Magazine article The Spectator

Not Bloody Likely

Magazine article The Spectator

Not Bloody Likely

Article excerpt

CHARLES & C AMILLA by Gyles Brandreth Century, £20, pp. 368, ISBN 1844138453 . £16 (plus £2.45 p&p) 0870 429 6655

Delicate confections, these biographies of contemporary English royalty. You have to take so much on trust, the confidences of 'friends', the unattributed whispers, the hearsay, it only takes one ugly erroneous fact for the whole thing to slide away in front of your eyes like one of those huge cakes in comedy films. For me, in Charles & Camilla, this happened on page 153.

Just a short sentence. 'The English had captured Caernarfon Castle from the Welsh in 1282.' There was no castle at Caernarfon in 1282. What there was was a settlement of timber houses, this so small it took 20 men just five days to demolish the lot to make way for the English town, which the Welsh duly destroyed in 1294.

But the cake had begun to slide for me 18 pages earlier where Gyles Brandreth quoted a story told him by the broadcaster Wynford Vaughan Thomas. In 1936, sent to interview David Lloyd George, Vaughan Thomas found the former prime minister in his pyjamas in a hotel room, 'sitting in bed between two topless tarts'.

Under such circumstances the BBC interview duly took place. And if you believe that, sunshine, you'll believe anything.

Like the fact that the Duchess of Cornwall lost her virginity on the night of Saturday, 27 March, 1965. Gyles Brandreth is no more exact than that: he does not give the hour or place, but adds, 'in the month, incidentally, when Goldie, the golden eagle, also found freedom, escaping from his cage at London zoo'.

Eh? The commas are there presumably as a guarantee of his scrupulous precision.

He then wheels on the suspected agent (no, not of Goldie's escape), a chap called Burke, but says he cannot completely vouch for this, not that it did not happen, but that it may not have happened on that night; he has been, he says, too much of a coward to ask either Burke or the Duchess. The point is that Brandreth might have asked them; he pops up in the oddest places. So it is another guarantee of his good faith, d'you see? It is a formidable technique.

Defoe used it when he wrote his Journal of the Plague Year, which was accepted as a factual record, except that Defoe would have been about four in the year of the Plague. No matter. All it required was the odd uncertainty on his part to convince his reading public that they were not reading a work of fiction. And of course to pack the background with detail. This Brandreth also does.

A magical mystery tour of royal shenanigans, designed to provide a historical perspective, starts with the coronation in 955 of Edwy the Fair, who snuck away from the ceremony and was found in bed with his mistress -- and her mother -- by the Archbishop of Canterbury, no less. This was probably included as a testimonial to the discretion of contemporary royalty.

The tour goes on to include the founding father of the Keppel family business, to which the Duchess belongs. He was a young Dutchman who came over with William III, and was at 29 created by him Earl of Albemarle because, Brandreth wrote in an earlier royal biography, he was the king's catamite. Ah. Gyles now thinks he was wrong on this one, and says so, thereby increasing our respect ('It is all too easy to libel the dead'). …

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