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The awful seduction of the British monarchy

Last September, Elizabeth II became the longest-reigning monarch in British history, surpassing Victoria, her great-great-grandmother, who ruled for 63 years and 217 days. Fawning journalists behaved like King Arthur’s knights armed with pens. “Suppose she had got drunk?” asked Charles Moore, formerly the editor of the Daily Telegraph, a courtier of every age. His point was — and Winston Churchill made it first — that she is perfect for the role. She did not get drunk; or rather, if she did — and there is a school of thought that believes she is drunk all the time on gin and Dubonnet, and I would not blame her if she were — she did not show it. She does not make mistakes. We are applauding an absence of something. It is very British to salute a void. Everyone can agree on its merits.

As I read royal hagiography, which is almost disarming in its childishness, for it is a dream maker and a very particular narcotic, I wonder: are we aware, as we praise her temperament, that we are also exposing the essential weakness of a constitutional monarchy that is a genetic lottery? But antimonarchists — or “republicans” — are mocked in Britain. Our fears that a gaudy figurehead preserves nothing more valuable than a class system are traduced as ugly. Monarchy is not ugly. It sings with jewels. Hate the monarchy, it is suggested, and you hate the baby — in this case, Princess Charlotte, who is eight months old.

Postcards of Queen Elizabeth II, 1997 © Martin Parr/Magnum Photos

Postcards of Queen Elizabeth II, 1997 © Martin Parr/Magnum Photos

The republican, too, lives under an enchantment; it is, to me, all-consuming. I have watched The Royals, an E! series in a which a fictional royal family is drugged, unhappy, or mad. I have read The Untold Life of Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother, in which I learn that she was actually the daughter of a Scottish cook. Is it true? The royal family rarely sues, which is both dignified and efficient. A book about Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge, is on my bedside table. It quotes a man who once employed the youthful Catherine as a barmaid. “Kate is a superb barmaid,” he says. “She’s a pretty girl, so she takes home plenty of tips.” I decide to tour the royal palaces. I could tell you I am doing it for insight, but that would be a lie. It is out of sheer masochism.

I am late for my tour of Buckingham Palace because the Mall — the triumphal tarmac — is full of men on horseback for the changing of the guard. Their weapons, which are real and deadly, fascinate me; toys can become instruments of massacre in a moment. That is the first lie of the modern monarchy: It is ceremonial, without meaning, a game.

The Queen is not here, but that is irrelevant. She is a deity, or a cloud that wears spectacles with a crown. (She is not vain.) She is everywhere and nowhere. For the literal, however, here is a guide: her physical manifestation is usually at Buckingham Palace during office hours and at Windsor Castle on weekends. It spends the Christmas holiday at Sandringham House, in Norfolk. In summer it lives at Balmoral Castle, in Scotland.

Cup and saucer commemorating the wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton, 2011 © Martin Parr/Magnum Photos

Cup and saucer commemorating the wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton, 2011 © Martin Parr/Magnum Photos

I interview some tourists in the queue for tickets. “She is very loyal to her people,” says one, quoting one of the dream makers, which is usually the Daily Mail, or the Telegraph, or Majesty magazine, the monthly for sycophants. She is not, then, in this opinion, a Russian spy. “She is great for tourism,” says another. This is the Queen as two-legged tourist attraction, like St. Paul’s Cathedral but with skin; the suggestion is that without monarchy Britain would be empty of visitors, like North Korea. This analysis is popular with monarchists because the argument for monarchy — which is that the Queen is a witch-goddess who keeps us safe from famine and pestilence and would get us tickets for football matches if only we asked — is simply too embarrassing to discuss publicly. The real argument for monarchy is: We are children.

The next tourist says: “I wanted my daughter to visit Buckingham Palace and the Queen. Not the king.” This view of the Queen as feminist is ridiculous. Feminism is a choice, not an accident of gender. There is no feminism without solidarity, and how can you be in solidarity if you are, by definition, singular?

