A teddy bear grows claws

Sir Roy Strong, late of the Victoria & Albert Museum, presently gardening on the Welsh border, has some scores to settle. The mode he has chosen, like John Osborne and Alan Clark before him, is diaries. They could put him back where he wants to be. By Jonathan Glancey
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Indy Lifestyle Online
"Her accent," writes Sir Roy Strong of the Princess of Wales, "is really rather awful considering that she is an earl's daughter. Not an upper-class drawl at all, but rather tuneless and, dare I say it, a bit common."

Strong stuff indeed, you might think, coming from the famously foppish ex-director of the Victoria & Albert Museum. For years, as snippets of his diaries to be published next week reveal, Sir Roy wooed the royal family with the assiduity of a corgi on heat. The Duke of Edinburgh "looks remarkable for his age" he trills (6/7 April 1978) and "I couldn't help being impressed by the Prince's [Charles's] sheer 'niceness' " (2 March 1971).

In comparison to these gushing eulogies, the "indiscretions" Sir Roy has committed to his diaries are rather like the venial sins of seven- year-old children making their first Confession. We learn, for example, that the royals are, on the whole, badly dressed; that the Queen is shy and likes dogs; that the Queen Mum serves deep-fried rissoles, frozen sprouts and mashed potatoes for lunch; and, the most risque revelation of all, that Princess Margaret once set off a metal detector in Miami with her "antiquated metal-supported corsetry". Crikey! More of this sort of stuff and the beefeaters will be carting Sir Roy off to the Tower. Off with his head. It's the only language these celebrity diarists understand.

Actually, the diaries do get a little friskier - but only, it seems, when the targets are easy. Here is the Queen sitting dutifully through a gala bash at Covent Garden for the Queen Mother: "Tough for her ... to be saddled with three hours of ballet without a horse in sight." Here is the begetter of Princess Di described as "the terrible mother, Mrs Shand Kydd". The stepmother, Raine Spencer, has "hair like an exploded balloon".

Sir Roy so wanted the Royal Family to be special. The precocious yet solitary boy from a Middlesex semi who rose from the confines of Edmonton County Grammar to become, at 31, Britain's youngest ever curator of a national collection (director of the National Portrait Gallery, 1967-73) was an expert in royal portraiture and the history of the Tudor and Elizabethan monarchs. When his position allowed him access to the reigning House of Windsor, he saw himself mingling with the successors of those great and cultured (if deeply flawed) monarchs, Henry VIII and Elizabeth I. They might have been cruel people living in a brutal age, but they were also enlightened and generous patrons of the arts.

But the House of Windsor and its various German outhouses have been a disappointment to Sir Roy. Why, however, he imagined that the Princess of Wales would be an expert on Hilliard miniatures at a time when she was, like any other young Sloane, absorbed in performing aerobics to the accompaniment of her favourite Duran Duran tape is surprising. The truth, perhaps, is that Sir Roy had never met a Sloane until his tenure at the NPG. He didn't understand that contemporary princesses are nothing like those painted by Holbein, Lely or Van Dyck.

In this sense, the young Sir Roy comes across as naive rather than snobbish. The real world turned out to be very different from those of the books and pictures he pored over as a boy. It took years for exquisite and fictional silk veils to be lifted from Sir Roy's short-sighted eyes. Princes and princesses are no longer glamorous or even very interesting, while even those larger-than-life figures in the world of art and culture whom Sir Roy so admired in his suburban youth turned out to be as petty, vain and vindictive as artless mortals.

If Sir Roy's diaries are a record of disappointing encounters and show many disappointingly ordinary people in poor light, why bother to publish them? Unlike Samuel Pepys, today's committed diarists want to be published in their own lifetime.

First, as with the diaries of John Osborne, there is the desire to settle old scores - in Sir Roy's case with the V&A trustees, Sir Terence Conran, Lord Gowrie, and more. What old scores? Principally, Sir Roy was hurt by behind-the-scenes decisions made to transform the V&A into an an ace caff with quite a nice museum attached (which is what it was to become after he left). After all, he had proved in exhibition after exhibition that it was possible to marry museological scholarship to mass audiences.

There are two further reasons to publish. One is cash (although Sir Roy the country gardener has been a serial best-seller and so is unlikely to be on his uppers), and the other is vanity. Or curiosity. The reaction of those featured in the diaries will be a cue to the obituaries that the author might expect. Expect no favours, for example, from the slighted Sir Terence Conran, who believes his accuser "has a chip on his shoulder which weighs him down. He is a brilliant scholar and clever enough not to have to indulge in this sort of behaviour. His is a camp bitchiness I do not understand."

Sir Terence probably does understand, as this kind of "camp bitchiness" is common currency in the world of art and culture. This observation does not, however, lessen its sting. On form, Sir Roy, although no obvious pugilist (though he lists "keeping fit" among his hobbies in Who's Who) can float like a butterfly and sting like a bee.

Sir Terence would probably be more offended if Sir Roy had edited him out of his published diaries. When James Laver, a curator specialising in the history of costume at the V&A in the Fifties, published his memoirs, his colleagues and employers were furious that they were not named. Much to their chagrin, Laver preferred the film stars and television celebrities he had met to the routine encounters with curators and arty-smarties.

In private, Sir Roy is a delightfully funny and engaging man, and although he must have trampled on many flowers, some sensitive, others prickly, over the past decade, he surely craves the attention that must have seemed all his in the Swinging Sixties. Since he resigned from the V&A in 1987 (he has never spelt out exactly why) he has been cultivating a small, perfectly formed garden on the Welsh border. Few readers of these diaries will doubt that Sir Roy Strong would like to be tending an altogether much larger and grander one in the hotbed of London.

Diaries are a good way of getting media attention when their author wishes to take centre light on the public stage. Publishing his did wonders for Alan Clark, standing this week as Conservative candidate for one of the safest seats in the country (Kensington & Chelsea). This upper-crust rude boy has even won over the blue-rinse brigade with his pugnacious wit and seminal indiscretions. Sir Roy, a hermit, gardener and media scribbler for the past decade, is known to want one last major public appointment. If a sensational book worked for Clark, it might work for him, too.

Or as he puts it in the pages of his diaries, "From the day I left the V&A I was dead, never asked to do anything. It's no good being bitter, but it's why I feel no hesitation in publishing". Welcome back, Sir Royn

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