Last week, the world of books was brought to a standstill by a woman who never reads. Her remark to a publisher, "I find that these days, I can get to sleep without the help of books", was greeted as if it were the height of sophisticated wit. Her Majesty the Queen's day with what was called "the British Book World" was widely regarded as a rip-roaring success.
It is said that there is nothing quite so inimitably British as a royal occasion, and, now that I have attended one, I can confirm that the presence of royalty brings out many of our traditional characteristics. Unfortunately, they are precisely the ones we might usefully discard snobbery, a cringing self-abasement, and a sort of grinning, willed stupidity.
It was a busy day for the Queen and Prince Philip. They visited a publisher, a bookshop and a library. They attended a school where the Poet Laureate was on hand to address a class of children. At the end of the day, a select multitude of 600 gathered at Buckingham Palace for a reception, where they were joined by the Duke of York, the Duchess of Gloucester, the Duke of Kent, and the Earl of St Andrews, whoever he might be.
Of course, those of us graced by a royal invitation were fantastically excited as we swept past gawping tourists into the palace courtyard. In the rooms where the reception was held, there were Vermeers on the walls and glass cases containing fascinating exhibits, but few of us had time to take those in. Royalty was moving among us, talking, smiling as if it were the most natural thing in the world.
The effect of such occasions on those who attend them is revealing. There is something faintly corrupting about it all. People who work with books are, on the whole, not social snobs (their snobbery is of the managerial or pseudo-intellectual kind), yet here, they were clammily aware of hierarchy. They are generally independent-minded, yet here were nervous about matters of protocol when to bow, the importance of not speaking until spoken to, the impropriety of asking all but the most banal of questions.
Not, of course, that this was a reception like any other. The waiters circulating with trays were camper yet more openly contemptuous of the guests than at most parties. In a side-room, a select elite gathered to be introduced to Her Majesty for the news cameras.
In the main reception rooms, a careful vetting system was in force. Ladies-in-waiting discreetly observed groups of guests to ascertain whether they were appropriate and worthy of royal conversation, before the Queen was ushered into their presence.
I imagine I was not alone in attempting to stand, as casually as I was able, in the path of the royal progress. Unfortunately, the nearest I came to her royal presence was to be given a hard, inhospitable stare from the courtier/heavy who stood a yard behind the Queen ensuring that she was not crowded by overexcited guests. I watched as she stood in a semicircle of star-struck book folk, a faintly comical figure, talking animatedly and almost without interruption. It was not conversation so much as performance, like that of a stand-up comedian.
When the tanned, beaming presence of the Duke of Edinburgh joined a group in which I was standing, it became clear how these things work. The royal person talks. You listen. The Duke recounted how he had found, in Waterstone's, a coach-driving manual that he had written, how he had been told that it had been selling very well. When one of us daringly asked if he had received any royalties, he simply glazed over, ignored the question and moved on.
It was a long yet rather fascinating evening. It may seem graceless and chippy under the circumstances to confess that it was also, in a way that is difficult to define, oddly demeaning. It was not the little, school-like rituals that were the problem, nor the discovery hardly a surprise that the royal family are bored by books. It was the effect of generalised stupidity and snobbery when wrapped in the cloak of royal protocol. There was something unhealthy and contagious about it.
Why is it, one begins to wonder, that in our country an industry should be recognised in this way that a group of grown-up professional people should deem themselves honoured to have been addressed in the mindless code of small talk by a queen, a duke, an Earl of St Andrew? What exactly is the point of it all?Reuse content