More interviews: a man from Berkshire compares the Queen to El Cid. “The alternative” to a queen, says his wife, “might be Mrs. Tony Blair, if that gives you an idea.” Mrs. Tony Blair was raised in a working-class family in Liverpool and became a successful barrister. Snobbery: the British disease.

Buckingham Palace is a gray square with a fierce brown courtyard, as if the building has been stabbed. It has been continually remade and is, like the Palace of Westminster, falling down. I came here, in 2004, as part of a press delegation to a garden party. I saw the Queen from a distance. She was brightly dressed, like a piece of candy, and safe behind a rope, far from rogue iconoclasts. Her fashion sense is, essentially, fog lights.

Any critical writer would struggle to describe the state apartments of a royal palace; they are designed to blind you, to silence you. There are mirrors, doors, chandeliers, paintings (particularly landscapes, for land, when you own it, is always interesting), sunbursts, pianos, chairs with initials for guidance, preposterous sculpture — for instance, Queen Victoria dressed as an ancient Roman. Awe is not a theme I can work with, but I do try. I list the Canalettos in my notebook. The massed royal portraiture is from some ancient copy of Vogue; that is, airbrushed to make the family better looking: I’m fairly certain that George IV, who is responsible for the general impression of walking through a brain hemorrhage, was fatter than that. The décor is unofficially called non-domicile Renaissance; spiritually, it is called, as it has always been, I have more money than you.

And it is poison to the eyes! Gilt, gilt, gilt — but something else, too, something fraying. Buckingham Palace is a theater in need of renovation. There is something pathetic about a fiercely vacuumed throne room. The plants are tired. Plastic is nailed to walls and mirrors. The ballroom is set for a ghostly banquet. Everyone is whispering, for we are in a mad kind of church. A child weeps.

Behind a wall of glass I find the generic office of a courtier. The palace is keen for us to learn what the Queen does. She does nothing, is the answer. She is Zelig.

Downstairs, in a room by the garden, three of her costumes — cream, salmon, white — are displayed. Everything about the Queen is noted and labeled and boxed. It is like being already dead. There are photographs of her posing with the Apollo 11 astronauts (1969), the Arsenal Football Club (2007), and Angelina Jolie (2014).

The gift shop is a temporary shed; everything relating to palace visitors is temporary, to be blown away when the Queen returns from her summer holiday. There are possibly more people in the Buckingham Palace gift shop than there are committed British republicans. It sells A Butler’s Guide to Table Manners, which teaches the middle classes, with angry illustrations, how to hold a fish knife, and also How to Greet the Queen, which is a guidebook for the oblivious: Good manners “should be accorded to everyone from Her Majesty the Queen to the checkout assistant in the supermarket or the council employee who sweeps the road.” There are toy corgis — the corgi is a uniquely fat, small dog, a furious piece of salami on legs, of which she is fond — a hideous pink-and-gold urn (costing £9,999); a chef’s outfit, should you wish to impersonate a servant; and a maid’s outfit, should you wish to impersonate two servants. I find tea bags, biscuits, body lotion, a terry-cloth slipper for an equal-opportunity Cinderella (it fits all), a cushion that says god save the queen — does a blessing from an inanimate object count? — and a wooden spoon. I do not know why they have a wooden spoon. In a country of mysteries the spoon is one of many. Otherwise the philosophy of the shop is: Eat like them. Drink like them. Smell like them.

In the garden, everyone looks tired. Delusion is exhausting. It is like housework.

Sandringham House is the Queen’s private estate in Norfolk, a damp eastern county. It is a long, red, mid-Victorian house. It looks like a school. At the entrance I hear a conversation that could happen only in Britain.

Posh woman in uniform (briskly): “This is the entrance the Queen uses!”

Old Woman (one of two): “Oh, she’s marvelous!”

It is always “marvelous.” It is never “great” (too brief), or “fabulous” (too mythical), or “lovely” (too familiar). It is always “marvelous” — three soaring syllables, ending on a hiss, like “sacrifice.” It is a cathedral of a word.

“Marvelous,” echoes the second old woman, like a broken scale on a piano.

