So those darned toffs kiss and tell, too

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The Independent Online
A book has just been published called The Major Effect. Its subject is recent Tory politics, which is a pity, because it would be the perfect title for a work about the downfall of the Royal Family. Having for at least two years been in major difficulties, the Windsors now have difficulties with majors. Major Ronald Ferguson's miscalculated defence of his daughter, the Duchess of York, is already in the bookshops. Yesterday it was joined by the story of Major James Hewitt, who claims to have been the paramour of the Princess of Wales.

Princess In Love - written by Major Hewitt's friend, Anna Pasternak - offers a sharp contrast to Andrew Morton's Diana: Her True Story, which at least observed such biographical conventions as source notes, direct quotation and an index. It is an unattributed, unindexed exercise in novelette. The Major is 'pleased with his torso. He knew that he could walk naked across a room, secure in the knowledge that all was as it should be.' The narrative gushingly jumps between the points of view of the Princess and the Major, although, in the bits about sex, the perspective is orgasmically simultaneous: 'Weekends . . . sped by in a haze of sybaritic abandonment. There were few sighs in their brief snatches of heaven.'

I thought sex was, ideally, supposed to lead to 'sighs', and the indication that Diana's 'snatches of heaven' were 'brief' suggests that Ms Pasternak is quietly undercutting her subject's claims as a lover. But this was probably an accident. A line about the unhappy Princess Diana spending 'hours lying in bed dissecting her body' seems to be terrifying confirmation of the self-mutilation habit outlined by Morton, until you realise that it is merely the author's clumsiness.

Yet the important thing about the Hewitt revelations is not their content but their context: the fact that they can be published. Call me new-fashioned, but I feel a certain relief at the news that the Princess of Wales may have been sexually active in recent years. If earlier accounts - dating the breakdown of the Wales's marriage from the mid-Eighties - are to be believed, and they have not been seriously disputed, then the total celibacy of the Princess always seemed an unlikely, indeed unpleasant, outcome.

A glance through the newspapers and magazines of the Eighties would confirm that the specific quality the Princess of Wales contributed to the British Royal Family was sex, although the word sometimes appeared in its mufti formulation 'glamour'. She was pictured and written about for nearly a decade as one of the world's most alluring women. It can be argued that there is no direct connection between sexiness and sex - starlets' bedroom memoirs have fingered some of rock music's erotic gods as being indifferent in bed - but it still seems to me that Diana was being asked to live out an impossible paradox. Ideally, she should have been sleeping with her husband but, if this had ceased to be an option for reasons revealed in other best- selling books, then it can scarcely be a scandal that alternative arrangements were made. The Hewitt story raises only one serious constitutional point, which is the possibility that the Royal bloodline might have been complicated. Only if there were any doubt about the paternity of the young princes - and the dates given in Princess In Love are exonerating on this point - would there be anything to get worked up about.

So the content is uninteresting - largely a confirmation of earlier tittle-tattle - and it is the context that we should consider. For some, Major Hewitt's behaviour - by which is generally meant not adultery itself, but the publication of a book about it - demonstrates a decline in military standards. In the past, we are told, a soldier would have kept quiet or, details of his indiscretion having emerged, 'known what to do' (ie shot himself). Personally, I cannot get very nostalgic about an era when people put a bullet in their heads to prevent embarrassment to the Establishment. Times change. Boris Pasternak wrote Doctor Zhivago, Anna Pasternak, his great-niece, co-wrote Princess In Love. Each of these books is a reflection of the culture from which they sprang.

The most interesting aspect of Princess In Love is that its publication confirms the unstoppable growth of the gossip market, the rumour souk, in Western culture. While its is denied that Hewitt has been paid, almost anyone - even from the theoretical upper classes - will sell their story. And almost any media corporation will buy it: perhaps the real scandal here is that Bloomsbury, set up to be an upmarket publisher, is the company responsible for this tosh.

In America, the gossip market has undermined the criminal justice system, substantially reducing the field of available witnesses and jurors in the OJ Simpson case. Potential witnesses have already sold their stories to the media, potential jurors are likely to have read or seen them. In Britain, similar transactions have undermined the Royal Family and the conduct of politics.

Yet only a small amount of sympathy should be extended to the victims. The main recent sufferers from the gossip market - the Conservative Party and the Windsors - are both seriously implicated in its creation. It is unlikely to be coincidence that a world in which individuals see their personal life experience as commercially exploitable - and in which once-respectable publishers join in filling the trough - follows more than a decade of aggressively marketorientated economics. Told that everything has a price, people put a tag on the facts they knew.

The Royal Family may have had no direct involvment in pushing market economics, but the particular hectic and unregulated bazaar in Royal stories results from Andrew Morton's book, which the Princess, it is now generally accepted, encouraged. A beneficiary of the original - which completely changed the nature of what could be published about the Royals - the Princess of Wales cannot now complain about being splashed by the wave she began.

Hence Princess In Love, though far from being a contribution to literary history, is a piece of social history: an illustration of the ease with which lives are now sold and bought. There has long been an English platitude that 'Everyone has a book in them', a sentimental way of saying that everyone is interesting. Perhaps we should now alter the observation to 'Everyone has a book-deal in them', an unsentimental way of saying that everyone is self-interested.

Another moral for modern living is also emerging: one which arises from the recent experiences of British royalty and of British politics. It is that we should be very careful of any man called Major.