DJ Taylor: Happy and glorious: a royal renaissance and our vintage years

The most hardened republicans are warming to the Queen, who is having a bumper summer. But then, everyone and everything gets better with age
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The Independent Online

As the thermometer continues to rise, the nation's footballers fester miserably in their Cheshire mansions and Andy Murray ponders what might have been down in SW19, has anyone noticed the exceptionally good summer being enjoyed by the Royal Family?

The Queen, in particular, has stalked through the midsummer heat-haze like a molten goddess. She arrives at Wimbledon amid a fusillade of droll but inherently respectful articles on the most appropriate way of bowing to the monarch. She proceeds to Canada to find this notably loyal part of the Commonwealth falling over itself to commend her sense of duty in undertaking such a punishing trip at the ripe age of 84. Other royals are not, of course, forgotten. Prince Philip's doughty spirit – 89, but still nipping down those aircraft steps – is everywhere remarked. Even Prince Charles, though officially ticked off for interfering in the row about the redevelopment of the Chelsea Barracks, is the subject of admiring letters to newspapers praising his "commonsense" approach to Modernist excess.

The really curious thing about this torrent of approbation is the way in which it has colonised parts of the media that like to consider themselves immune to royal worship, or indeed to any treatment of the Royal Family not served up in a light sauce of quasi-republican irony. How many times in the past six months have I chanced upon a column in The Independent or The Guardian in which some bright young iconoclast concludes that, really, the Queen does an excellent job, is much admired by the great majority of her subjects, and will be sadly missed when she is gone? Meanwhile, from the sidelines, a few truculent ingrates gibber and fret.

The more this continues, the more our collective attitude to the Royal Family begins to mirror our attitude to religion. How ludicrous, old-fashioned and detached from any kind of observable reality spiritual belief must seem to the sturdy modern rationalist, but how hopelessly inadequate is the secular morality that people have tried to put in its place, and how peevish most professional atheists seem in the presence of "faith". I heard Richard Dawkins the other day on a Radio 4 programme about the Marian cult, and he sounded neither logical nor rational, but simply petulant.

It is the same with Her Majesty, the fuss about whose prerogatives seems altogether absurd, until one stops to consider the enormous gap that would be left in our national life if, for once, she weren't there.

***

As the inhabitant of a county which every builder in England seems anxious to despoil, I was interested to hear what the Government has to say about the question of "development".

So far, the news has been mixed. The last administration's housing targets have been quietly abandoned. At the same time, the Chancellor has opted to scrap the government-sponsored Development Agencies which, in the context of East Anglia, is a perfectly splendid idea: over the past half-decade practically any scheme proposed by a property company to tarmac over parts of Norfolk, Suffolk and Cambridgeshire or turn Norwich into a 200,000-citizen conurbation could be sure of having the local agency lining up in support.

Mr Osborne's latest scheme, for compensating local residents for the inconvenience of having new developments foisted upon them through reductions in their council tax, looks much less considered, if only because at its core lies an acceptance of moral defeat, an assumption that the only way to cram a field with a couple of hundred concrete shoeboxes is to bribe the people who live nearby. The problem affecting housing development in the south of England is not that the inhabitants are opposed to it per se, but that most people assume that the planning process is both corrupt and undemocratic.

When we lived in the London Borough of Wandsworth, the struggle against the developers was one of the most regular features of neighbourhood life. No matter how clamorous the opposition, or solid the support of its democratically elected representatives, or flagrant the breach of the number of residents-per-hectare rule, the builders always seemed to prevail. All of which has turned the sinister figure of the "developer", with (it is assumed) his backhanders and his well-placed chums in the planning department, into a modern bogey figure on about the same level as the loan-shark. Hence, too, public support for the Prince if Wales, on the grounds that he wields an influence that the rest of us don't possess.

***

Reading the commentariat's response to the coalition's plans for reducing welfare benefits and encouraging labour-force mobility, I was reminded of Orwell's remark about the "pew-renter" that lurks inside every sensitive middle-class breast – the feeling of absolute outrage that affects the average bourgeois when he or she contemplates that part of the population that doesn't possess its own public-spiritedness, ability to save for a rainy day, and the various other advantages consistent with a mortgage and two foreign holidays a year.

