Saturday, December 30, 2006

Move Over, Cabbage

There was a discussion going on at Sarsaparilla a few months ago about Clive James . One commenter had this to say about him:

That extraordinary thing he wrote after the death of Princess Di confessing his love for the Royal family really did me. What is it with our expats? They all go wonky in their old age.

I don't understand that. What's wrong with loving the royal family? What sort of feelings towards the royal family would be appropriate? Is it necessary to hold certain feelings towards the royals? Who decides this? People in the ALP revere Gough Whitlam to this day; feelings of adoration and reverence are apparently strengthened by Whitlam's dismissal. Religious feelings towards flawed leaders like Whitlam seem more disturbing than love of the royal family (who hold no real power). Hollywood actors inspire various feelings in us - from fanatical devotion to obsessive hatred; compared to this, James' confessed love seems relatively benign.

I had this quote in mind when I went along this afternoon to see The Queen, the British blockbuster about the death of Princess Diana, and the reaction of the royal family and newly elected British PM Tony Blair to her death. It's certainly not a film that inspires worship of the royals; their lives are shockingly mundane. They sit around and watch TV, and complain when their tea gets cold. The Queen Mother makes bitchy jokes about shooting journalists, and Prince Phillip affectionately calls his wife 'cabbage'. Cabbage! That's got to be one of the lines of the year. The whole affair actually brings to mind one of the conservative arguments for the existence of a royal family; it gives a little power to people who are actually ordinary, not the ambitious power seekers that the Westminster System of government attracts.

We get a glimpse into the lives of the ambitious power seekers, too - that's Tony and Cherie Blair. They hang around Number 10 Downing Street and Cherie Blair grizzles about institutionalised privilege while Tony yelps out election slogans about extending privileges. They're likeable despite this; Tony is nervous and - as Cherie suggests - probably sees the Queen as a kind of mother figure.

The public reaction to Diana's death - which seemed ridiculous then - seems even more ridiculous now. Documentary material is played of people openly weeping in the streets of London outside Buckingham Palace; there are a number of hints in the film that give us an idea of a timeline: this sort of behaviour goes on for a week. Weeping? For a princess they probably never met, and didn't know personally? Towards the end of the film, when the Queen comes to London, she sees messages on wreaths outside the gates of Buckingham Palace: "There is blood on their hands". And "They drove you to this." It doesn't make sense, but there are people who must have actually thought like that. But how could the royal family inspire these sort of bizarre accusations?

This sort of relationship between the public and the royal family is interesting enough. But a lot of the time, I was distracted by the scenery: seeing the Queen drive around her estates at Balmoral with the dogs and her boys in a ramshackle old van; walking down stairs with her Prime Minister besides a polished wooden banister (was I the only person who got a sudden impulse to slide down that banister?); sitting down to take tea on a splendid couch made for her family, edged in gold. Just an ordinary, everyday Queen, living out an ordinary, everyday Queenly life amongst her ordinary, everyday Queenly possessions ... To me, all this incidental scenery is one of the better arguments for the monarchy. In the absence of an aristocracy, who would all these glorious houses and estates end up being owned by? Just another bloody celebrity; maybe a hotel chain would convert them into a place for tourists to visit. As traditions go, the monarchy is not so bad; places like Balmoral are something to be lived in, not gawked at by tourists or displayed as trophies by rock stars.


Aside from The Queen and, of course, Marie Antoinette, there was another interesting film about an aristocrat out this year. The Libertine, starring Jonny Depp, was about the life of 18th-century minor aristocrat, John Wilmot, the Earl of Rochester. The portrayal of the monarchy is not exactly flattering; King Charles II is whiny, and the Earl of Rochester basically likes fucking around: he ends up contracting syphilis and dying. Before his death, he delivers a speech to the relatively new House of Lords which (at least, according to the script, if not necessarily according to history) helps to secure King Charles throne. Afterwards, Wilmot is confronted by Charles.
"Johnny," says the King, "You finally did something for me!"
"No," sneers the Earl, "I didn't do it for you."

Who did he do it for, then? Why have a monarchy at all? I'm still puzzling that one over.


nailpolishblues said...

I did not enjoy seeing Johnny Depp with advanced syphilis. The horror!

Anonymous said...

on "Weeping...for a princess they probably never met" --

Charles tells his mother, "The Diana we knew was very different than the Diana idolized by the public", but this truth is never developed in the film. I'll mention it here.

While the "people's princess" remains the icon of superficial popular culture, the Royals knew a very different, darker character behind the facades of glamour and pseudo-compassion.

