| A mean punch
With friends like Paul Burrell, her butler, Diana, Princess of Wales, needed no enemies. For, if mystery is the life of monarchy, as Walter Bagehot wrote, Burrell’s blend of smugness and servility exposes its magic to not just daylight (continuing the Bagehot prescription) but to the scorching blast of furnace heat.
Tearful loyalists who adored the dead woman as a cruelly wronged wife will be shocked to learn that in her devoted servant’s opinion, Diana “could certainly pack a mean punch”. This city may also wallow in the disclosure that the princess “experienced a spiritual awakening in Calcutta that became the driving force behind every caring act she carried out, every mission and campaign she worked towards”. Angola in 1997 mirrored her Calcutta of 1992. Her fashionable vision of the city was as the ultimate in human destitution.
But Britain’s monarchy will not come crashing down as a result of the indiscretions in A Royal Duty, although Queen Elizabeth may fear otherwise. The royal family feels attacked. That explains the queen’s sudden flash of memory that brought Burrell’s trial to an abrupt end, Prince Charles’s voluntary statement about what another palace servant claims he saw, the anguished public letter that Diana’s two young sons addressed to their mother’s trusted retainer, and the injunction preventing the Daily Mirror from publishing more intimate revelations about the royal family. Clearly, these actions were rooted in panic. They do not indicate serious reflection on the nature of British life that influenced the late King Farouk’s prophecy.
The monarchy is safe because society preys on it. What would those mass circulation tabloids — the Mirror, Mail and Sun — have to bleat and shriek about in a drab republic where no one cares if a foreign admirer sucks a royal wife’s toe or a future king is accused of being more a queen' Once vox populi has pushed open the floodgates of scandal, some of it pitifully petty, the quality press — The Times, Telegraph, Guardian and Independent — can wring its hands in horror, sniff with disapproval and add more salacious details with magisterial detachment. The Mirror must have done well out of smuggling a reporter into the palace as royal footman.
Obviously, it’s not just the media (“Her Majesty’s Reptiles”) which, after all, is said to hold a mirror up to society. Britain’s great unwashed would be without a talking point if the privileged free tenants of Buckingham Palace and sundry other royal residences were driven out. The public has fed on keyhole gossip ever since Crawfie (as she was known), nanny to Elizabeth and Margaret when they were children, went public, paving the way for Burrell. Actually, the tradition goes back much further. My childhood home had a set of black-leather-bound volumes titled Mysteries of the Court of London that I was forbidden to touch, but which detailed, I imagined feverishly, the adultery, incest and murder associated with the Prince Regent’s circle.
People everywhere love to gossip about their betters. If the trait seems most robust in Britain, it is because the betters are so clearly distinguishable. One reason why Tony Blair’s proposed ban on fox hunting excites so much passion could be that it has dragged a protesting ancien regime out of the closet and into public view. The royals make the most of the obsession through their hired professional consultants. Given this dual trend, the queen is entitled to the comforting conclusion that radicals know full well that there can be no grim writing on the wall if they pull down the wall itself. A prime minister whose slickness is slipping, a coven of sharp spin-doctors and a gaggle of dreary life peers are no substitute for gin-swilling monarchs, canny countesses, dubious royal births and the monarchy’s sustained public relations campaign.
What does emerge from revelations by Burrell and others is that the royal family, which was supposed to represent some kind of virtuous national, if not divine, ideal, is really much closer to national norms, warts and all. Sex, money, even taste in décor unite it with lowly council-house occupants. One cannot say if this familiarity will breed contempt. But the queen herself can still tap a fund of affection, respect and admiration. Rightly so, perhaps. Burrell quotes her as replying when asked how many servants she had, “Actually I have none. I have many members of staff, but no servants.”
But his white-washing of her ex-daughter-in-law doesn’t hide the fact that though Diana campaigned effectively against landmines, she left some pretty dangerous unexploded ones of her own, secreted away in a mahogany box. She called them her “crown jewels”. There were letters from the Queen Mother and the Duke of Edinburgh, a signet ring from her lover, James Hewitt, who is busy making money out of his royal liaison, and the notorious tape which is said to record the former valet George Smith’s account of how one of Prince Charles’s servants sodomised him. Everyone is looking for the box. Burrell hints that Diana’s sister Sarah stole the contents.
The Spencers are the enemy. He makes her mother out to be self-centred and mercenary, and says her brother is callous, cunning and calculating. But, then, he would, given that they apparently engineered his arrest and prosecution for stealing Diana’s clothes, papers and other property. He doesn’t deny he took them. Nor is it clear why he did so, or why he was let off the hook. The speculation is that the queen was forced to intervene because she feared what else he might expose.
That fear persists, feeding on what we glimpse of Burrell’s character. His future wife, a palace maid, perspicaciously dismissed the Midlands working-class lad, who had become the queen’s footman as a “twopence ha’penny toff.” That Burrell repeats the sneer speaks well of him. He also boasts, however, that Diana called him her “third eye” and “Magic Merlin”, and said he was at the helm of her ship. The princess dried the plates while he washed up. This and other such scenes of touching domesticity convey a certain man-woman message that is not substantiated. Burrell tells us instead that Diana was not in love with Dodie al Fayed and hints at another love who remains nameless.
For how long' Burrell is a “runaway train” according to Dickie Arbiter, the queen’s former press secretary. “I don’t think he’s going to stop” was the bleak prediction. Whether he does may not matter too much any longer for others are already taking up the tale. And what a tale! At one end, you have the Queen Mother telephoning the palace pantry to ask if any of the old queens there (all male, of course) would bring a gin and tonic to “this old queen”. At the other, interest has revived in the unexplained air crash that killed George VI’s brother, the Duke of Kent, who wore make-up, had an affair with Noël Coward, admired the Nazis and may have been set up by British intelligence during World War II to lure Rudolf Hess to Britain.
They, as well as some of the later lot (Fergie, Randy Andy, Princess Pushy), recall Max Beerbohm’s comment on the ill-fated Queen Caroline, “Fate wrote her a most tremendous tragedy, and she played it in tights.” Playing to the gallery is what interests them most though they don’t always do it well. Because they sometimes court publicity and sometimes can’t avoid it, deferential silence is no longer on the cards. The multitude applauds or boos, depending on the royals’ role and rendering. It’s living theatre. Britain may have lost an empire without finding a role, as Dean Acheson said unkindly, but the royal family will need to start worrying only when there isn’t a role left to play.