Literature Royalty and Restraint Royal Society of Literature, London

'They're such a rare breed. And it is so alluring trying to understand the royal mindset'

Three royal biographers sit smartly in a row at the Royal Literary Society, a tall room with dusky velvet drapes which seems designed for some Mesmerists' Convention: the serious historian (Philip Ziegler), the demi-serious (Hugo Vickers) and Sarah Bradford.

Ziegler is intelligent and, from time to time, unctuous: Vickers, an old Etonian with a steely-grey Elvis quiff, has a stiff, impenetrable smirk; Bradford sports a double choker of pearls and an indomitable posture.

When Vickers was a "mere" boy at Eton, he spent his holidays making a painstaking replica of Windsor Castle, peopled by royal personages, so the genial chairman of this discussion tells us. What we don't hear is who dropped the lighted match - and whether the royal personages were ever alive. Ziegler's biggest effort in this line has been his authorised biography of Edward VIII. Bradford shocks everyone in the room by shooting straight from the steely-black-clad thigh, so straight, in fact, that we're pleased for Edward's sake that he is safely dead: "He was an obstinate, bitter and rather stupid man. And, yes, I do think he was a fascist. He disapproved of all democracies. He called them slipshod." Nothing slipshod there.

During question time, the audience unites in its condemnation of the wickedly prurient intrusiveness of the press. Everyone settles into a mood of hand-wringing impotence. Fortunately, Vickers cheers us up by describing why the idea of being a royal biographer holds such an appeal. "They're such a rare breed. And it is so alluring, trying to understand the royal mindset." Bradford agrees. "It's rather like being David Attenborough pursuing some exotic species into the forest." "And just imagine," interjects Vickers, "some of the difficulties they have to put up with. The monarch may, for example, have a cousin who is himself the monarch of a country with which one is at war. These are such different problems from the ones people normally encounter."

Sir Robert Fellowes of the Royal Household rises to remind us why we are gathered here. "The monarch is at the centre of the warp and woof of the history of this country." Then, as if by some miracle, two great doors are flung back to reveal the canapes and wine, and, crouching beneath the furthest table, Mrs Simpson, with a tiny cache of Semtex and a small woofing dog. In such a world of fantasy, all things monarchical are shrouded in mystery...

MICHAEL GLOVER

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