Terence Blacker: What's the point of a royal you can't talk to?

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A horribly embarrassing incident has occurred at the Chelsea Flower Show: someone has made the terrible mistake of treating a member of the royal family as if he were a normal person. Even making an allowance for the fact that the perpetrator came from Australia, where they have surprising difficulty with the concept of deference to their social superiors, it was a horrendous gaffe.

"What a lovely tree fern," the Duke of Edinburgh said to Jamie Durie, whose garden design had won a gold medal. "Actually it's not a tree fern," Mr Durie replied. "It's a member of the cycad family. It's a Macrozamia moorei..." Before he could go any further, the Duke had turned on his heel. "I don't want a bloody lecture," he was heard to mutter.

Not for the first time, Prince Philip has proved himself a reliable friend to the republican cause. In the normal world of social interaction, it is an acceptable part of conversation for an expert to correct, in a spirit of good-humoured education, a mistake which a non-expert might make. In the royal world, it works differently. The expert is supposed to agree with whatever the royal personage is saying, however ignorant or stupid. Any response beyond simpering agreement will be regarded as a bloody lecture.

The Windsors, when exposed to their subjects, do not do conversation. The only time I met the Duke of Edinburgh was at a rather uneasy reception for authors at Buckingham Palace. Addressing three of us in that unfocused, slightly bored way of the Royal Family, he told us that actually he had once been an author. He had written a book on driving carriages. It had sold rather well but he hadn't received a bloody penny for his work.

Mistakenly, I responded. Had he had an agent at the time? Perhaps he should have spoken to the Society of Authors. It rather sounded as if he had been ripped off. A glazed expression settled on the royal features. The last thing he needed was a bloody conversation. With a cold smile, he moved on, rather as he did at the Chelsea Flower Show.

Arrogance, that assumption that anyone outside one's own little circle is likely to be a crashing bore, is not unknown in royal circles. It might even be argued that stupidity can be an advantage. But there is a problem in this particular case. The Duke and his eldest son are not just figureheads; they see it as part of their role to express their views about the issues of the day.

You cannot do both. Someone who regards a commoner's correction of a royal error as an act of lese-majesty cannot be expected to think or say anything remotely interesting about life outside his own little bubble of privilege.

Yet, take away any thinking role and all that remains is a very expensive symbol of tradition. It is an unfortunate fact that the tradition represented by the Duke of Edinburgh's attitude is one constricted by the straightjacket of class, a social circle where showing any kind of curiosity in the outside world is regarded as rather poor form.

How odd it is that this type of behaviour is held up as a model of respectability, while poor old Mr Durie is mocked in the press as a clumsy colonial. It is almost as if the Royal Family have come to represent the socially acceptable face of British stupidity, that they have become, in one of Prince Charles's few memorable phrases, "appalling old waxworks" who are brought out to smile, shake hands and now and then be rude to their subjects.

They play a different tune over there

The occasion of this week's Ivor Novello awards prompted a magazine to list Britain's top 50 songwriters. It was strikingly male, with only six women included. Far from being a celebration of British talent, the list suggests that writing songs is not something we are particularly good at. Beside what is produced on the other side of the Atlantic, our achievements seem rather thin. To take a famous generation, Britain produced Lennon/McCartney, Ray Davies, Jagger/Richards and Pete Townshend, while in America and Canada a far more astonishing flowering was taking place. A new book, Girls Like Us by Sheila Weller, tells the fascinating story of how three great female songwriters of the same generation, Carly Simon, Carole King and Joni Mitchell reflected the changes to women's lives in their very different, personal yet universal songs. Where were our girls like them?

* When Gordon Ramsay proudly reported that his eight-year-old-son had ripped the head off a live rabbit, it sounded like another instance of minor media yobbery of the Jeremy Clarkson type. Boasting about the incident seemed rather pathetic. But after another bunny-related incident, I feel an unusual twinge of sympathy for the man.

During a Channel 4 programme about wild food, a rabbit was caught by ferrets, one of whose handlers broke the animal's neck. There have been screams of outrage from viewers.

But why? Rabbits are everywhere, gobbling up the landscape. They are also good to eat. How else would the objectors like them killed? Poison? Myxomatosis? Gas? This seemed like one of Channel 4's better educational projects.

terblacker@aol.com

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