“Yes, she is,” says the posh woman crossly, as if mentioning the fact that she is marvelous could raise the possibility that she is not.

The Queen walks a slender line between monotony and the sublime. She has managed this contortion by remaining largely silent for eighty-nine years — a good mirror will grant a reflection to anyone who walks past — and, more important, by giving the impression that she does not want the job. This impression is made convincing by the abdication of her uncle Edward VIII, who really did not want the job, which fell to her father, George VI. It is often said that being king killed him; I think it was the cigarettes. George’s wife was Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother — “the steel marshmallow” who “managed to get queen twice into one title” (per Edward and Wallis Windsor). She was more interesting than he was — a woman so manipulative she convinced the public that her large overdraft at Coutts bank was an authentic act of patriotism; it is said that when she died her daughter paid her debts. This, though, is the central pillar of Elizabeth II’s myth: the Queen as victim. You can get away with anything if people think you are doing it for their sakes.

Victim-queen leaks into children’s books, specifically into Peppa Pig Meets the Queen. Peppa Pig is a small talking pig who asks the Queen to play. (There is another myth, so insidious even I believe it to be true: She is kind. You cannot lick a woman’s head every time you mail a letter without believing that, in some small way, she cares for you.)

“I don’t have time for playing,” answers the Queen. So Peppa Pig shows the Queen how “to jump up and down in the muddy puddle.”

The tangential myth is thrifty queen, which melts easily into victim-queen — the queen who is like you. This would be ridiculous to anyone who has looked, seriously, at her jewels, but monarchists insist that she likes to save money. I grew up with constitutional monarchy, and I learned to distrust it in the breadth of its lies. (In fact, her income rises in an age of austerity. She presides over a state in which, in 2014, 3.7 million children — or 28 percent of all British children — lived in poverty.) She turns off lights, they say. She has a small electric fire. She sleeps in a single bed or a dog basket. She eats coal.

Sandringham does not support the thrifty-queen hypothesis. The first room is the Saloon: a soaring hall wrapped in soft furnishings. A sign on the table says: these plants are available in the plant centre. There is an Elizabeth R cushion. (I love the small vanities. At Balmoral she was photographed with Majesty magazine.) And books! There are other books in other rooms — History of the Ministry of 1839, bound volumes of Macmillan’s Magazine — but they are locked away. Here, on a shelf in the Saloon, are the real books — The Guinness Book of Records, Labrador Retriever, Book of Quotations, A Sloth in the Family, The Art of Coarse Cricket, Gnomes.

There are many guns here, and sculptures of ducks. The royal family is fond of self-iconography and also of duck iconography, because you can fetishize what you also seek to kill.

There is a museum in the stable that exhibits the strange things people like to give the Queen: an ostrich egg, a rendering of her face in sparkly beads, a polished goat. There is also an entire wall of stuffed birds: gaudy, dead, and irresistible as metaphor.

The tragedy of Prince Philip — for he always has to walk behind his wife and seems peculiarly thwarted — is expressed by his contribution to British design, displayed here: a mobile picnic trailer.

The shop sells a corgi-themed clock, because it is the gift that cannot stop barking, and a book titled William & Catherine, which is royal iconography, subgenre “romance.” “When Prince William married Catherine Middleton on April 29th 2011,” I read, “royalists everywhere gave a collective cheer of joy, and perhaps a small sigh of relief, that the future king had chosen so well.” (This may be a stab at Diana, Princess of Wales.) “The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge are a perfect match and prove that one’s origins do not matter when love is involved.” In British-speak this means: They do matter. But a “middle-class” girl (or rather a rich girl, but we call the rich “middle class” for tax purposes) did not democratize the royal family. Catherine responded to her elevation by impersonating the Steel Marshmallow. And she has begun to speak like the Queen.

In the gift shop at Sandringham I find the puzzle. It’s an amazing thing, a thousand-piece deluxe jigsaw puzzle by Gibsons puzzles, specialists in the enigmatic. The Queen stands in front of a gilded door, in a spangled white dress and teal-blue sash. A diamond star sits, awkwardly, under the shadow of her left breast. Hair and tiara compete for dominion; hair wins, just. Diamonds are the size of toffees. She smiles.

