Keep on spending, Your Majesty
It wasn't the existence of the overdraft that surprised us, but the fact that it was only pounds 4m
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 19 March 1999
There are some stories which, however intrinsically unlikely or fatuous they may be (such as, say, that two male cabinet ministers in the last government were sleeping with each other), spread to all four corners of the world, simply because people would like them to be true. A Chinese tofu-farmer, a Papuan hunter-gatherer or an American undergraduate may be quite unable to indicate Europe on a map of the world. But you can bet your life that, if they see a particular Hollywood actor appearing at their local multiplex, they will all turn to their girl and say: "You know, he likes to push hamsters up his bottom. A friend of my brother's knows someone who knows him."
The story of the Queen Mother's overdraft, I always thought, fell rather into this category. We all have friends of friends who know someone who was once at dinner with the Queen and heard her say: "My goodness, let's not talk about Mummy's overdraft". And we all wanted it to be true. It has all the hallmarks of a really great urban myth: the nice old lady who keeps up the middle-class front of cosy family life before shutting the door at Clarence House to feed the corgis on Sevruga.
And the other part of it is, of course, that the rest of the Royal Family are such splendid, notorious tightwads. You wouldn't want the Queen to be an extravagant entertainer, and she isn't. If you want exquisitely inventive canapes and wines of lavish quality, you'd be better off going to a midweek party at the embassy of some slightly grubby Eastern European state. The Queen has nothing to prove - she knows quite well that nobody remembers a party at Windsor by the brilliantly witty canapes.
So it's agreeable to think that one member of the Firm, and the least likely one at that, really does continue to indulge herself and her guests on a truly imperial scale. We all wanted to think it was the case, and now it seems that, unlike most such urban myths, what we wanted to believe turns out to be true.
The disappointing thing about it, however, is the size of the overdraft. If the newspapers are to be believed, she owes the bank about pounds 4m. Four million quid! My God, is that all the debt she can acquire in the course of 98 years? I could run up debts of four million in a fortnight!
The size of the Queen Mother's income is pretty well unknown; there is the pounds 650,000-odd from the Civil List, of course, which probably just about covers the servants, if that; the rest of it is private income, and none of our business. But what we can pretty well say is that her way of life has probably exceeded her means by a small, steady margin, and not exceeded the means of her family at all. If anyone - the Queen Mother, her family, the bank - were remotely worried about the debt, I expect we would see her famous Monet down at Sotheby's, and the supply of gin and Dubonnets would continue unchecked.
So what on earth are the papers going on about? The extraordinary something- must-be-done lather some people were getting themselves into about the overdraft had to be seen to be believed. I expect sooner or later the debt will have to be repaid; and if it comes from public funds, we will know about it. But it won't, of course it won't, and with that, the slightest justification for writing about the overdraft disappears. The only reason, really, the papers had for going into it was prurience and vulgarity, and their striking of moral postures was far less attractive than the extravagance they pretended to denounce.
The reason the information had any coverage, of course, was all to do with the betrayal of illusions. Much as the middle classes would like the Queen Mum to be a nice cosy granny in a hat from British Home Stores, I think they ought to accept that she is not. She is the last Empress of India. And even if, like me, you think the monarchy probably ought to be closed down at some point, we have an obligation towards its past; an obligation which we should not betray for the sake of a measly four million quid.
May her taps be made of gold, and spew gin and Dubonnet night and day; may orchids be strewn in the path of her horses whenever they race. Because, frankly, spectacle is cheap, and the amusement, fascination and gaiety afforded the nation by HM, and her extravagance, is not something we should even think of putting a price on.
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