more interested in status than the man sitting next to her on the plump sofa.

Friends told me I was unfair, and I really wanted to believe that to be true. I suspended my sense of disbelief and embraced royal wedding fever as best I could. I wanted to give them my blessing, I really wanted to. The wedding day loomed large. I admit to shedding a small tear watching Diana’s boy get married without his mother to support him. I also admit to wondering why the TV correspondent got so excited about a wedding dress that looked to me exactly like Grace Kelly’s but with Madonna-esque cone boobs.

As the years have gone by, I have willed Kate to find the sort of work ethic her mother in law had. Instead, I feel I have seen a regurgitation of many of Diana’s styles and mannerisms, without any of the genuine warmth or sense of noblesse oblige. It feels like we are expected to be grateful for Kate to turn up to two engagements a month (if we’re lucky), most lasting less than an hour, wearing hugely expensive designer clothes. The over-long, over-big, over-blown hair; the huge grin even in the most inappropriate circumstances; the bizarre public statements (“Can you test the smell by smelling it?”) and her newly-adopted uber-posh accent combine to give rise to alarm. I feel like she is trying too hard to be royal while missing the crucial elements. Adopting causes that mean something to her and that she would be prepared to spend some time on; understanding how to talk to people without making overt hand gestures or being constantly aware of where the camera is; making speeches without pushing her hair around, staring at the paper or sounding completely unconvincing – all of these would be welcome advancements.

Six years after their wedding, I am still eager for Kate to properly fulfil her position as royal duchess and future queen. As a monarchist, I want the Cambridges to succeed. But I am also much aware that for this to happen, the couple must adapt to become what the people need. The Queen has walked a very fine line between private and public, between mystique and the maternal. William and Kate must find some similar balance. Too often they are shut away, with very few pictures emerging of their growing family. They are becoming unknown to us as three dimensional characters, and in that breeds the fear of disinterest from the very country whom they need to support them. Kate’s morph in to a cartoon-esque character of hair, teeth and L.K.Bennetts does neither her, them nor us any good.

The sad part of all this is that Kate apparently waited a long time for William to commit to her officially. She, it seems, put up with a lot of shenanigans, to win what she had set her heart on. Now she is there, complete with Diana’s tiara and goodness know how many ballgowns, she doesn’t seem able to live up to the hype. Ever-shrinking in weight, nervous, skittish – it sometimes seems that Kate liked the idea more than the reality.

Regardless of my own personal feelings about whether William chose the right person (and after all, that is up to him not us) – we now have a woman in a very senior role within the royal family who seems to need guidance and direction in order to meet her potential. Whether that means new advisers are required, or merely a more experienced member of the family to take her under their wing (Sophie Wessex springs to mind) or maybe Kate herself needs to go back to the drawing board and try to remember who she was before she tried to become something else.

I will be watching the next couple of years with interest, and yes – with a little bit of secret encouragement – because after all surely, we all want Kate to succeed in the role she waited so long to step in to.

For us, for the royal family and most of all, for Kate herself.

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William – Reluctant Royal?

Prince William – he of the cute toddler shorts photo-call and shy university fresher smile – has changed. He’s older, a husband, a father. He’s also reticent, retiring and apparently not very happy about his role. It doesn’t take an insider or a confidante to tell us that William isn’t very content with being the heir to the heir. It’s inherent in his facial expressions, his awkwardness, his inability to smile for the cameras and his desire to keep all but the most public moments hidden from the public gaze.

The problem is that those photographers and journalists are the conduit between William and his future subjects. Our relationship with William is only possible through the lens of the cameras he seems to despise and the pen of the writers he sneers at. For many years it has been accepted that William, and to some extent, Harry, have had an uneasy relationship with the media due to the hounding of their mother. However, twenty years have passed since her demise, and the one thing Diana herself knew was crucial the press can be in reaching the hearts of the nation. The majority of people living in the British Isles will never meet William or his wife. They only know them through the pictures and stories they will see in publications. William must understand that if he seems sulky or unwilling in photographs, he will be perceived as such by an entire nation.

We once believed William to be the torchbearer for his mother. Blonde, shy, unassuming – his teenage demeanour belied a stubbornness and obstinacy which seems to have taken root in his older years. Now instead, his younger brother has embraced the Diana mantle with his natural friendliness and approachability. It is a difficult moment for William, the boy who once confessed to friends that he didn’t want a royal future at all. There is a sense that he is at a crossroads, one which he has avoided at all costs while his grandmother still lives, one which he has delayed with helicopters, Cambridge courses and country life. It is time for William to either step up or step down. Stepping up would require he and his wife to start attending official engagements in a way neither has managed since their marriage, along with an acceptance that this is their future. Stepping down would require a stripping of privilege one suspects William would not welcome. Too many now believe that William the Unwilling wants the benefits of being royal without the burdens.

