Magazine article The Spectator

Does One Hug or Curtsy?

Magazine article The Spectator

Does One Hug or Curtsy?

Article excerpt

RECENTLY, the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh dined at the Ritz, an unofficial engagement without fanfare or panoply, but, as the monarch walked through the hotel, the merry throng in the bar recognised her and rose as one to their feet. Men stood with their thumbs down their trouser seams, the women bowed their heads; all that could be heard was the ice settling in the abandoned gin and tonics.

Such old-fashioned respect for the monarchy is rare these days. Neither the royal family nor their subjects quite know how to behave towards each other any more. The late Diana, Princess of Wales irreparably blurred the lines of formality so that one didn't know whether to curtsy or hug her, and as a result the rest of the royal family are now perceived to be approachable, game for a laugh, sort of social scalps to be gathered by the upwardly mobile. Only last week a lubricious Argentinian beauty, Adriana Vasile, asked Prince Charles to tango at a state banquet in Buenos Aires, surely a modern short-circuit of the convention whereby you danced with a man who'd danced with a girl who'd danced with the Prince of Wales.

It is the royals themselves who are responsible for the breakdown of the cordon sanitaire of formal etiquette. It was the Queen who introduced the walkabout, that thin edge of the touchy-feely wedge; it was the Duke of Edinburgh who advocated the 1968 television programme in which the royal family were seen barbecuing sausages, just like us. Yet the whole point about having a monarchy is for them to be different. `Just like us' ends in tears, viz Diana and the Duchess of York, and, all too rapidly, no self-respecting subject wants to be just like them, a dysfunctional family with an abnormally high divorce rate.

Once the light was let in, `the mystic reverence, the religious allegiance' which Walter Bagehot considered `essential to a true monarchy' was fatally dissipated and this has left all of us at a disadvantage. We, the British public, know so much about the royals that we are emboldened to clap them on the back, ask after the children and virtually call them 'darling'. But this is not a two-way street. The royals know comparatively little about us, and thus appear like rabbits caught in the headlights as the boundaries of decorum are pushed out ever further. A kiss from Posh Spice here, a comedy appearance with Stephen Fry there, and we're ostensibly all chums. The question is whether the breakdown of formality reflects dissolution of respect, and instead of making the monarchy modern and accessible (it was carefully leaked that the Queen is a whizz on the Web) isolates the royal family further from real life.

Of course there must be times, particularly when battling with the Hydra of press and paparazzi, when the royals long for the good old days of beheadings and the Tower. In Thailand it is still treason to talk disrespectfully of the king and his heir (and there's allegedly rather a lot to talk about), but here conjecture has become a national sport. At the court of the Chinese emperors, the approach of the imperial rulers was preceded by a flotilla of Pekinese, at which the entire court prostrated themselves on the floor. The corgis do not elicit precisely the same response.

Then there is the problem of Mrs Camilla Parker Bowles. During the reign of King Charles II, his mistresses were treated with obsequious respect (people walked backwards before Barbara Castlemaine), and toadied to for their power and influence, but although Mrs Parker Bowles's influence is now being regarded with increasingly benevolent public approval, there lingers the supposed incident when she was pelted with bread rolls in a Sainsbury's carpark. …

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