Saturday, 30 April 2011
I have no firm views about the royal family as an institution: I am not even sure I am entitled to a view. When it comes to the constitution I feel something of a foreigner, a first generation guest. This isn't a rational thought but a feeling, a voice whispering that there are certain respects in which my Britishness is skin deep. It is not that, Voltaire like, I can go back to my home country to write up my views. I could gossip and chat in Hungary, but it would be unformulated, non-ideological, impressionistic. In any case, Hungary isn't my home: Britain is.
I didn't sit down in front of the TV for most of the morning but I did put BBCi on about the time the bride was entering the carriage on the way to Westminster, and kept it on, only stopping it at the interminable vox pops in which repellently aggressive BBC reporters were coaxing ever greater fervour from whichever members of the public they thought could be easily patronised. I am sure Soviet TV reporters worked exactly the same way at the time of the great military parades. I am sure the public feeling in the crowd was genuine, but the coaxing was not. The commentary was hard to get through and I lost count how many times Huw Edwards informed us about the 1902 Landau carriage.
Nevertheless a ceremony is a ceremony and a wedding is a wedding. Furthermore, public interest is public interest. Why watch it? Because most people were watching it. Because to set out not to watch it would have been too deliberate a gesture, especially for someone who has no sense of entitlement. I don't even watch it with ironic interest: it is simply interest, as if to say: So this is where I live. So this too is England. And I remember all the Princess Diana souvenirs in pubs and bars and cafes, aware that there is an engine at work here.
Nor is it in the least an overtly malevolent engine. The presidential-ceremonial role in the Royaume Uni is conducted in terms of royal succession rather than one or other electoral process. It is not the fact that this is quaintly archaic, but the fact that it has a grip on a good portion of the public's imagination that makes it interesting. Princess Diana meant something - rather more than her husband did at one level, though I suspect that if one dug deeper it might be different. The atavistic instinct runs deep in everyone, and here is a place where it is embodied as both symbol and office.
Clearly this does not square with socialist instincts, such as what I have. Succession, symbol and office are aspects of hierarchy and we live in an avowedly and, to a great degree, psychologically egalitarian world. But not in every degree. The security of hierarchy offers a stable identity. You can be proudly working class or claim to be so with pride. Very few people, however, say: I am proud to be poor.
So there are William and Kate undergoing the whole ceremonial arc, the rudiments of which are common to every conventional marriage. 'Princess for a day' is the pattern for everyone else. The princess image runs very deep: not, I suspect in terms of monarchy as such, but on grounds of ceremony and ceremonial treatment. There are few ritually sacramental moments in life: this is the most spectacular. There is even something sacrificial about the role. The bride is the unquestioned star of the event. The best man plays jester. The groom's job is to look presentable and dignified without looking pompous. His bride is displayed before the world. She is the trophy bride before whom he is expected to look a little astonished and abashed. Certainly both William and Kate looked handsome, and reassuringly human.
He mouths to her at the altar: You look beautiful. She smiles back. In this respect it is any human wedding. It is also a moment out of time: what happened before, what is to come is time flowing. This is putting time on hold in order to articulate, or rather to make articulate, the importance of a rite of passage.
Then there is the gathering of the Windsors on the balcony, like a set of royal dolls. Husband and wife kiss once, then again. They move back into the room and the crowd goes. The clothes of the guests have been picked over, their hairdos analysed, their moods considered. Eventually there will be the 'iconic picture'. That becomes the point now. The iconic is a symbol into which various individual selves are poured, and which becomes an element, a part of the weather, in various selves. It also becomes what people call History. The crowds in the street were participating in History. That is why they are there. Not that History will remember them, just as it won't remember most marriages, except as documentary trace or a clutch of faded photos on a market stall.