Do your duty: invite a Royal to tea
Tea with the Queen is said to be a common anxiety dream, not least among her own children
Professor of Creative Writing at the University of Exeter, Philip Hensher was among Granta 20 Best of Young British Novelists in 2003. The author of six novels, a collection of short stories and an opera libretto, he has won numerous prizes including the Somerset Maugham Award and the Stonewall Journalist of the Year. His 2008 novel, 'The Northern Clemency', was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize and the Commonwealth Prize. A regular presence in the British media, alongside his Wednesday column for The Independent, he writes for The Spectator and Mail on Sunday.
Friday 09 July 1999
This is not, as you may have thought, someone talking about an estate agent showing round a prospective buyer of her house, but someone with whom the Queen had tea on Wednesday. She dropped in on a stroke victim living in a bungalow on a Glasgow council estate, for 15 minutes of caring and sharing, before being whisked off to see a "display of football" and meet members of a fitness class. It was her tea with Mrs McCarron, however, that made the papers.
"I said to the Queen," Mrs McCarron went on, "that she would know about people who have had strokes after what happened to Princess Margaret, and the Queen said `Yes, of course.'" So the caring and sharing only went so far before it hit that wall of Windsor briskness. I don't suppose, though, that even Mrs McCarron thought that within 10 minutes she would be hearing all about Princess Margaret's ailments, what a relief it was to get Edward married off at last to a plain sensible girl, and what a bitch that Princess Michael could be.
Tea with the Queen is said to be a common anxiety dream, not least among the Queen's own children. Looking at the photographs, though, I don't think Mrs McCarron had much to be anxious about; her house seemed to have been selected on the grounds of its almost appalling tidiness, without a book or a magazine in sight. The cushions were plumped within an inch of their lives, the white lacy tablecloth and tea service almost certainly bought for the occasion. The only possibilities of disruption were the unpredictable elements of Mrs McCarron's teenage son, and the Duke of Edinburgh; the one in the shell-suit was being firmly pinned down on the sofa by a lady-in-waiting, and the other, apparently, was slashing the upholstery in the car.
You really wonder what the Queen thinks of us. Someone once said that she probably believes that the world smells of fresh paint, and I can't imagine that she has ever seen an untidy room. She almost certainly has no idea of the conversation of ordinary people, since when anyone meets her they either gabble uncontrollably or fall into an awestruck silence. When conversation strikes up, it doesn't get much further than questions about the house her interlocutor lives in, or, on walkabouts, whether he or she has come far, though these days I expect "Did you see EastEnders last night?" would be a more successful conversational gambit.
What exactly this sort of thing is meant to demonstrate, I don't know. No one involved seems to be having a nice time, and it certainly demonstrates conclusively that the Queen hasn't acquired what used to be called "the common touch". Which is odd, because, in many ways, the Windsors are exactly like an old-fashioned working-class family in a soap opera. There are the difficult cousins whom everyone hates; there's Dad, who always turns himself into a spectacle at parties or abroad; there are the kids, who had to be brought up by Grandma because Mum had to work overtime; and Grandma, widely believed to be a dear old lady, who is really a battler no one dares to cross.
I think we all ought to accept that these carefully staged social encounters with the lower orders aren't being put on for our benefit, despite the photographers in tow. How could they be, when they strike so baffling a tone between a matey pretence that the Queen is just like us, and an awesomely regal condescension? If the conduct of the monarchy were carried out for our benefit, then the Queen should just ascend into Windsor, to be wheeled out once a year, glittering with diamonds, to be viewed by her amazed subjects. The attempt to persuade us that the head of state is really just like us is doomed to failure, for the simple reason that once we are persuaded of the virtue of the idea, we are bound to start wanting someone who really is just like us, and not someone whose merit derives from being able to trace her ancestry in a direct line 15 centuries back to Ugbert the Incompetent.
No, such events are not staged for our benefit, but for theirs - to persuade the poor old Royal Family that they are doing their job of meeting their subjects, and making them feel good about themselves. Who could object to that? All in all, I think we as subjects should accept our duty to have one of the poor saps round for tea once in a while. You would only have to turn the telly off for 15 minutes; they seem quite happy with Tetley's tea; and just think of the nice warm glow of condescension you'd give them as they drove away.
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