‘My friends have promised me that, if I go to the royal wedding on Saturday, I’ m off the hook for the Eurovision Song Contest’
As a Donegal hotel cancels a Harry and Meghan-themed event following a number of complaints, Dublin journalist Donal Lynch explains how he and a Catholic pal from Northern Ireland will be joining the crowds in Windsor on Saturday ... and why attitudes of people in the Republic towards the royals have now turned from indifference to acceptance
Six months ago, a group of friends rounded on me in a bar and demanded I go to England with them for the royal wedding. They had already booked their tickets, they told me, and the plan was to get up early on the Saturday and get the train from London to Windsor for the parade itself. It would be silly, camp, drunken fun, they assured me, and we’d be witnessing a little bit of history.
I weakly agreed, but thought “no chance”. Despite being raised on an aunt-administered diet of Hello! magazine, I was never particularly fascinated with the royals and I wondered if the whole obsession with Meghan was a little trivial, when we should be fretting about more important things.
Joining the royalist fan club would also, surely, be a bit iffy for a proud Irish person, who still feels like the 1916 centenary was five minutes ago and whose favourite record is The Queen Is Dead?
There wouldn’t be a work reason to go, either. According to a recent poll, most people in the Republic say they won’t watch the wedding. The BBC might install perfectly respectable journalists to cover, say, The Duke of Kent’s prostate surgery, as though it were the moon landing, but me attending the royal wedding parade might be more like Repeal the Eighth activists queuing to meet the Pope.
As I voiced all of these concerns, the ringleader of this royal road trip, a Northern Ireland Catholic who grew up in the worst of the Troubles, tried to talk some sense into me. The royals aren’t national symbols so much as they are celebrities whom we’d have to invent if they didn’t exist, he argued.
The UK was several hundred years ahead of its time, in coming up with proto-Kardashians long before the rest of the world had them. The glamour transcends concerns of nationalism. Enormous drawing rooms, tiaras, and palace intrigue are all much more fascinating than where the border is, he went on.
If the men of 1916 died for anything, it was so that their gay descendants could gasp as a new duchess emerges from a horse-drawn carriage. “And let’s face it,” he added, “if any of us ever won an OBE, we’d be on our knees in front of them in a second, waiting for that sword to land on our shoulder.”
The whole thing had suddenly been put in the kind of celebrity-fascinated, vainglorious terms I could understand. Another friend forwarded me Hilary Mantel’s famous essay, Royal Bodies. Between the lines, Mantel seems to suggest that a still-sceptical-yet-secretly-intrigued Irish person could also pass off a royal sojourn as naturalism, or anthropology.
The royals are like pandas, she says, in that they are expensive to conserve and ill-adapted to any modern environment. “But aren’t they interesting? Aren’t they nice to look at? Some people find them endearing; some pity them for their precarious situation; everybody stares at them, and however airy the enclosure they inhabit, it’s still a cage.”
In a sense, from a dramatic perspective, that might be the very thing worth braving a hangover to gawp at this Saturday: a woman who is living a dream that could curdle in a second: pageantry tinged with darkness. The royal family has an interesting history of chewing up commoners and spitting them out. Wallis Simpson is the obvious comparison, but Diana, of course, too.
Meghan is envied and perhaps pitied in equal measure. Is she embarking on a fairytale, or a suffocating life of duty? Casual curiosity can easily become cruelty for the royals. We don’t cut off the heads of royal women these days, but we do sacrifice them, and we did memorably drive one to her grisly end a mere generation ago.
The royals can also be appreciated as avatars of our own families; the same char- acters, the prissy mum, the stern mother-in-law, the embarrassing uncle, emerge. It was for Shakespeare to penetrate the heart of a prince, but it is for Fleet Street to divine the obsessions of a soon-to-be princess. The weather is the latest, up-to-the-minute one. She, apparently, is already examining the forecasts for the day itself.
