Her Majesty’s Secret

The Enchanted Glass: Britain and its Monarchy

by Tom Nairn
Hutchinson Radius, 414 pp., $12.95 (paper)

An armored black Zil draws up at the ceremonial entrance to Windsor Castle. Out gets Mr. Gorbachev. He comes forward to meet the Queen. As he does so, he anxiously tucks his scarf into his black overcoat, a gesture equivalent to making certain his fly isn’t undone. This, apparently, is a standard reaction on meeting royalty. People are taken up short or struck dumb, or hear themselves muttering the most embarrassing imbecilities. The then American ambassador to the Court of St. James, Walter Annenberg, was immortalized on television—in the first Day-in-the-Life-of soap documentary on the royal family—muttering interminable convolutions about the “refurbishments” going on at his residence. Why should people be quite so awed? The Queen of England is in many ways an extremely ordinary woman; none of the royal family has the obvious characteristics of a star, with the possible exception of the mindless Diana. There is nothing much to admire in any of them other than their royalty. That is the point. It puts them in another league from mere celebrity.

The only interesting thing about them is that this should be so. What is their attraction? Why do our popular newspapers, which know their market, endlessly paste their front pages with royal pap? In early June, the story that drove the aftermath of Tiananmen Square from the headlines was that the Queen had given special permission to eight-year-old Zara Phillips, Princess Anne’s daughter, to attend the opening of Royal Ascot although the rules strictly forbid children younger than sixteen from the Royal Enclosure.

The Times is not above this rubbish, reporting on its front page, “Normally the rule governing children in the Royal Enclosure is iron.” It went on:

According to the rules, girls must wear a dress, but a hat is optional. Zara opted for a straw hat, tiny floral-print dress, and white gloves, and studied her race card intently as she walked with the Princess Royal [Anne] to and from the paddock:

We also learned,

The Queen, with her long experience of the hotter corners of the Commonwealth, appeared at ease in the blistering temperature while the Princess of Wales [Diana] sheltered under the enormous flying saucer brim of her hat. Less exalted women tended to keep their hemlines short and their shoulders bare under the shade of broad hats.

Hats are an important aspect of the royal magic, as Tom Nairn—whom we will come to in a moment—records. He quotes from a book called 100 Years of Royal Style to the effect that three or four months is not an uncommon length of time for the making of one of the Queen’s hats, which are famously awful, by the way. “This is time well spent, for, in the iconography of dress the hat is surely the most important item. It not only denotes authority, it is, in Royal terms, a substitute for the ultimate symbol of power: the crown.” There is no limit to this sort of …

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