The royal family loses its last bearable member.

Notes from different corners of the world.
April 8 2002 5:12 PM

End of the Line

The royal family loses its last bearable member.

Illustration by Mark Alan Stamaty

In a sudden fit of modernization, the Times of London recently decided to move its "Court Circular" feature, which chronicles the daily activities of the royal family, away from its traditional place near the editorials to a secluded spot between the business and sports pages.

That way, readers uninterested in the news that, say, "The Duke of Kent this morning visited St. Elizabeth Hospice Education Centre, Foxhall Road, Ipswich, and was received by Her Majesty's Lord-Lieutenant of Suffolk (the Lord Belstead)," as in fact took place on April 4, do not have to happen upon it every time they read the newspaper. They have to actually look for it.

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"Well, good idea," I said to my British parents-in-law over lunch soon after the change took place. I chose the most useless member of the royal family I could think of off the top of my head, to make my point. "Who wants to know what Princess Anne does every day, anyway?"

There was a pregnant pause as my father-in-law—who still remembers the Times from its pre-Murdoch days, and still regards it in the pantheon of reading material as falling somewhere between the Bible and Fowler's Modern English Usage—took a swig of his pre-lunch cocktail and threw me a politely condescending glance. "I do," he said.

It is people like him, and the rest of his seventysomething generation, who are genuinely distressed at the death this week of the ancient, gin-soaked queen mother, whose body (closed, rather disappointingly, inside her coffin) now lies in state in London and whose funeral is to be held tomorrow. Raised on a steady belief in the royal family's innate goodness—in its moral rectitude, its attention to duty, its symbolic importance to the fabric of the country—older Britons have now lost the sole member of the royal family about whom, it can be safely said, there was never any real public complaint.

Sure, her erstwhile sister-in-law, the wheat-sheaf-thin Wallis Simpson, called her "Cookie" behind her back, in a reference to the queen's mother's predilection for sugary treats of all kinds. A couple of years ago, when it turned out that the luxury-loving queen mother had managed to incur some $6 million in debts to her bank, despite an almost unlimited allowance from Queen Elizabeth, her daughter, there was no general uprising from subjects distressed at the queen mother's profligacy. Instead, most people seemed to feel that since she was so old and had been so brave during World War II—staying, as she had, in London as the bombs fell—she should be allowed to spend a little extra money.

Now that she is dead, and the newspapers are filled with platitudes about how she was the twinkliest, happiest woman who ever lived (and who wouldn't be, with all that money and all those servants and all those palaces?) the real question remains: What to do about the rest of the royal family, when its arguably least objectionable member is no longer with us?

With so many choices, it is hard to pick the one that seems most distasteful just now. There's Prince Edward, with his failed movie-production company, who tried surreptitiously to make a film about his own nephew, Prince William, as William began his first year of college. There's Edward's wife, Sophie, whose public-relations career foundered after a tabloid reporter dressed as an Arab sheik—that old trick!—duped her into revealing mild but nevertheless verboten opinions about her in-laws.

There's young Prince Harry, recently in the news for drunkenly referring to the French chef in a country pub as a "fucking frog" and then vomiting outside in the parking lot. There's Prince Andrew, the royal family's only middle-aged adolescent, still trawling for babes at parties around London, and his father, the injudicious Prince Philip, who never met a member of a minority group he didn't immediately offend (his latest gaffe: asking an Aborigine businessman whether he and his friends still throw spears at each other). And then there's the queen, of course, with her timelessly frumpy personal style and her habit, as the years go on, of looking more and more like the duchess whose child turns into a pig in Alice in Wonderland.

As it happens, Elizabeth lives (sometimes) just down the street from my office in stately Buckingham Palace, where the crowds converged in the thousands after Princess Diana died in 1997 (they're not converging there now, although there's apparently a mile-long line of people waiting to pay their respects to the queen mother's coffin).

You may well object to the fact that the only chance most civilians have of gaining legal entrance to Buckingham Palace door would be a) to get a job there, most likely in one of the notoriously low-paying footman-esque positions; or b) to pay about $15, during select summer months, for the chance to see whichever parts of the queen's priceless art collection she feels like displaying at the time. The Smithsonian Institution this isn't.

As it happens, I found a third way, when I was assigned to cover Rudolph Giuliani's investiture as an honorary knight a couple of months ago, and thus was given the chance to observe royalty first-hand in its natural habitat.

Supporting it all was a swarm of indeterminately employed courtiers—I was actually introduced to someone described as an "under footman"—milling around the palace, in huge cavernous rooms the purposes of which were not readily apparent. The palace, it seemed to me, had an awful lot of what we might describe as living rooms.

As Giuliani and dozens of other people who were getting awards for one thing or another lined up in various vestibules and prepared to make their grand entrances, the band played music that would have been at home in an elevator. At one point, I could hear the Carpenters' "We've Only Just Begun" wafting across the hall. It was like prize day at school, with the queen, dressed in a black suit, her glasses propped on her nose, as the aged headmistress.

But she did what she was supposed to do. She smiled and shook hands and rapped the appropriate people on the shoulder with her father's ceremonial sword. She did not appear bored, or tired, or irritated, or even embarrassed by the bad music. She did not complain about what a dumb job she has. And then everyone went home, thoroughly pleased with themselves and their big day at the palace.

What is the point of the royal family? It's become a question that only the queen would be capable of answering—if she ever answered questions in public.

Sarah Lyall is a London correspondent for the New York Times. You can follow her on Twitter.

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