Once upon a time, in the darkest days of the Blitz, the woman later to become the Queen Mother had a thing about popping across the Thames so that she could look the East End in the face. So perhaps it says something about the democratisation of the monarchy, oxymoronic as that phrase sounds, that today the East End can replay the compliment, and do for the morale of the old girl's grandchildren what she once did for those doughty souls captured on Pathe News standing outside their smoking houses cheering Her Majesty on her way.
This week, a certain Katherine Duncombe of East Ham, home of that other staunch royalist Alf Garnett, paid £14,400 for an aquamarine and gold brooch once belonging to Princess Margaret, and flogged at Christie's among so many other valuables to raise sorely needed funds for her children. Apparently, Viscount Linley and Lady Sarah Chatto originally hoped to conduct the auction from the back of a Range Rover at Ilford's leading car boot sale, but a dubious weather forecast obliged them to move it to South Kensington at the last minute.
The auction of Margaret Rose's jewels, paintings, furniture and odds and sods has drawn heavy criticism from those who regard it as the height of poor taste. In the absence of a definitive judgement from the "constitutional expert" Lord St John of Fawsley, disturbingly silent thus far, it is hard to know what to think. But if I might be impertinent and second guess his lordship, I suspect that he'd thoroughly approve.
If vulgarity is the charge, Lord Cringe-On-All-Foursley would point out, then it's a little late for that one to stick. After Fergie's toe-sucking, Charles's cameo as a would be feminine hygiene device, Diana's nuisance calls to a fancy, and Andrew's redirection of RAF transport to helipads on favoured golf courses, not to mention the triumph of dignity that was It's A Royal Knockout, who can get their Rigby & Peller knickers in a twist if East End girls, Russian mafiosi, Hong Kong property developers or whoever are invited to cough up £15,600 for a badly misspelt menu written out by the Princess? The miracle, after so many years of relentless royal scandal and humiliation, is that these people are more desperate than ever to own a slice of monarchical history, even one so recherché and dyslexic.
As for the accusation of greed, condemning other people for liking money is a dangerous and facile game. Another well-known carpenter may have had different ideas, but if Lord Linley believes it's as easy for a man who has just raised nearly £14m from his mother's artefacts to enter the kingdom of heaven as for a camel to pass through the eye of the needle, who are we to impose the Son of God's proto-Marxist principles upon him? He had £3m in death duties to find, and if he happens to have a highly profitable furniture-making business, and a wife with a large trust fund and a father worth hundreds of millions, good luck to him.
Besides, he assures us that some of the profits will go to the Stroke Association, Margaret Rose having suffered several (strokes, that is; her tally of associations, as touched on below, was rather higher). While this pledge has the ring of the annual Blair vow to make an unspecified donation to a charity (believed to be in the region of seven and sixpence) for the use of someone else's villa, what Linley and his sister do with the post-tax proceeds of the candlesticks and Lalique glass crucifixes is their own affair.
If there is a nebulous feeling that it's unseemly to flog off a loved one's personal possessions, the items sold at Christie's seemed anything but personal. Knowing what we do of Margaret, you cannot imagine that a nine-piece silver tea and coffee set (£28,800) meant much to her, even it was a birthday present from her grandparents. Nor will the garish gold-plated Baume wristwatch, with an estimated sale price of £200, for which the Carry On actress Liz Frazer paid £6,600, have touched her soul.
Indeed, the disappointing thing about the auction is the suspicion that almost every lot would have been stored away, unloved and unseen in a Kensington Palace box room, for much of her life. From the inventory, you get no sense whatever of the woman who owned them; not the faintest whiff of the imperious, bone idle, sexually appetitive ogress whose Olympian self-indulgence set a benchmark for royal hedonism that remains unmatched to this day.
A joke from the late 1950s, when nice gels just didn't, asked after the difference between Princess Margaret and the Eiffel Tower. The answer was that not everybody's been up the Eiff ... but no, even in so iconoclastic an age we must show some decorum. Even so, the Margaret memorabilia many would have wanted to see up for grabs were neatly ribboned bundles of billet doux from Peter Townsend, Peter Sellers, Mick Jagger, the Household Cavalry, and so on. These would have brought the bidder closer to her than the plain oak chair (£32,000, against an estimate of £300) on which that forbidding old trout Queen Mary parked her bum at her son George VI's coronation in 1937.
It would also have been gratifying had her children offered for sale any notebooks or diaries containing her thoughts on the world. No one ever accused her of being the House of Windsor's answer to Isiah Berlin, but she was a lively, spirited woman with lively and spirited opinions. It is said, for example, that on leaving a screening of Schindler's List she was overheard turning to her walker and wittily stage whispering: "Oh those fucking Jews ... always moaning." Some insight into whether or not such stories were apocryphal would have been good.
Her collection of ivory cigarette holders, a few thousand empty bottles of Johnny Walker Black Label, the piano on which she did her Noel Coward impressions on Mustique for the amusement of those wretched sycophants who had to sit there motionless until 3am or whenever she deigned to retire ... these are the things arch royalists such as Lord Cringe-On and myself would have treasured seeing in the public domain.
Instead, her ever-filial offspring held any such memorabilia back, at great cost to themselves, preferring to raid the vaults for some 900 items that she probably had no idea she possessed. Yet for all the icy impersonality of the goods, people from the East End to the Far East, from the Urals to Manhattan, were still happy to pay insanely inflated prices purely for the joy of owning something that once belonged to the least lovable member of a peculiarly unlovable family. When the bidding for a trio of plastic umbrellas kept in Margaret's apartment reaches £2,400, ever the most trenchant Republican must accept that there is plenty of life in the British monarchy yet.Reuse content