Both Diana and her brother, Charles Spencer, suffered from Borderline Personality Disorder caused by their mother's abandoning them as young children.  A google search reveals that Diana is considered a case study in BPD by mental health professionals.

For Charles Spencer, BPD meant insatiable sexual promiscuity (his wife was divorcing him at the time of Diana's death). For Diana, BPD meant intense insecurity and insatiable need for attention and affection which even the best husband could never fulfill. 

Clinically, it's clear that the Royal family did not cause her "problems". Rather, Diana brought her multiple issues into the marriage, and the Royal family was hapless to deal with them.

Her illness, untreated, sowed the seeds of her fast and unstable lifestyle, and sadly, her tragic fate.

TimT said...

Nails - Great film, tho'! Syphilis was almost a pre-requisite to be a great artist in those times, anyway. Isn't it called 'The Kissing Disease?' Or is that something else?

Redtown - Fascinating! - the film really is a kind of memorial for Diana, so much so that they rely on tabloid snaps of her instead of really hiring an actor. One of the most memorable images in the film is actually a black-and-white picture of Diana from the tabloids, looking flirtatiously out of the corner of her eyes at the photographer: her eyes go one way, her pupils go another. I think there's just another hint, a tiny hint, at the private Diana here.
Also amusing was the royals' implied horror at the presence of 'celebrities' and 'stars of stage and screen' in the place of soldiers and state leaders at Diana's funeral.

nailpolishblues said...

The kissing disease is infectious mononucleosis - which, quite frankly, you'd rather have had then since it doesn't require penicillin to get over and I don't think it causes insanity. I thought syphilis mostly got called the clap or the [insert place name here] pox. I think virtually everyone who fucked around managed to pick it up in those days
and watching that movie everyone was shagging anything that moved.

I've been reading Filthy Shakespeare and between that and The Libertine am only starting to realise how much our view, or perhaps my view, of the history of sex and sexuality is coloured by the Victorian era. It only takes one prude... Also, holy shit am I NEVER reading Shakespeare again the same way - I thought I was filthy!

TimT said...

Oh, they were dirty bastards alright. Jonathan Swift was the best, I think in one of the sections of Gulliver's Travels, he uses the word shit repeatedly. Love to hear more about the dirty Shakespeare, I can't really recall too much along that line, but I'm sure it's there.

I love how there can be an [insert place name here] pox, that raises the delightful possibility of cultivating local varieties of European pox, just like the French cultivate cheeses!

TimT said...

Also (I'm sure you get this question all the time) is cooties just a myth?

nailpolishblues said...

Damn, now I'll have to re-read Gulliver's Travels.

This may sound wrong but the history of syphilis is pretty interesting, origins wise. It's thought to be one of the few things the native [think Conquistidores(?)] Americans passed on to the Europeans [as opposed to everything from measles to smallpox that the Europeans gave them]. Lesson: don't fuck the natives until you know what they've got.

As far as the Filthy Bard goes - seriously, find it and buy yourself a copy. I think you'd get more out of it than most of us. Especially in the 'whoa, I can use this' sense. There's even an appendix with:
Pun Words on Female Genitals
- nest of spicery
- Pillicock-hill
- hell [makes the mind boggle]
- withered pear, etc
Pun Words on Male Genitals
- exchange flesh
- holy-thistle
- anything, and these are the obvious ones, that involves a staff, or archery, or a pike/sword etc
& Pun Words on Sex
- dribbling dart of love
- hang one's bugle in an invisibe baldrick
- yield one's body to shame

...and those are just some of my favourites...

And, lastly, yes cooties exist - to small American children and almost no-one else :p

Cazzie!!! said...

I did like that movie the Libertine, you have to stay alert throughout so not to miss a thing.

TimT said...

Nails: My father's got a great book in his collection about the origin of another disease, I think it's typhoid. It's written by a American/German professor with a great wit, he keeps on making diversions in his history to talk about T S Eliot's poetry, and so on. Then there's another book in his collection about the black plague (is there any other?), has all sorts of fascinating passages, like the story about how residents of one French town took the cats to court (seriously!) for not killing the rats that brought the plague. Can't remember the details! Disease history is fascinating. I'll chase up that Filthy Bard book.

Cazzie - yes, The Libertine is very wordy, originally a play, and Depp is perfect for the role of Wilmot - you know it's going to be a great film from his opening speech, 'You will not like me.'