The monarchy survives through the will of the people. For so long, we have had the Queen at our helm. Most of us have never known another monarch. Her death will undoubtedly provoke a national mourning like none we have seen before. We need to know that those following in her footsteps will be there for us, as she was, “devoted to service”. If William knows already in his heart that he cannot fulfil this obligation, he MUST exit stage left and ensure that the succession is in solid, willing, capable hands.

For me, a monarchist who wants the institution to succeed, I worry about a future beyond the reign of our long-lived Queen. I think there are many in this country who feel the same. It is time for William to choose – to embrace the future he was born to, or to walk away to a different life.

He cannot be both heir and country squire.

 

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Charles, Camilla and the Love Thang

You may have noticed that HRH The Prince of Wales and HRH The Duchess of Cornwall have been on a tour of Europe over the past week. You may also have NOT noticed, since the press they have received has not been exactly fulsome.

Regardless of their geographical destination, I think it is fair to say that every news story I have read or photo-call I’ve seen has shown the heir to the throne and his wife in great form – laughing, sharing banter, looking completely at ease. It makes me think about how we got here – how THEY got here – and makes me wonder what might have been, if things had been different. The Charles we see these days – rosy cheeked, giggling, approachable – seems so different from the days when we saw him with Diana – serious, stand-offish, antiquated. I sometimes wonder if the very people-friendly nature of Diana somewhat eclipsed that element of Charles’ personality, in a way that she would not have wanted nor expected.

It is certainly pleasant to see Charles looking so relaxed and content, so at ease in his role. He has been a long-waiting prince, with a mother whose long reign has been much-lauded and much-loved. He has very large shoes to step in to as monarch. Elizabeth II may have occasionally taken a back seat in domestic affairs that ought to have concerned her more, but her non-action, keep-the-peace mentality has meant stability and consistency for many decades. Her ability to remain apolitical is at odds with her heir, whose willingness to voice opinion on current affairs has certainly plunged him in to hot water in the past.

Charles seems willing to accept the modern world in all its diversity of religion, colour and creed. He embraces minorities, wants to get involved in helping the needy. His work in setting up The Prince’s Trust underlines this. The determination to improve the world strikes me as a quality which would be commendable in a King. However, the hurdles he needs to jump are those which are self-created. When his ex-wife, Diana, lost her life suddenly in 1997, Charles’ circle (or confidantes or whichever label we choose to use) continued to use Diana’s absence to denigrate her reputation. This inability to reward the good elements of his first wife’s character, and the mother of his sons, has continued to cause dismay in those who valued and loved Diana.

When Charles and Camilla knelt together in a marital blessing in St George’s Chapel at Windsor Castle in 2005, they took part in the strongest act of penitance from the 1662 Book of Common Prayer they could choose, acknowledging sin and asking for forgiveness. They did this to show awareness that they knew the nation objected to the adultery which had taken place and to start afresh as man and wife. While this act, and the union itself, has taken a long time to be accepted in the hearts of the nation, I think it fair to say that there is now an acceptance that Camilla, the Duchess of Cornwall has proved her worth as a member of the royal family.

It merely remains for Charles, and the powers that be, to also recognise the worthiness of a previous lady he brought in to ‘The Firm’. A lady who bore him two boys, who worked hard to do good and whose easy charm won the hearts of his future subjects – Diana.

Her rehabilitation holds the key to his.

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The Markle Question

Nobody can have escaped the last few months of media fascination and sensationalist reporting of Prince Harry’s relationship with new girlfriend, Meghan Markle. The flurry of stories has ranged from the sublime (“She spoke to the UN!”) to the ridiculous (“She’s on Pornhub!”). Onlookers appear to fall in to two opposing camps – those who see Ms Markle as a potentially refreshing addition to the royal family, with an already existing track record of philanthropy and people skills; and those who see Ms Markle as a social climbing, media manipulating, naive prince accosting harridan. The fact that Meghan Markle is slightly older than Prince Harry and has been married previously AND has mixed race parentage AND a possibly dysfunctional family has caused some royal traditionalists to have apoplexy on a scale akin to the days of Princess Margaret daring to wish to marry the debonair, divorced Peter Townsend.

