BOOK REVIEW / Throne into confusion: Lynn Barber on the latest royal flush of Palace gossip

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The Independent Culture
THE QUEEN's annus horribilis has produced the publishers' annus mirabilis and the most exciting harvest of royal gossip since, I would guess, the 18th century. All five of a new crop of books deal essentially with the same topic - the breakdown of the Waleses' marriage and the consequent problems for the monarchy - but with varying degrees of seriousness.

A N Wilson's The Rise & Fall of the House of Windsor (Sinclair-Stevenson pounds 14.99) is the most stylish. The main question he addresses is how long the monarchy will last. He believes that 'the only thing which could seriously make it difficult for it to survive is the survival of Prince Charles.' But that is hardly a comforting verdict for monarchists - the Prince has never shown the slightest inclination to fall on his sword.

Wilson wastes no time on bogus deference or crocodile tears. 'One does not have to be of a very vindictive temperament,' he tells us on page three, 'to savour the essentially comic misfortunes of a talentless and, it has to be said at the outset, largely charmless family who, by the accidents of birth and marriage, happen to be the custodians of the British monarchical system. It is they who have chosen to behave like characters in a Feydeau farce, and they cannot be surprised when the audience laugh.'

His most feline malice is reserved for the Queen Mother. Wilson believes that she and her husband invented the modern 'role' of the monarchy during the war, playing up their happy family image to counteract the evil glamour of the Windsors over the water. The present Queen continued this role and extended it to her children and their spouses. However, it is the religious role of the monarchy that presents the most insuperable problem, and Wilson analyses it starkly: if the Church could not accept a king married to a divorcee just half a century ago, it can hardly accept a divorced king now. Wilson is old enough to remember the last Coronation and to teach younger readers something they might not know: that the Coronation is a deeply religious ceremony, dripping with mystical significance, and not easy to reconcile with a belief in reincarnation as Mrs Parker Bowles's Tampax. Though outsiders might take the monarch's role as head of the Church of England lightly, the royal family themselves do not: Wilson claims that Princess Margaret told him as recently as 1988 that her sister was 'God's representative in this realm'. Disestablishing the Church would be one way out of the impasse - and a move long overdue anyway - but it would leave the monarchy precariously exposed.

Anthony Holden's The Tarnished Crown (Bantam pounds 16.99) also sees Prince Charles as the fly in the royal ointment, both because of his likely divorce, and because of his meddlesome desire to be 'controversial' and to have 'ideas'. (Wilson thinks it could have been stamped out if only he had gone to Eton: it was the absence of any competition at Gordonstoun that allowed him to imagine himself an intellectual.) Both Holden and Wilson see his speech to the Academie des Sciences in France, on the eve of the Gatt talks in December 1992, as a deliberate flouting of political advice - Wilson believes the speech was probably written for him by the Green Party - and a worrying foretaste of the sort of constitutional gaffe he might commit if he ever became King. Both writers dislike the Prince intensely and write in a tone that, if it came from a woman, would certainly be called bitchy.

James Whitaker's Diana v Charles (Signet pounds 14.99) is more good-humoured. Unfortunately its main selling-point, the transcript of a supposedly bugged conversation at Highgrove, now looks rather dubious, but there are many other enjoyable 'revelations', such as that Mrs Parker-Bowles doesn't change her underwear. Whitaker, like Wilson, is a former Di-worshipper who has now somewhat modified his rapture, but he is still sentimental about the monarchy. The book is better written than his unwise boast that he wrote it in three weeks might lead you to expect.

Nigel Dempster and Peter Evans's effort, Behind Palace Doors (Orion pounds 16.99), is frankly disappointing. It starts with a fine chapter about 'Black Wednesday', when the full Camillagate transcript was published, but then quickly degenerates into a familiar canter through Charles's girlfriends and the marriages of the Waleses and Yorks. Of course, it is a tribute to Dempster's journalistic honesty that he published his discoveries in his newspaper at the time, instead of keeping them up his sleeve, but it makes his book a bit deja vu-ish for Daily Mail readers.

And now we come to Lady Colin Campbell and The Royal Marriages (Smith Gryphon pounds 15.99). How the heart beats faster, how the pulse quickens, to encounter an author so exhilaratingly untrammelled by any fear (or knowledge?) of the libel laws. Nothing is beyond her: she fills in the 'missing portion' of the Squidgy tape; she breaches the last great taboo and discusses the Queen's sex life and Prince Philip's 'outside interests' (it is bourgeois, she tells us, to talk of mistresses); she hints at exciting new paternities for Prince Andrew and Prince Edward - though her rococo style often makes it hard to sort out whether she actually means what she seems to be saying. Either she is the greatest gossip since Pepys or she is a complete fabulist: one can only read it and gawp.

This brings us to the whole problem with books about the royals - how on earth do you assess their accuracy? By any normal journalistic standards, Anthony Holden's is the only respectable book in the bunch: it has a named source, often a printed source, for every assertion. A N Wilson is more cavalier - he merely puts an asterisk beside some of his wildest gossip and marks it as 'private information'. (Wilson's most contentious bit of 'private information' is that Mrs Parker Bowles joined Prince Charles in Turkey in May 1991, something the Palace has always strenuously denied.) Nigel Dempster has a few excellent sources - Simon Parker Bowles (Camilla's brother-in-law), Earl Spencer, John Bryan - but many more dubious ones, such as Prince Charles's former valet, Stephen Barry, now deceased. James Whitaker relies mainly on unnamed 'Palace aides' or servants, while Lady Colin Campbell never bothers her head with anything so tedious as verification.

This might lead one to conclude that Holden's book is accurate and the others are not. But wait. The great lesson of the unfolding royal story over the past few years has been that what starts out as gossip quite often ends up as fact - vide the Squidgy and Camilla tapes, and Diana's co-operation in Andrew Morton's book, which drew howls of derision from the posh papers when it was first suggested. I would hesitate to say that Lady Colin Campbell's gossip is entirely or even mainly accurate - but I would hesitate a bit longer before dismissing it out of hand.