Upper-crust Kardashians and my royal road trip
As Meghan and Harry's big day draws closer, our reporter explains why he'll be in attendance, and how this happy couple's appeal has transcended Irish indifference to the Windsors
Six months ago, a group of friends rounded on me in a bar and demanded I go to England with them for the royal wedding. They had already booked their tickets, they told me, and the plan was to get up early on the Saturday and get the train from London to Windsor for the parade itself. It would be silly, camp, drunken fun, they assured me, and we'd be witnessing a little bit of history.
I weakly agreed but thought 'no chance'. Despite being raised on an aunt-administered diet of Hello! magazine, I was never particularly fascinated with the royals and, like Matt Cooper and Ivan Yates, who discussed the upcoming nuptials on their show a few weeks ago, I wondered if the whole obsession with Meghan was a little trivial, when we should be fretting about the referendum and the HSE.
Joining the royalist fan club would also surely be a bit iffy for a proud Irish person, who still feels like the 1916 centenary was five minutes ago and whose favourite record is The Queen Is Dead? There wouldn't be a work reason to go, either. According to a recent poll, most people here say they won't watch the wedding. The BBC might install perfectly respectable journalists to cover, say, The Duke of Kent's prostate surgery, as though it were the moon landing, but me attending the royal wedding parade might be more like Repeal activists queuing to meet the Pope.
As I voiced all of these concerns, the ringleader of this royal road trip, a Northern Catholic who grew up in the worst of the Troubles, tried to talk some sense into me. The royals aren't national symbols so much as they are celebrities whom we'd have to invent if they didn't exist, he argued. The UK was several hundred years ahead of its time, in coming up with proto-Kardashians long before the rest of the world had them. The glamour transcends concerns of nationalism. Enormous drawing rooms, tiaras, and palace intrigue are all much more fascinating than where the Border is, he went on. If the men of 1916 died for anything, it was so that their gay descendants could gasp as a new duchess emerges from a horse-drawn carriage. "And let's face it," he added, "if any of us ever won an OBE, we'd be on our knees in front of them in a second, waiting for that sword to land on our shoulder."
The whole thing had suddenly been put in the kind of celebrity-fascinated vainglorious terms I could understand. Another friend forwarded me Hilary Mantel's famous essay, Royal Bodies. Between the lines Mantel seems to suggest that a still-sceptical-yet-secretly-intrigued Irish person could also pass off a royal sojourn as naturalism or anthropology.
The royals are like pandas, she says, in that they are expensive to conserve and ill-adapted to any modern environment. "But aren't they interesting? Aren't they nice to look at? Some people find them endearing; some pity them for their precarious situation; everybody stares at them, and however airy the enclosure they inhabit, it's still a cage."
In a sense, from a dramatic perspective, that might be the very thing worth braving a hangover to gawp at this Saturday: a woman who is living a dream that could curdle in a second: pageantry tinged with darkness. The royal family has an interesting history of chewing up commoners and spitting them out. Wallis Simpson is the obvious comparison but Diana, of course, too.
Meghan is envied and perhaps pitied in equal measure. Is she embarking on a fairytale, or a suffocating life of duty? Casual curiosity can easily become cruelty for the royals. We don't cut off the heads of royal women these days, but we do sacrifice them, and we did memorably drive one to her grisly end a mere generation ago.
The royals can also be appreciated as avatars of our own families; the same characters, the prissy mum, the stern mother-in-law, the embarrassing uncle, emerge. It was for Shakespeare to penetrate the heart of a prince, but it is for the British press to divine the obsessions of a soon-to-be princess. The weather is the latest, up-to-the-minute one. She, apparently, is already examining the forecasts for the day itself.
Meghan is also obsessed with Diana, The Daily Mail and The Daily Express constantly remind us, so she perhaps knows the pitfalls well enough to avoid them. Even though the pitfalls were what made Diana such a reality star. Will Meghan be more starry than the current members of the firm? A little grit would be welcome. We don't expect EastEnders but safe is too much the current Windsor trademark. Manners have been put on the British press since Leveson and the consensus seems to be that Meghan would be the latest in a line of moves that followed the PR nadir of Diana's death and have bolstered the Windsor brand ever since. But perhaps that has been for the better of the firm.
As William and Harry have matured, the family's emotional hold over the British public has only strengthened. The precision-calibrated and stylishly skinny Kate has hardly put a single foot wrong, but now she has been cast in the role of slightly frumpier counterpart: the Fergie to Meghan's Diana. It seems fitting that the first genuinely handsome prince they've ever had, a comfortingly safe distance from the throne, would get such a beautiful American actress as his bride. Kate, it was said, might breed in a bit of manners. Meghan might, in turn, breed in some good looks.
And she would be the right addition to the brand in other ways too. The marketing of the royal family is interesting. The Windsors will soon have something for everyone. For the traditionalists, there's the reassuringly horsey Princess Anne, who obediently gave up work to get her man, and now seems chiefly focused on her children. She is The Daily Telegraph reader's princess. Kate is the mummy market. Markle looks set to corner the millennials as the winsome one you would least mind your daughter aspiring to become.
She's the embodiment of all of the diversity obsession of Hollywood and media. She has a range of attributes that would, until very recently, have ruled her out of the princess stakes. Within hours of her engagement being announced, a Spectator columnist set the tone, writing: "Obviously, 70 years ago, Meghan Markle would have been the kind of woman the prince would have had for a mistress, not a wife."
