The British press has got wedding fever. With the royal wedding less than two weeks away, we are bombarded with everything from a history of royal weddings and wedding dresses to dubious reports of rows between the bride’s mother and her dress designer. The Middleton family cupboard seems to be distressingly bare of any really worthwhile skeletons, the odd black sheep, perhaps, but that is as nothing in comparison with the future in-laws. Nevertheless, there is a television programme that is doing its best by dredging up relations that Catherine Middleton probably never knew she had and that are unlikely to have invitations to the wedding. In the London marathon last weekend, a couple ran in Catherine and William masks which must have been thoroughly uncomfortable on an unseasonably warm day, but the United States of America seems to be a great deal more fascinated by the event than most people are here. I have been getting emails from American friends assuming that we are all running around covering the whole place in bunting and buying up every commemorative item we can find. In fact, the souvenir trade seems to be thriving mainly on its online transatlantic customers.
People here are more blasé about the whole affair. They have seen these events before and most of them have ended badly, plus the William and Kate romance has been old news for nearly a decade. They seem a decent and attractive young couple with their feet firmly enough on the ground to achieve a remarkable level of propriety and normality in the face of very abnormal levels of attention. Even staunch republicans wish them well so far as their marriage is concerned. Their apparent regularity, and, in particular, their perceived approachability encourage the idea that the royal family might successfully evolve into an institution that remains fit for purpose in the 21st century, although the general unpopularity of the Prince of Wales is a hurdle yet to be jumped.
Whether he will allow himself to be passed over in the succession in favour of people-pleasing Prince William or whether indeed the prince will be prepared to step over his father to take up the crown and sceptre remains to be seen. The queen is in her mid-eighties with her diamond jubilee next year but she is fit and well; her son may be an old man before she dies and happy finally not to fill the role for which he has waited his entire life.
If the monarchy, hopefully in a contemporary mould, is to continue to exist, it would be as well for it to jump a generation. Prince Charles will never be forgiven for his treatment of Diana, although, had he been more admired in other respects, the fact that all but her most ardent hagiographers agree she was unbalanced and extremely difficult would have been taken in greater mitigation. Unfortunately, and unlike his first wife, he is a man with little charm and none of the popular touch that allowed her so successfully to style herself the ‘People’s Princess’. His interference in political arenas has continually backfired: the posturing of an over-privileged man with an outdated view of life and without a proper job. His wife, Camilla, the Duchess of Cornwall, is seen as getting on with her allotted role quite successfully; in late middle age it is harder to paint her the scarlet woman, but she cannot be queen and has none of the glamour required to capture the popular imagination in our celebrity-ridden times.
As for the rest of the second generation of royals: Princess Anne, a doer if ever there was one — fulfilling more public duties than any other Windsor, is popular enough, but has two other brothers and her nephews ahead of any highly improbable bid for the throne. Of the brothers, Prince Edward is mercifully largely out of the spotlight while doing whatever duties are required of him in a quietly uninspired way. Prince Andrew is both a royal and diplomatic disaster as more and more reports of his friendships with the dodgiest international business billionaires hit the headlines and his role as ambassador for British business is besmirched with cash and corruption. His ex-wife, Sarah, Duchess of York, from whom he has never successfully distanced himself, has only made things worse and the best that can be said for either of them is that they were too stupid ever to do any better. A hundred years or so ago, they would have been kept carefully behind palace walls where they could do no harm.
When the queen does eventually die, there will be ructions and no mistake behind those walls but the monarchy might continue to be considered a worthwhile expense if it is modernized by its third generation, most of whom have been schooled, have lived and worked very much in the normal, unroyal world, surrounded by less obvious glitter and privilege than the children of the oligarchs and business emperors so cultivated by Prince Andrew. There is absolutely nothing royal or blue-blooded about Catherine Middleton which is very much in her favour. Her family is solid; self-made and modestly wealthy, and press attempts to drum up sneering snobbery over her relations have been met largely with disinterest. For most people it is yet more hollow celebrity gossip and the idea that the residue of the old aristocracy could care less one way or the other is laughable. It is rarely well understood outside this country that the upper classes have, since approximately the days of Charles II, Queen Anne at a pinch, considered the royal family thoroughly déclassé, nothing but a bunch of jumped-up Germans.
Communities are entering only lightly into the spirit of another royal occasion. This government is dedicated to reducing the idiocies of some of the health and safety regulations of the past few years, but reviving the sort of community celebrations like street parties with which national events were greeted 70 or 100 years ago is hardly worth struggling through the red tape and the attached costs involved. Really, most of us would as soon sit in front of our own TVs with a drink, enjoying the royal flummery, examining and dissecting the wedding guests, their clothes and the bride’s secretly designed dress than getting involved in ersatz jollies based on friendships and neighbourliness that barely exist in fractured urban communities or villages where most people are incomers or weekenders working in the nearest big city. That is a slight exaggeration, of course, but a healing of community and social ties was at the centre of early New Labour thinking and is now the basis for David Cameron’s Big Society. Like the happy community street party, it is all a lovely idea, but is it real life in the bustle and hustle of the 21st century or just a romantic ideal, a rose-tinted reminiscence of the blitz spirit and a Betjaminesque village green?
I expect there will be a bit of bunting about by next week and we will all raise a glass to the royal couple and wish them very well, hoping they continue to achieve some level of normal private life even as their photographs are plastered over our front pages for god knows how many years. I, like many others, subject only and inevitably to the vagaries of British Airways industrial disputes and strikes, will be toasting the happy couple at a distance. The long weekend is a good excuse and I am off to Italy to see the fifth and sixth century imperial Byzantine glories of Ravenna and the royal portraits in the mosaic of the time. They include the famous Empress Theodora who dramatically improved her prospects through her royal marriage to Emperor Justinian. After starting life as a prostitute, she became a forceful proponent of women’s rights and ended up a saint. I shall set the TV to record the wedding for later viewing; I can’t quite resist the pageantry and the frocks.