John Walsh On Monday: Why not make him Duke of Borchester?
Prolific writer and commentator John Walsh contributes columns to the paper as well as writing features, interviews and restaurant reviews. He has been editor of The Independent Magazine, literary editor of the Sunday Times and features editor of the London Evening Standard.
Monday 21 June 1999
More to the point, what is the Queen doing handing out titles to places which do not exist? Wessex is not a place with any real geographical meaning, like Sussex or Rutland or Ashby de la Zouch or Popocatepetl.
The title may well have been dreamt up by King Canute, but then we know what an inveterate old joker he was about the limits of royal power; by giving himself majesty or hegemony, or whatever the word may be, over a non-existent land he was demonstrating the folly of presuming to hold sway over any territory, as if anyone could really own the rock and the hills. That's my theory, anyway.
Wessex does, of course, have a literary identity, as the fictional universe of the novels of Thomas Hardy. Wessex was the nonce word for a territorial amalgam of Dorset, Somerset and bits of neighbouring counties, whose cities were similarly re-christened by the gloomy auteur: so Oxford became Christminster, where Jude the Obscure went to be a stonemason and student manque, Dorchester became Melchester, Sherbourne became Casterbridge - and now the lovely Sophie, too, has become, as it were, lightly fictionalised.
You can imagine her turning up in the novels: a sturdy rustic lass with a firm chin and a drawstring blouse who, through the bizarre caprices of fate, marries a balding-yet-baby-faced squire, and is granted a title by Queen Victoria for selling seed to Windsor Castle, thus turning her into "the Countess of Wessex", derided by the ale-quaffing gossips at the Melchester Arms ("They say 'e 'as no passionate parts"), brought low by the President of the Immortals, and doomed to end her days embroidering press releases emphasising the positive side of the Industrial Revolution.
Yes, I can see it now: Soph of the Windsorvilles: the Story of a Maid.
But really, if Her Majesty starts a trend of ennobling people with fake place-names, I fear their currency will swiftly decline. Any minute now there will be a Duke of Borchester. Some hobbit-loving courtier will have a word in HM's ear and become the Marquess of Middle Earth. The Earl of Gormenghast is a title that will be snapped up faster than a W-reg licence plate. Mark my words, the advent of the Count of Brobdingnag is only a matter of time.
And does she really not know that Alexander, the notorious Marquess of Bath, he of the wifelets, the hairy pigtails and the Hells Angels tea parties, long ago awarded himself the title of "King of Wessex"? Does it mean that he and the new Earl have to fight it out to decide which of them pays court to whom? Or is the whole thing, by any chance, a fatuous charade?
SO PRINCE William is 17 today. It is obviously time someone put a kind, avuncular arm round his shoulders, puffed furiously on his Kapp & Peterson and offered some manly advice to the burgeoning adult. I suppose it had better be me. No, no, don't thank me, old boy, it's what your Uncle John is here for. Let me offer you 17 things you should know by now:
t 17 is the age at which you will do your A-levels, acquire a car, start drinking beer seriously and get laid. You will retire behind locked doors and shutters for two months, your face ablaze with acne; the only cure for it used to be an evil-smelling, flesh-coloured preparation called Hide 'n' Heal. You will develop an ungovernable lust for Catherine Zeta Jones. Don't fight it. This is perfectly natural for boys of your age.
t I note that you are studying geography, biology and history of art. You must prepare yourself for the shock that, immediately after the exams are over, everything you now know about artesian wells, the digestive tract of the frog and the drawings of Piranesi will fly out of your head and never come back again.
t When apprehended by the police on the M4 for speeding in your Volkswagen Golf, it is correct form to offer some cheery pleasantry to the uniformed officer, such as, "Good evening, sergeant, what seems to be the trouble?" rather than, "You can't touch me, copper, I'm the Heir Presumptive."