Anonymous said...

come over for hot shwarma
please leave a comment
happy new year

TimT said...

My friend, you're barmy for Shwarma! Happy new year!

Anonymous said...

Diana did not have Borderline Personality Disorder, nor does her brother, Charles Spencer.

Prince Charles married an innocent young girl when he was in love with another woman. He destroyed her life.

The people of the United Kingdom will never accept the non-wife of the Prince of Wales as Queen Consort.

The Monarchy will end unless it passes to Prince William.

Anonymous said...

The above post by Anonymous 235 is an example of the Don't-bother-me-with-facts-My-mind-is-made-up type of hysteria that followed Diana's death, and indeed, which characterizes popular perception of a variety of issues these days.

First, neither Camilla nor Charles have any desire to see her as Queen Consort. And the Monarchy will continue in the UK along the normal lines of succession, given the overwheming support of the British people.

Secondly, on what basis does Anonymous assert that Diana and Charles Spencer did not suffer from Borderline Personality Disorder? Anonymous cites not one medical/clinical source. (It's more an assertion of "I don't want to believe it, so it's not so." Anonymous just wants to believe "Charles bad; Diana a victim of Charles" -- evidence be damned).

But a google search will reveal extensive clinical/medical evidence that the Spencers did, in fact, have BPD. Here are just two of many sources --

One thoroughly documented book on the subject is "Diana in Search of Herself: Portrait of a Troubled Princess", by Sally Bedell Smith.

Another is "Sometimes I Act Crazy (Living with Borderline Personality Disorder)", by Dr. Jerold J. Kreisman, M.D. Here is an excerpt from Dr. Kreisman's work:

"In many ways, Diana was a typical girl, she also had dreams of marrying her prince who will whisk her off to their castle, but somewhere along the way she veered into a different dimension. She crossed the boundary from "ordinary" into "borderline" when her mother left abruptly when she was six.

During this time, Diana became moody and insecure. She would cling on to her stuffed animals, which she called them "my family". She felt she was not good enough to keep her real family together and developed a fear that everyone she loved would eventually abandon her.

When she was fifteen, Diana entered a pattern of bulimia which stayed with her for the rest of her life. The fractures in Diana's personality became more prominent when she could be charming, charitable and remarkably empathic at times, and then exhibited an unpredictable rage when disappointments arised. Sometimes she appeared calm and stoic, but at other times she became irrationally emotional, alternating between inconsolable grief and ferocious anger.

At twenty, Diana married her prince -- Prince Charles. Yet Princess Diana did not live happily ever after. As her fairy-tale marriage disintegrated, so did her manufactured facade of equanimity. She became more overly impulsive and self-destructive. She threw herself into her charity work, perhaps hoping to derive for herself the kind of caretaking she was bestowing on others. The affliction of borderline personality disorder plagued Princess Diana until her untimely death in 1997."

Charles Murton said...

Tim, the book is 'Rats, Lice and History' by Hans Zisner. It is about typhus fever, which is a very different disease from typhoid fever. Typhus is the 'gaol fever' of the eighteenth century, and the 'trench fever' of the Great War.

There is only plague. 'The black death' refers to its attack on small blood vessels, so that the sufferer was covered in large 'bruises'.

When it hit Europe, syphilis was called 'the English disaease' by the French, and 'the French disease' by the English. So nothing much has changed there.

TimT said...

THANK YOU. I have been trying to remember that one for several weeks. I am so glad it seems to have a readership out there!

Caz said...

Indeed RedTown, "anon" is in deep denial, and was no doubt one of those who existed in a state of artificial hyper-grieving when she died.

She was an artful and manipulative piece of work, no matter what disorder she did or didn't have.

Her only goal in life was to marry the king to be, hence why she kept herself "neat" - her words. Calculated, very calculated, right from the start.

How could she NOT have know that she was merely a virgin breeder? A role she eagerly accepted. Which other woman would have married Charles after only half a dozen (or fewer?) "meetings" before the wedding? Come on, she was thick as two planks, but she knew the score, and she grasped it with both self obsessive hands. And boy was she ever pissed once the party was over - no one was spared that ugly spectacle.

TimT said...

Tony Blair goes absolutely nuts about two thirds through the film, shouting about how Diana spent most of her life trying to destroy the monarchy. It would be interesting to know how accurate this film is, since it makes a great show of documentary realism but is essentially a bunch of highly-skilled BBC actors reconstructing an event after the fact. According to The Spectator, the film writers must have been privy to a great deal of inside information.

Email: timhtrain - at -

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