I gaze at the puzzle. I walk away. I walk back. Vanessa, who works here, has done it. It took her a whole winter. “It’s very challenging,” she says. “I began with the Garter ribbon and worked outwards. The pearls on the tiara are very tough.” I do not ask her why she did it. Instead, I buy it.

The jewels are easy; diamonds flock together. I do the face: the mouth, the eyebrow, the chin. I stare at the ghost of a nasal hair on a piece of cheap paper. I hold a third of her eyeball, a sixth of her nose, and wonder where to put them. It feels obscene, this handling of her.

Balmoral Castle, Scotland, is pale gray — the gray of cinder block, precisely. It is magical-ish, as if a wizard had found a bungalow to transform into a palace but was interrupted halfway through, and so produced a bungalow stuck to a house stuck to a tower. There is a plastic stag in the garden and what may or may not be a plastic goat.

She is here — well, her physical manifestation is here. I read it in the Daily Mail. She is staying in a house a mile from the castle, waiting for the tourists to leave so she can begin her summer holiday. I fantasize that I will see her.

Neither Peppa Pig nor I would get an interview. The Queen doesn’t give them; it is not in her interests to be known. The royal family sometimes assists friendly biographers or, on special occasions, gives interviews to selected journalists. The results are gruesome.

The former produced Diana: Her True Story (1992), by Andrew Morton, in which the late Princess Diana revealed that her husband was in love with another woman (Camilla, now his wife) and that, after she joined the royal family, she could not stop vomiting. The latter produced the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge’s engagement interview, in which Kate Middleton gave a comprehensive impersonation of a speaking doormat. Prince Philip recently told a photographer to “take the fucking picture.” But that was not a typical royal interview. It told too much.

We are allowed into the ballroom. I count twelve stag heads and ten swords; an insane royal crib, exploding with pink flounces, because one can be both twee and savage; a statue of Queen Victoria “at her spinning wheel” by Sir Joseph Edgar Boehm, “eager to practise a highland craft.” The modern equivalent would be the Queen sculpted while operating an articulated dump truck. A computer displays photographs of the interiors of the house. The carpets are faded tartan; the furniture, a peculiar shade of orange. We are sent out past the bins by a peeling service wing: “Charming,” says a fellow visitor. (This is British sarcasm.) There are fraying curtains in the windows. Cans of paint are piled against the glass.

The movie The Queen (2006), with Helen Mirren, was set at Balmoral. Mirren won an Academy Award, because the Academy likes to treat monarchy as a disability, as it should. The movie has her sulking over a dead stag in the aftermath of the death of Princess Diana. The real queen killed her first stag as a teenager.

The disaster movie 2012 had her escaping a giant flood in an ark, but that is not right, either. I do not think she would even try to escape a cinematic flood in the company of the remnants of the U.S. government and two giraffes in an ark built in China.

I find a pretty house on the edge of a forest: the garden cottage. We are not allowed in. We stare through the windows: at brass beds, brass lamps, a fury of chintz. Here the royal family have practiced an idealized version of yeoman life. Nostalgia: the other British disease.

I go to a republican conference in Bristol, if only to breathe; eighty people in a faded room above a café, boats against the current, appallingly dressed, yes, but to my mind righteous, reading pamphlets titled Royal Expenses: Counting the Cost of the Monarchy and Monarchy Must Go. The program preens with democracy; we divide into eight groups and answer six questions on the implications of abolishing the monarchy. I do not know if our replies are effective, because they cannot compete with Catherine Cambridge’s hair and a weaponized baby with its own commemorative tea towel.

We note that the monarchy supports the class system; it is, in fact, propaganda for the class system. You cannot be a progressive monarchy, or a feminist monarchy, or a social-democratic monarchy. The monarchy cannot be apolitical, because it is predicated on its self-preservation. You can live in a euphoric dream or not.