t Women will go to bed with chaps for a surprising number of reasons - sympathy, curiosity, desperation, drunkenness; because the chap makes them laugh, makes them feel maternal, reminds them of their father, or bought them a pashmina from Harrods; because you're young, or good-looking, or rich, or royal; what they will not do is go to bed with chaps out of pity.
t There is little point in reading Middlemarch before you're 21, The Great Gatsby before you're 30, or the major Russian authors before you're 40. Late Henry James you may leave until your seventies. Do not read Piers Plowman or Spenser's The Faerie Queene at all, if you can possibly avoid them.
t Avoid people who talk about star signs, agendas, their motto, their sexual conquests or the novel they're writing. Try to get through life without saying, "For my sins".
t In the K-Bar, always remember: Beer then wine - you'll feel fine; wine then beer - you'll feel queer. Never try to snort vodka; this is only a passing fad. And remember: only a madman would ever drink gin and cider in the same evening.
t Always carry a small mirror around with you, so you can check to see there is nothing unpleasant on the end of your nose just before you meet Mr Blair/ the Dalai Lama/ Camilla/Ms Zeta Jones.
t Never try to sing "Danny Boy" in company. Whichever key you start off in, there's a completely impossible high note right at the end.
t Never bet on the favourite if its odds have shortened beyond 5-2. Just not worth the bother.
t Aldous Huxley said you should try everything in the world once, with the exception of incest and folk-dancing. Quite so. But you don't have to try bog-snorkelling, macrame or grilled liver, if you feel you'd rather not.
t If some commoner is ranting away unstoppably at you during a public function, the best way to shut him up is by looking straight up at the ceiling with a quizzical air. Only the most determined egoist could keep talking when confronted with a view of the royal Adam's apple. It always worked for your Uncle Andy, for example when meeting your humble scribe in 1984.
t Do not let them foist an equerry on you. You do not need an equerry. You need a mate.
t Not every Prince you meet will be royal. Prince is the dog on Blue Peter. The Artist Formerly Known as Prince is a pop star (ask your Dad). Prince Naseem is a Yemeni pugilist. Prince Buster was a fat singer of novelty records in the 1970s. Prince of Wales Drive is a street in Battersea. And a Prince Albert is an item of jewellery I'd rather not talk about.
t While the best things in life (sex, sunbathing, children and looking at pictures) are free, the second-best things are often not terribly expensive: books, having your hair washed, and Sainsbury's Thick 'n' Creamy yoghurt (vanilla flavour).
t Remember that, when you're 40, you'll regret the things you didn't do when you were young infinitely more than the things you did.
t Always get your round in.
EVIDENCE OF pre-millennial tension is breaking out all over the place.
According to the Sunday papers, the incidence of chronic teeth-grinding among stressed-out City bankers has reached such epidemic proportions that top dentists in the Square Mile are being besieged for supplies of plastic teeth-guards for sweating bond-dealers to chew at.
This coincides with another report, from Tessa Jowell at the Department of Health, about an increase in the number of deaths from cardiac arrests across the nation. They are planning to counteract this secondary epidemic by installing heart massage machines and electric shock equipment in shopping malls, airports, train stations and the like - and if it works, they will be installed in pubs and nightclubs.
Trained medical staff will be on hand to use the machines, although members of the public and "amateur first-aiders" will be able to have a go.
Can this be a good thing? The next time I walk through Euston and suffer a disabling attack of heartburn, will I look up to see a burly youth advancing on me with a pair of plate-sized electrodes, clamping them to my chest and shouting "Clear!" as if he's in Flatliners? I don't think so.
When I bend to tie my shoelace in Waitrose, will a kind but bored paramedic assume I'm keeling over very slowly, and go to work on my recumbent hide with a defibrillator?
Call me a Luddite, but I worry about the future. For who knows what violence may ensure in the Nun and Cockroach, a year from now, after a pissed and love-crazed hooligan discovers he has spent the last hour in the Gents fruitlessly trying to extract a packet of flavoured condoms from an electrocardiogram?
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