No doubt about it, most of the op-ed columns seem to conclude, why should the feckless working classes expect to live in state-subsidised accommodation all their lives, and why shouldn't they be encouraged to leave it behind them if the work is elsewhere? As a paid-up member of the English bourgeoisie myself, it would be wrong of me not to reveal some of my own "pew-renting" moments. I used to have them when I walked past the housing association properties half a mile away and noted the expensive cars that always seemed to be parked outside. And they were invariably stirred by the contradistinctions of primary school, where the children from the breadline council estates always seemed to be togged out in expensive fashion shoes, while middle-class boys such as myself made do with the sensible and hard-wearing.

It was Richard Hoggart in The Uses of Literacy (1957) who first put his finger on this phenomenon, which might be defined as blowing what you have when you have it, when he declared that the working classes had been "cheerful existentialists" for centuries. To go back to the coalition's welfare proposals, the best way to improve the lot of children living in sink estates is not to reduce their parents' benefits, but to educate them properly and loosen the grip of a mass culture that patronises, subdues and hoodwinks them at every turn.

***

Personal half-century looming, I was interested to discover that a new television station is about to be launched for the (supposedly) neglected tastes of the over-50s, helmed by such spry sexagenarians as Debbie Harry and Roger Daltrey. Vintage TV will, among other things, supply Eighties-era pop videos rather than the more questionable fare of a raucous modernity. All this raised the eternal, if unanswerable, question of whether the boredom that the middle-aged sometimes feel in the presence of "yoof culture" is to do with that culture's apparent triviality or simply the result of their being middle-aged? Or, as my wife put it, having emerged from a notably cheerless showing of QI, did she and I dislike modern teen-TV as much as our parents disliked Monty Python (memorably disparaged by my father as "college kids showing off")? Alas, having relished all three series of The Mighty Boosh and looking forward to Flight of the Conchords, which the children are always going on about, I fear I am already a traitor to the Vintage cause.

***

Piers Paul Read's new novel, The Misogynist, contains a scene in which its sixtysomething hero reflects on the prejudices that modern society now prohibits. Naturally, they include racism and sexism, homophobia and elitism. To these could profitably be added heightism, a dramatic example of which surfaced in the House of Commons on Tuesday when health minister Simon Burns referred to the 5ft 6in Speaker, John Bercow, as a "stupid, sanctimonious dwarf". Mr Burns, who later apologised, was immediately rebuked by the Walking With Giants Foundation, a charity that supports people who suffer from primordial dwarfism.

At a whisker under 5ft 10in – the average UK male attainment – I have no personal axe to grind here, merely a feeling that sensitivity about one's height is one of the great modern neuroses. The historian A L Rowse, pondering the career of the famously miserable Philip Larkin, commented merely that "he was tall" (i.e. what on earth was there to worry about?) Some years ago I bumped into Peter Ackroyd at the annual Spectator party. Mr Ackroyd is precisely my height. Various Brobdingnagian figures chattered above our heads. Ackroyd, who had perhaps taken a glass of wine, beckoned conspiratorially. "Isn't everyone tall?" he complained. There was a pause. "A century and a half ago, we'd have been giants." And, according to at least one government health minister, all the better for it.

***

Of all the very good times I spent in the company of Beryl Bainbridge, who died on Friday morning at the age of 75, quite the funniest was at a party given to celebrate her 1998 novel Master Georgie, when she approached my wife with a rather solicitous look. "Rachel," she began, "I worry about you, with all those babies of yours to feed [in fact there were then only two]. What you must do is save up all your 10p pieces in a jam-jar, and you'll be surprised how quickly they mount up."

This always seemed to illustrate Beryl's two abiding qualities – apart, that is, from her extraordinary talent as a novelist – her deep-dyed quirkiness and her concern for other people. There will never be anyone else remotely like her.

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