The Daily Mail has dusted off descriptions like 'saucy divorcee' for Meghan, and they have been similarly aghast that she seems to describe herself as a feminist. After reports that she is considering giving her own speech at her own wedding, she recently dropped some heavy hints that she will be campaigning on issues to do with "empowering women" when she officially joins the royal family. She even used her first joint public engagement with Kate to praise the Time's Up and #MeToo campaigns against sexual harassment.
Only 40 years or so after everyone else, it seems the royal family has finally come around to the existence of feminism. Or perhaps not; as Meghan gushed about #MeToo, Harry, with whom both women shared a stage, gently reminded his fiancee that she had a wedding to organise. On the basis of last year's big Vanity Fair cover interview, Meghan may yet give Kate a run for her money in the blandness stakes. "We're in love," she told the magazine, in a little speech that might have come from an atrocious 1990s romcom, possibly starring Andie MacDowell. "I'm sure there will be a time when we will have to come forward and present ourselves and have stories to tell, but I hope what people will understand is that this is our time. This is for us. It's part of what makes it so special, that it's just ours. But we're happy. Personally, I love a great love story."
Hilary Mantel once called Kate "a jointed doll on which certain rags are hung", and "a shop window mannequin", but will Meghan be different? Several designers are in the running to design her wedding dress, but apparently the Suits dress wasn't a hint and she's fond of sleeves.
Her race - she is the offspring of a white father and an African-American mother - has been such a source of fascination that Kensington Palace last year felt the need to issue a statement reminding the world that her life "is not a game" and calling out the media on the "racial undertones of comment pieces". The palace was notably silent on reports that Princess Michael of Kent had "shaded" Meghan by wearing a brooch depicting a black figure on her coat as she arrived for Meghan's first big family gathering with the Windsors. She was later criticised online for wearing a "racist" brooch, even as the rest of the world marvelled at the idea of how perfectly aristocratic it would be to make a point - even an offensive one - using the medium of antique jewellery.
A disappointment of the William and Harry generation is the general lack of interesting scandal. In a sense, maybe they have to be boring at a time when Britain faces into the uncertainty of Brexit and its waning influence in the world. Diana moved in a world where Cool Britannia was a cultural idea and the Union Jack was everywhere. The current royals operate at a time of lower national morale. They have subtly shifted roles over the years. William, the one who was always reckoned to be the spit of Diana (ie good looking), has aged into a horsey, balding drink of water, while ginger little brother, our groom, has developed a charismatic swagger and an ability to shrug off indiscretions.
Meghan's estranged half-brother has made himself seem bitter by slating her in the Australian media, but the venom of his language seemed to discredit him. Her mother will be there, ensuring she has a family presence. Andrew Morton, he of the notorious Princess Diana biography, has described Meghan Markle as a "supreme networker" who wanted to be "Diana 2.0" in a new book which is notably short on the kind of dirt one could dig up in the 1990s.
And, after being left off the guest list for William's and Kate's wedding, (perhaps because of promising an undercover journalist access to Prince Andrew), Fergie is invited to Harry and Meghan's wedding and general reception. She is not on the exclusive list for a second, more private, reception being thrown by Charles, but the main point is that the woman who likely had prior sight of the Disney teapots that her daughters wore to William and Kate's big day, will be in attendance, and the event will be the richer for it.
I might see her there, or on a big screen from London at the very least.
At the time of writing, my place on the train is set. My royal grinchiness is melting away. I'm ready for upper-crust Kardashians. My friends have promised if I do this, I'm off the hook for the Eurovision Song Contest. I might even wave a little Union Jack and it will be momentous, like when the Queen spoke Irish and Mary McAleese mouthed the word 'wow!' And let's see if people here don't after all tune into the wedding in big numbers this coming weekend.
As Mary O'Rourke, weather vane of the nation's mammies, told Matt and Ivan, "of course it's OK to be fascinated; sure we're obsessed with every bit of it."
Love above all
Three commoners who rocked the UK royals
It takes quite a woman to get a man to give up the English throne in order to marry her, but twice-divorced American socialite Wallis Simpson did that in 1937 when she married King Edward VIII, after which she was formally known as the Duchess of Windsor, without the prefix "Her Royal Highness".
It's probably best that the pair of them (above) took a back seat after that. She and the Duke were well-known Nazi sympathisers, and she once stayed in Hitler's spare bedroom. Despite this, she has long been a source of fascination for scriptwriters and novelists - a few years ago Madonna was said to be in talks to play her in a movie.
Germaine Greer dismissed Diana as "devious", "slow" and "disturbingly neurotic", and Sue Townsend noted that she was a "fatal non reader" but neither assessment dimmed the princess' era-defining star power. There were three of them in the marriage from the start, she told Panorama, through fluttering eyelashes, and thereafter the monarchy was never the same again. Her untimely death prompted an outpouring of mawkish grief and marked the royal family's lowest point in modern times.
Spitting Image depicted Fergie as a sort of honking, Sloane-y Miss Piggy, and while that didn't seem all that far off the mark, the duchess had a sort of loveable quality and the public largely forgave her for the toe job on the boat and her other indiscretions. There's actually talk now that she might marry Prince Andrew again - they've remained BFFs since their divorce - and lately she's taken to going by the name Margaret York for her business dealings.
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