On the train ride home a republican supporter tells me that she was abducted by the royal family and placed in a mental institution but that, eventually, they let her out. I do not believe her, just as I do not believe that Prince Philip killed Princess Diana because she had sex with a Muslim.

What republican conference, though, can compete with Windsor Castle on a late summer’s day? I find a stuffed corgi on the lawn of the Quadrangle. I also find the probable site of the Queen’s tomb in St. George’s Chapel, a fantastical Gothic church. A man asks the guide: “Is that where she is going?” He stabs the air with his finger. “That,” says the guide, pointing at the tombs of George VI and the Steel Marshmallow, “is where the smart money is.” This is casino-speak, and it is more offensive than the puzzle.

The Quadrangle is lined with photographs. One has the Queen in a huge green cape standing by a stream near Balmoral. She looks like an intensely cross sorceress, a woman who has been made magical by volume of cape and doesn’t like it. A fake Duke of Wellington walks around accosting babies; he is celebrating the victory over Napoleon at Waterloo. A second fake soldier stands beside him. “Who are you?” I ask. He doesn’t know. Wellington coughs politely. “Von Blücher,” he says.

The staterooms make the eyes burn. They are made human by, of all things, the toy dogs. I find a corgi on a statue of Queen Victoria, sitting between the legs of a stone collie; another on a mantelpiece; and I see Napoleon’s cape, stolen from his fleeing carriage near Waterloo. It is red, lustrous, and very tiny. But he did have a Napoleon complex.

There is a children’s costume pageant in the Moat Garden. I see medieval knights, Ruritanian princes, Disney princesses, and a lion; there are no social-democratic fairy tales, and no one is dressed as Harry S. Truman or Tony Blair. “Dream a Little Dream of Me” plays on the loudspeaker. Is it deliberate?

Here, too, is Snow White — a queen’s victim, but her small impersonator is oblivious — and some random fairies. The Queen is nothing like a fairy. Monarchists tell me constantly: she stands for continuity. It’s her brand. And fairies are flighty. It’s the wings.

I wander about asking small children: Why do you love the Queen? (Any other question is unsafe in a royal fortress, even one with multiple tea shacks.) “She’s very kind,” says Louis, nine. “She doesn’t shout.” No, indeed. She does not need to.

Lily Rose, five, loves “her dresses, her hats, and her hairstyles.” Lily Rose is drugged on Disney fantasies, specifically Sleeping Beauty. She lives opposite the castle, and one morning she saw Prince Philip ride out in his carriage. “That’s Prince Philip,” said her mother. “That’s not Prince Philip,” said Lily Rose, who knows Prince Philip to be a five-inch cartoon Disney prince who looks like the young Mitt Romney, “that’s an old man.”

Lily Rose is a fanatical monarchist. Perhaps she should be given Charles Moore’s column? During Ascot Week, her mother says, she accosted the Queen, did a low curtsy, and said, “Hello, your gracious Majesty.”

I ask Leo, four, why he loves the Queen. “I don’t,” he says. In the country of the politically infantile, Leo, four, speaks truth to his mother, who tells him to be quiet.

Now a children’s entertainer organizes a mass curtsy and a mass salute. “I know the Queen isn’t here,” she says. “At least that’s what she wants you to think.” “She’s on holiday,” shouts a child who may or may not be a stringer for the Daily Mail. They march through the garden, singing: “Show me the way to Windsor Town / to show me the Queen on her golden throne.” The entertainer tells the story of the Queen’s reign. I wonder how she will explain the abdication crisis to three-year-olds: “Now, children, the American divorcée Wallis Simpson ensnared Edward VIII with deviant sex — you really don’t want to know, children — and they both went to visit Adolf Hitler before becoming leaders of café society, thereby exposing the essential weakness of a constitutional monarchy that is also a genetic lottery.” That didn’t happen. She makes a heart with her fingers. Sentimentality: the most insidious British disease.

’s most recent article for Harper’s Magazine, “A Goose in a Dress,” appeared in the September 2015 issue. She lives in London.

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