John Walsh: Tales of the City

'Despite his girth, the king enjoyed exercising on a custom-built bike on the tarmac at Tonga airport'
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The Independent Online

Hats off, gentlemen, to the late King Taufa'ahau Tupou IV of Tonga, whose death has removed one of the most charmingly eccentric figures from global monarchic circles. Standing 6ft 5in, in his prime he weighed 444lb (a shade under 32 stone), but when the Tongan government announced a national slimming initiative, he joined in, and shed a third of his body weight - equivalent to a fair-sized human being. You don't get many kings going on a crash diet just because their subjects are doing so.

He was, by all accounts, a stickler for formality: any foreign dignitaries hoping to meet him had to wear a striped morning coat and carry a silk hat (rentable from New Zealand.) A royal band was always on hand to play suitable music celebrating the fact that another Western diplomat was sucking up to the king. For his 70th birthday, a week of festivities was ordered, with three banquets a day, and a special dress code for each of them.

He was a working monarch with executive powers, and his word was law (nobody was allowed any direct criticism of his decisions, in the newspapers or anywhere else), but I suspect that he'll be most remembered for the curious little things he enjoyed, rather than for his role in Polynesian policy-making. Like the fact that he was so attached to his favourite leather jacket, he would wear it at state events, despite its obvious unsuitability for the boiling South Pacific climate.

And that his knowledge of foreign affairs came entirely from BBC radio, to which he listened all day long. And that, despite his girth, he enjoyed exercising on a custom-built bicycle, which he'd ride on the tarmac at Tonga airport. It would be closed one day a week, to accommodate him and his six bodyguards (who would run alongside). And that he had a collection of a hundred ukuleles, all brought to him by Soviet naval captains. He said that a Soviet captain had come a-calling many years before and, on his departure, had asked the king what gift he might bring next time. On a whim, the king said he'd like one of those titchy guitars from Hawaii. The information duly went into a KGB file and, ever since, every Russian matelot who came to pay court to the king brought a ukulele. It's hard to think of an instrument less appropriate to such an immense (in every respect) figure.

I recently encountered a fascinating new phenomenon, down Dulwich way, called the gap-year party. A colourful invitation drops through your door, inviting you to a themed evening of Thai food and Sainsbury's sauvignon. It also indicates that, should you wish to donate to young Jonquil's and Cassandra's gap-year travels in the Andaman regions, cheques should be made out to Thai Rip Off Adventure plc.

The evening is done in the best possible bourgeois taste, the dumplings and fishcakes are delicious, friends, neighbours and family are regaled, the girl travellers are breathless with excitement. And when your hosts mutter about a donation, you hand over your £20 or £40 without a qualm, or anything to show you've just encountered the latest instance of what should be, but isn't, called middle-class begging.

My first real job after university was on The Tablet, the intellectual Catholic weekly magazine. Unable to convince the editors that I was equipped to write leaders on liberation theology in Honduras, I was allowed to sell advertising space in the back pages, mostly to publishers and nuns. I remember well the day a Mr Hotchkiss rang up to place a lonely-hearts advert, shyly seeking a lady friend of suitably devout and liturgical-minded bent; I remember it so well because of the bollocking I received from Tom Burns, the editor, shortly after publication. Serious Catholic lady readers, it was explained to me with a jabbing forefinger, would not sully themselves by indulging the sexual fantasies of seedy, importuning strangers.

I couldn't see what was wrong with contact ads. There was nothing about them in the Ten Commandments ("Thou shalt not seek a wife, with or without a Good Sense of Humour, in the Classified section of papyrus journals, nor shalt thou demand to see a pictorial likeness of her, nor use the words 'No Time-wasters Please'..."). It seemed a perfectly sound method by which co-religionists could meet and compare notes. I mean, it seemed to work fine in The Spectator.

Imagine, then, my triumphant feelings of vindication on reading about Joseph and Maria Ratzinger, a Bavarian couple who died nearly 50 years ago. For they were the parents of Joseph Ratzinger Jr, better known as Benedict XVI, the present Supreme Pontiff, and someone has discovered that they met through a lonely-hearts column.

It seems that the Altöttinger Liebfrauenbote was a far more liberal-minded mag than The Tablet. It was there that Joseph Snr, a policeman, published an advertisement in 1920 that read: "Middle-ranking civil servant, single, Catholic, 43 years old, immaculate past, from the countryside, is seeking a good Catholic pure girl, who can cook well, and who can do all housework, who is also capable of sewing and a good homemaker, in order to marry at the soonest opportunity. Personal fortune would be desirable but is not, however, a precondition. Offers, if possible with picture, to box no 734."

Amazingly, the chauvinistic flatfoot received no replies. So he tried again and, this time, was contacted by one Maria Peintner. They met at a coffee shop in July 1920, were married four months later, and had three children, the second of whom became the Pope.

Poor Maria. How could she have missed what the ad was really saying? Wasn't it obvious? It meant: "Over-the-hill hayseed cop, no girlfriends, anxious to get rocks off, seeks rich virgin slave, looks unimportant." How do you solve a problem like that, Maria?