However, times have changed. We now have several members of the royal family who are themselves divorced – The Prince of Wales is famously married to his ex-mistress, Camilla Parker Bowles, following his disastrous union with the luminous Diana Spencer; The Duke of York is also divorced, as is the Princess Royal. The royal family is in no position to take the higher ground on divorce issues these days.

For a modern royal family, the emphasis has to be on how this centuries-old institution can adapt to stay meaningful in an ever-increasing world of diversity and relaxed rules on gender, sexuality and identity. In the internet age, the world has shrunk, so that everything that happens globally is transmitted to screens around us within  hours, if not minutes. The institution of monarchy must be able to move alongside this generation of information, while still maintaining mystique and majesty.

It seems to me that the addition of a clearly intelligent, charismatic woman who happens to be mixed race, who happens to have experience of a wider world, who happens to have already shown a capacity for humanitarianism and can give a decent speech might just be one of the best things to happen to the royal family for a very long time. In fact, possibly since a very young Diana Spencer tripped nervously down the palace steps wearing her huge sapphire engagement ring and an ill-fitting bright blue suit while clinging on to the arm of her “Whatever love means” prince.

Let’s not give up on Ms. Markle yet.

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The Tarnishing of a Legend

It is twenty years in August since the world woke to the news that Diana, Princess of Wales had been killed in a freak accident in Paris. It doesn’t seem that long ago – the feeling of shock and disbelief is still very fresh in my mind, the images of overflowing bouquets of flowers outside the gates of Kensington Palace and the sense of stunned silence everywhere. The evidence of time passing is in the now-grown sons she left behind, in the husband who now is comfortably settled with someone else. Who would have thought, back in those heady summer days of 1997, that the woman who had caused so much distress to the princess’s marriage would one day become Duchess of Cornwall and be doing a pretty good job of it too?

One thing hasn’t changed though and that is the determination in some quarters to destroy Diana’s legacy. At first, there was a palpable whitewashing of her existence and then there was a return to the tactics of the days of the Wars of the Waleses in her absence. Neither can have been particularly enjoyable for the two princes, who prefer to remember her as “the best mother in the world”.

Pre-Andrew Morton and divorce, Diana’s work with the vulnerable and needy had led to huge respect globally. Her presence within the British royal family had been a massive boost – a young, beautiful woman with a good heart and the capacity to communicate with people of all backgrounds. Stylish, charming and winsome, she was a winner in the popularity stakes. Later, we learned that this quality – star quality – had not gone down well behind closed doors. Nobody should be allowed to out-dazzle the born royals, it seems. Her descent in to confession, depression and isolation led to an upsurge in support from the public and an ostracization from the palace.

The ensuing anti-Diana campaign (“She’s mad!” “She’s nuts!” “Loose cannon!”) reminded me of the way women who failed to stay in ‘their place’ have been treated for centuries. To dare to question the behaviour of the heir to the throne was simply not on, and she had to go. Her unwillingness to “go quietly” led to a greater desire to unmask this philanthropic woman as the sort who drove her husband to despair, caused distress wherever she went and who clearly couldn’t be trusted to behave.

The continuation of this campaign has continued since her death. Not content with the fact she had left this mortal coil, a reputation disintegration exercise commenced. She was declared to have a personality disorder, in her absence, by a female author whose loyalties firmly lie with the Prince of Wales no matter what. She was declared unhinged, hysterical, man-mad. The fact that the Prince had had several affairs throughout the marriage, not just a dalliance with Camilla Parker Bowles, was discreetly brushed under the carpet. He had a “true love” story while Diana had her knickers around her ankles. The determination to destroy the woman as she really was continues to this day. Again, serialisation of new books to mark the twentieth anniversary of her death continue to declare Diana as dangerous and desperate – rather than a very young woman plunged in to a very difficult role with a much older man.

For me, Diana still holds sympathy. I still remember the hospice visits, shaking AIDS victims hands, campaigning against landmines. I remember her work. The best possible way to remember her is as Prince Harry so adequately demonstrated this week in his speech to continue her work against landmines. And wouldn’t she have been proud to see her now-grown youngest boy sharing his desire to finish the work she started, alongside those she met in Angola and Bosnia?

Let’s remember the philanthropist, the humanitarian, the woman who knew how to shine her light on to issues nobody else wanted to look at.

Let’s remember her like that.