A book about royalty would as a rule provoke a yawn in me but Jeremy Paxman is an excellent writer with an acerbic wit and this book is certainly not boring though perhaps over-long. Its central theme is the questionable relevance of monarchy in the modern age. The emphasis is on monarchy as it is today in Britain although there are numerous glances back to earlier times and other places, including a gruesome description of the execution of the regicides after the Restoration.
Paxman covers his subject pretty thoroughly, including finding a throne if you are unlucky enough to be born without access to one, learning the job, producing an heir, behaviour when in post, and so on. He has a large array of amusing and often surprising anecdotes. I was particularly struck by his quotation of a passage about George VI, whom I had always pictured as fairly formal and staid in his private life. On a visit to Rhodesia, however, he let off steam after one event.
On his return the King shouted, "Off parade at last", and threw his hat at the ceiling, which was caught by the ADC and returned to him; he then threw it on the floor and the Queen kicked it into the dining-room. The King then seized the gong and went round the house beating it before trying to hang it round one official's neck, saying, "I'm sure you'd like another of these!" He then opened the door of the ladies' lavatory and, seeing a fur hanging on a peg, said "My God, some woman has left her beard in here."Another episode that sticks in the mind is George V's failure to rescue his "dear" cousin, Tsar Nicolas of Russia, in 1917. George repeatedly pressed the Government not to offer refuge to the Tsar because he was afraid that to do so would imperil his own safety. Paxman comments tartly: "Having abandoned his cousin to be murdered by the Bolsheviks, George V attended a memorial service in the Russian Church in Welbeck Street, Marylebone."
Will Britain continue to have a monarchy? Paxman thinks it will, in part because there does not seem to be any viable alternative. Besides, with one short interval there has been a King or Queen on the throne for almost 2000 years and inertia is a powerful force in British public life. Republicanism has long had a slight aura of eccentricity here. Prince Charles may be an unsatisfactory prospect in some respects and many people might prefer Prince William, but there is no provision for skipping a generation in English law.
I found Paxman's conclusion, in which he remarks on the close connection in Britain between monarchy and religion, to be particularly interesting. It has always been the case that the monarch has his or her authority as God's proxy; the Queen certainly sees it that way today. But Paxman's account of this relationship suggested another idea to me: attitudes to the monarch and to religion in Britain are surprisingly similar. There is little interest in formal religion today yet few British people describe themselves as atheists. Most still identify themselves as Church of England and attend services once or twice a year with much the same unthinking acquiescence as they extend to the monarchy.
Paxman concludes his book as follows:
The arrangements are antique, undemocratic and illogical. But monarchies do not function by logic. If they work, they do so by appealing to other instincts, of history, emotion, imagination and mythology, and we have to acknowledge that many of the most stable societies in Europe are [based on] monarchies …If we substitute "religions" for "monarchies" in this passage, we get, I believe, a pretty accurate description of how many people in Britain feel about religion. (Which, of course, is why both are likely to endure for a considerable time yet.)
24 December 2006