Terence Blacker: Inane royal gossip is spreading like a rash

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At a time when the nation was at its most gawping and gormless in its attitude towards royalty, the comic genius Willie Donaldson invented a character called Talbot Church. A court correspondent of the most oleaginous, simpering and prurient kind, Church had as his journalistic byline "The Man the Royals Trust", and passed on vapid insider gossip in a tone of great seriousness. Prince Andrew, he revealed in a book of royal facts, often joined his brother Charles's meditation sessions and once startled orange-sheeted worshippers by levitating over a lit gas-ring in the manner of an Indian fakir.

The joke misfired. When Church's book was published, a tabloid newspaper took some of the most crazed of Donaldson's invented stories and ran them as fact. The spoof had become victim of the very idiocy it had intended to parody.

It is tempting these days to ignore the Royal Family as a dreary sideshow but the depressing fact is that attitudes towards them matter - indeed they are a reliable indicator of the nation's moral and intellectual state of health. When Talbot Church was invented in the mid-1980s, Dianaphilia gripped the nation and class consciousness made a comeback. A few years after the death of the Queen of Hearts, there was briefly an indication that the fascination with the Windsors might have passed. Charles's second wedding last year was more or less ignored.

Now there are signs that the royal sickness is setting in once more. Pathetic stories about Charles's sons appear in the press. Mindless gossip about the marriage of someone called Princess Pushy is being published. This weekend, The Sunday Times devoted two pages to the serialisation of a book of reminiscences by a former flunkey of the late Queen Mother.

Such books tend to be exercises in trivia, put together by a "palace insider" who is eager to cash his cheque of pointless gossip before time renders it worthless, but they are not always a waste of paper. Unlike Church, this latest man the royals trust, Major Colin Burgess, is presumably telling the truth about his years in service at Clarence House. His clumsy effort at a tribute to the nation's favourite grandmother serves to remind one what a ghastly old woman she was, and the Queen Mother emerges as a snob. "The Royal Family feel much more comfortable in the presence of people from a similar background to theirs," her treasurer Sir Ralph Anstruther informs him. "It's all down to breeding. They wouldn't really like disclosing family secrets to someone from a comprehensive school."

So when an ancient butler dared to offer a tottering Queen Mother his arm, he was rewarded with a cold stare and was told by her that she would prefer to wait for an equerry. "She had nothing against him. It was just a question of propriety," the Major explains.

There is something pitilessly revealing about the private life of a privileged mediocrity, when recorded for posterity by a star-struck innocent like the major. The silly prejudices, plonking facetiousness and downright stupidity are illuminated more clearly than in any anti-royal polemic.

But stupidity can be contagious. It is significant that the thicker the royal, the more they are adored by press and public. The Windsors cannot help the way they are but, for all their goofy sincerity, they are infantilising the nation and trapping it in the past.

Oddie's mystery misery

For all the millions of caring words churned out by the dynamic new happiness industry, remarkably little practical guidance has been offered. Regular sex helps, apparently, and a satisfying job and - well, I never - good relationships.

The conundrum of Bill Oddie, one of The Goodies - who are relaunching this month at the Edinburgh Festival - suggests that the happiness gurus are taking the wrong approach.

Oddie, who will not be in Edinburgh, had a successful life in comedy - yet compared to his two fellow Goodies, he carries an air of misery around with him.

If happiness gurus analysed the behaviour of those who should be happy but are not, some kind of clue to contentment might emerge.

* I have not yet broken the news to the pheasant who hops up and down in front of my kitchen window every morning waiting for his peanuts, but his life is about to become more uncomfortable.

Millions of hand-reared pheasants and red-legged partridges are being released into the wild in preparation for the shooting season. These plump, semi-domesticated birds are doing considerable harm to woodland because so many are being bred.

The demand for them is from City firms, who have discovered that there is nothing like a day spent shooting birds which can hardly fly for helping their staff to "bond" with one another. Anyone curious about the British attitude to animals can learn from this peculiar type of personnel training.

I fear, though, it will be of little comfort to my pheasant, who is slightly tamer than most chickens, to know that he is about to be shot as a bonding exercise.

terblacker@aol.com

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