Books: Secrets of a Pheasant Strangler ; THE QUEEN: GOLDEN JUBILEE EDITION Ben Pimlott HarperCollins, Pounds 24.99, 780pp; Her Majesty Retains Her Mystery. So What Can a Biography, However Expert, Tell Us? Piers Brendon Deplores Our Hidden History
Brendon, Piers, The Independent (London, England)
More has been written about Queen Elizabeth II than about anyone in the kingdom, but in important respects we still know very little about her. Her Majesty is enthroned at the heart of a democracy supposedly dedicated to open government and freedom of information, yet the political role she has played is one of the most closely guarded state secrets.
Nothing is revealed about the advice, encouragement and warning which the Queen vouchsafes to her prime ministers. This means that we remain almost as ignorant about the monarch's influence on Winston Churchill as about her influence on Tony Blair. The Crown not only limits "transparency" now; it restricts the bounds of history. We can't be told what line the Queen took over the Suez crisis or the Falklands, Rhodesian UDI or the miners' strike, the strange elevation of Lord Home or the equally strange non- prosecution of Anthony Blunt. The longer she reigns over us, the more black holes there will be in our past.
So in his admirable attempt to write a clear-eyed academic biography of the Queen, Professor Ben Pimlott has faced severe problems. Archivists, abroad as well as at home, generally capitulate to requests from Windsor to close documents which contain even the mouldiest crumbs from the royal table. Courtiers behave like high priests in an esoteric cult, refusing to divulge information on the most trivial matters - on whether, for example, the "foreign body" which got stuck in the Queen Mother's throat was a fishbone... and on whether the fish in question was a trout.
Other insiders, including politicians accustomed to leaking like drains, become tongue-tied about the crowned mystery. Journalists, who seldom rise above royal gossip, are often thwarted by the organised silence surrounding the Queen. She even prevents (though Pimlott does not say so) the re-broadcasting of Richard Cawston's television film Royal Family; documentary makers who wish to draw on it are confined to snippets from the trailer.
Pimlott manfully contends with the difficulties. This up-dated, "Golden Jubilee" edition of his 1996 biography will be, for many years, the standard work on its sovereign subject. It is far better than its few serious rivals and, of course, in a different league from the usual dynasty drivel. Pimlott's tone is sometimes bracingly sharp: he dismisses the kind of lady-like, home-based "education" Princess Elizabeth underwent as "the British equivalent of binding feet". He is pleasingly alert to the snobbery surrounding the Palace and observes that it extends to the stables: one likely stallion was rejected as mate for a royal mare because it was owned by a bookie.
There are some omissions but very few mistakes in the book, though it does manage to confuse the 1917 Balfour Declaration on the Jewish homeland with the 1926 Balfour Declaration on the Common- wealth. And Pimlott taps an unusually wide range of sources.
Nevertheless, both story and characters are painfully familiar. Gruff "Grandpa England", the stammering, tooth-gnashing father, the mother all saccharine and steel, the wayward sister ("How can we get her out of the gutter? …