BOOK REVIEW / Within curtseying distance: 'Crowned Heads: Kings, Sultans and Emperors - A Royal Quest' - Veronica Maclean: Hodder, 25 pounds

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The Independent Culture
A STUDENT contemporary of mine was a Georgian prince. While waiting for the good people of Georgia to throw off the Communist yoke, which they did, and summon him back to the royal palace, which they didn't, he reigned in his college room over a government-in-exile. He designed Ruritanian uniforms, rewarded his courtiers with decorations of his own devising and explained to them why it was that the wrong side had won the Second World War.

Real monarchs are much the same, except that in their case they have a real country on which to practise their fantasies. They have also had Veronica Maclean, a diplomat's wife, visiting them in her largely successful quest to interview all 27 of the world's reigning monarchs. One, King Moshoeshoe II of Lesotho, was deposed while she was fixing a date to see him, and he turned up in person at her flat.

Her background gave her a big advantage in getting her foot inside palace doors; at his Scottish castle, her father had provided 'a roof and a hot meal' to several guests who later occupied thrones. ('We had not seen King Birendra since his Eton days,' she remarks of the Nepalese autocrat who has banned political parties.) Unfortunately, her background also prevented her from asking impolite and interesting questions.

Does Emperor Akihito miss anything since his family was demoted from being divine - immortality, for instance? Does the King Bhumibol Adulyadej of Thailand think, as do millions of Hindus, that he is a god? If he is, how come he remains, after a car accident, one-eyed? Instead, Lady Maclean merely simpers that 'he is talented in so many ways'. How does His Serene Highness, Prince Hans Adam of Liechtenstein ('articulate . . . considerable charm') feel about being the big cheese in a tiny tax haven and does he want John Birt to run his TV station?

One argument against royalty is the damage it does to an interviewer's prose style. Lady Maclean describes her journeys with some competence but as soon as she comes within curtseying distance of a person of the regal persuasion, her brain turns to royal jelly and she writes as if for an upper-class Hello]. As for taking assertions at face value, she raises this to an art form.

Despite the gush, something of these monarchs still shines through. The Queen is fluent in five languages and can get by in Faroese - not our queen, that is, but Queen Margrethe of Denmark. King Harald V of Norway also appeals to me, not because he is 'lively and has considerable charm' but because he and his queen live on a dairy farm. King Carl XVI Gustaf ('tall, good-looking . . . very blue eyes') of Sweden is an archaeologist. On the other hand, Sultan Qaboos of Oman - 'The gleam in his eye was more that of the eagle than the gazelle' - is not someone you'd want to meet on a dark night in the desert. His sinister photo, apparently taken underwater like most of the book's pictures, doesn't help.

Will royalty surface again in countries that have, over the years, given it the bum's rush? Lady Maclean hopes that it will. My advice to the people of Georgia is that they should pay a king's ransom to avoid being ruled by anyone like my student prince. He himself is not in the running: the poor deluded soul died when a fire broke out in his Earls Court bedsit and he went into the flames to rescue his home-made decorations. God knows what the rest of the family is like.

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