Reflections on Harry, Meghan, and entitlement
Harry and Meghan Windsor plan to climb down from their royal plinth, move to Canada and become who they really are. Good for them for trying, I say.
But would it were that easy. Finding a suitable mansion in Toronto for half the year shouldn’t be a problem, but finding out who they are might prove a challenge.
Beyond a certain point of fame you not only can’t have a private life, but you never really had one, said the very wise Clive James.
And the question arises, as much as they want to know who they really are, does anyone else?
No matter what they end up doing under the Sussex Royal brand, whether it’s the speaking tour, or marketing something or other, or heading charitable causes, it won’t be as Mr. and Mrs. Windsor.
They might have nothing but pearls of wisdom to cast before a paying audience; the quality of their endorsed merchandise will undoubtedly be high end; and their sponsored charities worthy ones to be sure. But that’s hardly the point.
The Clintons and the Obamas continue to make a king’s ransom from their speaking engagements, and I’m sure they’re worth listening to. But would anyone pay to hear them speak, or read their memoirs, if they weren’t the Clintons and the Obamas?
At least presidents are elected.
Thomas Paine remarked that a hereditary head of state is as absurd a proposition as a hereditary physician or astronomer.
Or a hereditary astronaut.
In The Crown, there’s a riveting scene between Elizabeth and Philip where she shares with him a rather profound insight.
He complained to her that his private audience with moon astronauts Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins, was sorely disappointing. Inspired by what he believed to be their fierce initiative and drive to find themselves in outer space, he soon realized theirs was no voyage of self-discovery but a scientific, pre-determined regimen of checking boxes and following protocol. Far too busy with routine to discover themselves on the moon, their only thought was to find their way back to earth.
The Queen asks Philip what did he expect. The astronauts knew they would spend the rest of their lives in a goldfish bowl, afraid to open their mouths about personal matters or beliefs, because if they revealed who they really were they’d likely disappoint their admiring public. For that, she says, they deserve our pity.
She knew whereof she spoke, having been ceremoniously lowered into the royal goldfish bowl at the beginning of her adult life.
Every year, the Queen’s Christmas message to the world dangles before us the tantalizing hope that she will reveal something of herself, of who she really is beneath the crown and the jewelry, the pomp and the circumstance. But it never happens.
In The Crown it does, because like Coronation Street, it’s largely fiction. In both shows we get immense pleasure from seeing celebrities who are pretty well as we imagine ourselves to be.
I was privileged once to meet the Queen (Royal protocol discourages those granted such an honour from sharing what was said, but what the hell, I’m trying to make a point here).
The occasion was a garden party in Oxford, in 1983. Amongst the many celebrated alumni of the university there was I, wearing the wrong shoes and wanting to be somewhere else.
Next thing I knew the Queen was standing in front of me and her mouth was moving.
“You’re not a lawyer, are you?” she asked. “Everyone here seems to be a lawyer.” She looked me in the eye and smiled, surely not at all interested if I was a lawyer or not.
“No, Ma’am, I’m a teacher.”
“Oh, and what is it that you teach?”
She chuckled, then checked herself.
“I’m terribly sorry. I shouldn’t laugh, but I’m looking at your name and thinking how funny.”
I smiled back.
“That’s okay, Ma’am. It’s the Queen’s English I teach.”
And she laughed again, then nodded and moved on. The official photographer had caught the moment.
Afterwards I thought, whatever does one say when one is required to go walkabout among congenitally ordinary people for the ten thousandth time? How does one do it for 70 years without going brain dead? I imagine Ma’am carries on doing what Ma’am’s always done in those encounters: just be herself.
Likely, she had already erased our little exchange as soon as she engaged the next random person along the line.
I, on the other hand, will never forget the moment, because she’s the Queen and she spoke to me. I was allowed as much of herself as she wanted to share. But it was enough to know she was real.
I guess what we learn from such moments is that for all their celebrity, they have feelings like anyone—asking themselves, what on earth do I say to this person?—and when they’re cut they bleed as we do. Who wouldn’t want to escape the mongrels of the gutter press as Harry’s mother was incapable of doing when she was driven to her death. Now they’ve got their teeth into Harry and most sickeningly into his wife, attacking her for her supposed interference and her racial background.
“This is a seismic moment in royal history and British society,” Kate Williams, a historian at the University of Reading, wrote in The Observer. “It tells historians of the future much about our society, its self-perceptions, prejudices and fears. And most of all, it should mark our realization — as we didn’t learn after Diana—that those who marry into the Royal Family are not our dolls to attack and throw around as we please.”
But society has always attacked and thrown its “dolls” around as it pleases, whether they’re royals or not. We think of Elvis, Marilyn, and Maria Callas. Of Mario Lanza, Judy Garland and Amy Winehouse. So, I’m not certain that, sad as it is, this is all that seismic a moment in our history. Henry VIII went through six wives, but himself escaped execution or assassination, unlike no fewer than seventeen other British monarchs.
Harry and Meghan would dearly love to shake the monkey off their backs, and be who they really are. Who can blame them.
But it’s the golden one on their shoulders that their adoring public will never not see.
As Heathcote Williams remarked, when people come up to talk to the famous, they only see the golden monkey. Did I see it when I spoke to Ma’am nearly 40 years ago? Of course I did.
Will Brand Royal Sussex shake the golden monkey from their shoulders? Or, having now given it a name, don’t they have less hope than ever of doing so.
It’s interesting that Canadian marketers and economists regard their arrival here as a boon for tourism and for Canada’s media image abroad.
Mr. and Mrs. Windsor might eventually find themselves after they arrive here, but we’ll likely never know who they really are. If we did, how would we react when they turn out to be no different from us.
That’s not what we paid to see. ♦