Terence Blacker: Fergie is not the villain of the piece

This ordinary, not particularly bright woman has been left to tout her semi-royalty

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As a former biographer of Fergie, the Duchess of York, I was sorry to read that the gutter press has trapped her into looking a bit of a chump. Some weasel with a hidden camera took advantage of Sarah's financial vulnerability and caught her offering access to Prince "Airmiles" Andrew in return for half a million pounds. The sting involved showing the Duchess a suitcase of dollar bills, a sight which excited her so much that she all but buried her face in the notes, going "Yabba-yabba-yabba".

That is flame-haired Fergie for you. She's a heart-on-the sleeve sort of girl. There is, in a strictly metaphorical sense, no side to her. The study I wrote with my friend Willie Donaldson revealed – exclusively, I think – that the Ferguson family motto is "Full steam ahead". A school report for General Attitude, written when she was 14, said it all: "Sarah is lively and full of 'go', if a little lacking in direction – but she must learn that liveliness should cease with the lights."

It was, of course, a spoof. Written under that name of Talbot Church, whose byline was The Man the Royals Trust", the book was called 101 Things You Didn't Know About the Royal Love Birds and listed tabloid-style "facts" about Prince Andrew and Sarah Ferguson. The idea was to capture the tone of press coverage of royal stories which, then as now, was a bizarre mixture of snobbery, prurience and servility.

The joke backfired – or rather it worked so well that it ceased to be a joke. One of the big tabloid newspapers lifted stories from our book and presented them, unaccredited, as fact. I did several interviews as Talbot Church and discovered that, however idiotic the anecdotes (in one, we revealed that Prince Andrew was able to levitate over a gas-ring and feel no pain), there was a desperation to believe anything about the royals. One of our inventions is said to have found its way into the American writer Kitty Kelley's book about the royals.

Fun-loving Fergie, the palace prankster, is now the Duchess of Queer Street, but otherwise little has changed. A woman who from the start was clearly ill-equipped for public life has found herself in a deep financial hole and, with the help of an ever-eager press, has tried to escape with hopeless, inept dishonesty. It is the latest episode in an unhappy soap opera which has provided regular entertainment for the public since this unlucky woman first entered the wonderful world of Windsor. There were the charities and chat-shows, the weight thing, the children's books, the various woeful attempts to make money.

She is not the villain of the piece. The idea that a family owe a sort of loyalty to those who become part of it through marriage, even if that marriage ends, is one which Britain's first family has in this case regarded as old-fashioned and irrelevant. When the Duchess of York was released into the peculiarly nasty outside world, the Windsors might have ensured that she was given some kind of help and protection, not least from herself, but they did not. As a result, this ordinary, not particularly bright woman, has been left to tout her semi-royalty, her fragile celebrity status, in order to make a living.

As an example to the nation of family inadequacy, the attitude of those within the royal tent could hardly be bettered. First you allow an unworldly women to play a lead part in the Windsor extravaganza. Then, when that falls apart, you let her fend for herself in a hostile world.

It is truly hostile. There are few more nauseating sights than the hounds of the British press at work when the scent of royal blood is in the air. Like a fat girl who wants to be liked, the Duchess of York is the perfect victim for these playground bullies, as time and again she tries to ingratiate herself, never with any lasting success.

Poor old fun-loving Fergie. She may be naff, but there is something endearingly open about the way that she blunders onwards – at least when set in the context of her heartless former family and a seedy, sanctimonious press.


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