Measured out his life with chicken vol-au-vents and bunting
Since I last wrote on here, I’ve found myself returning to Hilary Mantel’s “notorious” essay “Royal Bodies”. I’ve been reading it as a counterpoint to some of the more banal Royal Baby conversations that I’ve been enduring.
Good writing returns to you; illuminating moments and thoughts you have an imprecise grasp on.
Mantel’s piece distills what I find sad about this poor baby’s life or birthright when she says that we entrap our royalty, condemning them to live as exotic creatures within the shabby, carpet-fraying world of British institutions.
Poor George, one week old and his life will be measured out with an endless procession of hospital openings, dreary civic events, and all those bloody awful Royal Variety Performances. The French, by comparison, were merciful to their royalty; they guillotined them. We’re so much crueler; we make ours watch Joe Pasquale:
I used to think that the interesting issue was whether we should have a monarchy or not. But now I think that question is rather like, should we have pandas or not? Our current royal family doesn’t have the difficulties in breeding that pandas do, but pandas and royal persons alike 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.
A few years ago I saw the Prince of Wales at a public award ceremony. I had never seen him before, and at once I thought: what a beautiful suit! What sublime tailoring! It’s for Shakespeare to penetrate the heart of a prince, and for me to study his cuff buttons. I found it hard to see the man inside the clothes; and like Thomas Cromwell in my novels, I couldn’t help winding the fabric back onto the bolt and pricing him by the yard. At this ceremony, which was formal and carefully orchestrated, the prince gave an award to a young author who came up on stage in shirtsleeves to receive his cheque. He no doubt wished to show that he was a free spirit, despite taking money from the establishment. For a moment I was ashamed of my trade. I thought, this is what the royals have to contend with today: not real, principled opposition, but self-congratulatory chippiness.
And then as we drifted away from the stage I saw something else. I glanced sideways into a room off the main hall, and saw that it was full of stacking chairs. It was a depressing, institutional, impersonal sight. I thought, Charles must see this all the time. Glance sideways, into the wings, and you see the tacky preparations for the triumphant public event. You see your beautiful suit deconstructed, the tailor’s chalk lines, the unsecured seams. You see that your life is a charade, that the scenery is cardboard, that the paint is peeling, the red carpet fraying, and if you linger you will notice the oily devotion fade from the faces of your subjects, and you will see their retreating backs as they turn up their collars and button their coats and walk away into real life.
Extract from Royal Bodies – Hilary Mantel