DJ Taylor: Why royalists always have the best tunes

Anti-monarchists may complain about not being allowed to hold an alternative street party, but they should be relieved
Click to follow
The Independent Online

With 12 days to go until the royal wedding, thoughts turn to that fraction of the populace for whom the existence of the Monarchy is an affront to every political principle they hold dear.

Tuesday's newspapers, for example, carried reports of the campaigning group Republic's decision to take legal advice after being refused permission by Camden Council to stage an "anti-wedding" street party in London's Covent Garden. In its defence, the local authority said the refusal was based on "strong objections" from residents who were alarmed by the prospect of disorder at what was described by its sponsors as "a fun family event".

However sacred the individual and communal right to protest at something which the other nine-tenths of society is either broadly in favour of, or prepared tolerantly to accept, you are uncomfortably aware of the fine line that can separate a "fun family event" from a deliberate provocation. Significantly, the Republic shindig was booked to take place bang in the heart of tourist-land. Back in 1977, when the Sex Pistols hired a pleasure cruiser and sailed down the Thames on Jubilee Night playing "God Save the Queen", most people were delighted when the police stopped the boat, diagnosing a stunt undertaken for reasons as much commercial as ideological.

Cheeringly, from the royalist's point of view, these irruptions of republican sentiment have a habit of degenerating into farce at a moment's notice. The 1977 demonstration convened on Blackheath by the Libertarian Communist 1649 Committee attracted only five people. A somewhat self-conscious "anti-Jubilee" edition of the New Statesman featured an essay about the monarch by a north London schoolchild, who wrote: "She doesn't care for any babye and shes got a big nose like Jaws and shes an old bag she only wants money and to be rich." As one or two commentators noted, nothing by the paper's mature contributors matched this invective. If recent form is anything to go by, Prince William and his bride can sleep safe in their beds.

***

Still with institutions that certain parts of society think in desperate need of reform, if not outright extirpation, while walking through Norwich Central Library on Wednesday evening, I came across a public reading of the King James Bible in full flow. The recitation, inaugurated by the Bishop of Norwich, the Right Reverend Graham James, runs continuously (opening hours permitting) until the final verses of Revelation are reached sometime this afternoon. Then, returning home, my eye fell on AC Grayling's new volume, The Good Book, in which Birkbeck's distinguished philosophy professor offers a "secular Bible", whose aspiration is "the good for humanity and the good of the world".

And hurrah for that, I thought, turning to Professor Grayling's secularisation of Genesis Chapter II ("Those who first set themselves to discover nature's secrets and designs, fearlessly opposing mankind's early ignorance, deserve our praise" etc.) Comparisons are, of course, invidious, but you have an idea that, just as no modern free-thinker has ever devised an outlet for all the displaced religious sensibility floating around in the world, so no promulgator of non-religious "truth" can ever hold a linguistic candle to the King James Bible. When it comes to literature, God, mysteriously, has nearly all the best tunes. It is the same with anti-militarist parents watching their children play with a file of toy soldiers, and darkly conscious that toy pacifists aren't really in the same league.

***

The Prime Minister's scheme for a happiness index to measure the nation's well-being stirred much semi-amused comment. The feeling was that something so abstract and susceptible to unseen influence was beyond calibration. But the idea is far from new. There was excitement in the City of London a decade-and-a-half ago when a management consultant employed by one of the big accountancy firms wrote to the Financial Times proposing a monthly survey which could be viewed alongside the inflation statistics and other economic indices, although the scheme failed in a drought of first principles.

What statisticians who set out to capture the idea of "happiness" nearly always ignore is the gap between short- and long-term objectives, and the average person's ability to combine a serenity over the detail of his or her daily life with an ultimate pessimism or, to play the trick in reverse, remain miserably immersed in day-to-day routine while glimpsing sunlit uplands unfold on the horizon. The novelist Hugh Walpole, often ribbed for his sunny disposition, once noted all the things that had given him pleasure on a single day in December 1938. They included his lunch, flowers sent by friends, sitting in his library, listening to music, and ordering some first editions.

And yet, as Walpole's biographers insist, the last decade of his life – he died in 1941 – was overshadowed by Somerset Maugham's 1930 mockery of him in Cakes and Ale (inset below), in which he features as the nest-feathering careerist Alroy Kear. How a happiness-indexer will accommodate what might be called the Walpole Tendency – that is, enjoying your cake while the banquet from which it is snatched moulders – remains to be seen.

***

With the football season nearing its climax, and almost everything still up for grabs, one notices a new tendency in soccer reportage. This is the multi-tense recapitulation, in which the full impact of an event can only be conveyed by constantly shifting the angle of attack. Take Norwich City's Grant Holt lamenting his failure to find the net in last weekend's game against Swansea: "I should have scored myself, I had a hell of a chance, and if that goes in, it's a different game", which jumps from conditional to past and present tenses in just a few words.

Or there is the Norwich manager Paul Lambert reflecting on the roller-coaster ride of the past eight months: "If you sat back and think it's been an incredible season and you're sitting second with six games to go ...". Then there is the present participle suffix obsession, the footballer's habit of upping the drama level by saying not "he came at me" or even "he comes at me" but "he is coming at me". It's not often that you detect a gap in the overcrowded sports book market, but let us hope that somewhere in one of our newer universities, a soccer-crazed semiotics professor is hard at work on Football: A Grammatology.

Comments