Meghan is also obsessed with Diana, the Daily Mail and the Daily Express constantly remind us, so she perhaps knows the pitfalls well enough to avoid them. Even though the pitfalls were what made Diana such a reality star. Will Meghan be more starry than the current members of the firm? A little grit would be welcome.
We don’t expect EastEnders, but safe is too much the current Windsor trademark. Manners have been put on the Press since Leveson and the consensus seems to be that Meghan would be the latest in a line of moves that followed the PR nadir of Diana’s death and have bolstered the Windsor brand ever since.
The royal family has an interesting history of chewing up commoners and spitting them out
But perhaps that has been for the better of the firm.
As William and Harry have matured, the family’s emotional hold over the public has only strengthened. The precision-calibrated and stylishly skinny Kate has hardly put a single foot wrong, but now she has been cast in the role of slightly frumpier counterpart: the Fergie to Meghan’s Diana.
It seems fitting that the first genuinely handsome prince they’ve ever had, a comfortingly safe distance from the throne, would get such a beautiful American actress as his bride. Kate, it was said, might breed in a bit of manners. Meghan might, in turn, breed in some good looks.
And she would be the right addition to the brand in other ways, too.
The marketing of the royal family is interesting. The Windsors will soon have something for everyone.
For the traditionalists, there’s the reassuringly horsey Princess Anne, who obediently gave up work to get her man and now seems chiefly focused on her children. She is The Daily Telegraph reader’s princess. Kate is the mummy market. Markle looks set to corner the millennials as the winsome one you would least mind your daughter aspiring to become.
She’s the embodiment of all of the diversity obsession of Hollywood and media. She has a range of attributes that would, until very recently, have ruled her out of the princess stakes. Within hours of her engagement being announced, a Spectator columnist set the tone, writing: “Obviously, 70 years ago, Meghan Markle would have been the kind of woman the prince would have had for a mistress, not a wife.”
The Daily Mail has dusted off descriptions like “saucy divorcee” for Meghan and they have been similarly aghast that she seems to describe herself as a feminist. After reports that she is considering giving her own speech at her wedding, she recently dropped some heavy hints that she will be campaigning on issues to do with “empowering women” when she officially joins the royal family. She even used her first joint public engagement with Kate to praise the Time’s Up and #MeToo campaigns against sexual harassment.
Only 40 years or so after everyone else, it seems the royal family has finally come around to the existence of feminism. Or perhaps not; as Meghan gushed about #MeToo, Harry, with whom both women shared a stage, gently reminded his fiancee that she had a wedding to organise.
On the basis of last year’s big Vanity Fair cover interview, Meghan may yet give Kate a run for her money in the blandness stakes. “We’re in love,” she told the magazine, in a little speech that might have come from an atrocious 1990s romcom, possibly starring Andie MacDowell. “I’m sure there will be a time when we will have to come forward and present ourselves and have stories to tell, but I hope what people will understand is that this is our time. This is for us. It’s part of what makes it so special, that it’s just ours. But we’re happy. Personally, I love a great love story.”
Hilary Mantel once called Kate “a jointed doll on which certain rags are hung” and “a shop window mannequin”, but will Meghan be different? Several designers are in the running to design her wedding dress, but apparently the Suits dress wasn’t a hint and she’s fond of sleeves.
Her race — she is the offspring of a white father and an African-American mother — has been such a source of fascination that Kensington Palace last year felt the need to issue a statement reminding the world that her life “is not a game” and calling out the media on the “racial undertones of comment pieces”.
The palace was notably silent on reports that Princess Michael of Kent had “shaded” Meghan by wearing a brooch depicting a black figure on her coat as she arrived for Meghan’s first big family gathering with the Windsors. She was later criticised online for wearing a “racist” brooch, even as the rest of the world marvelled at the idea of how perfectly aristocratic it would be to make a point — even an offensive one — using the medium of antique jewellery.
A disappointment of the William and Harry generation is the general lack of interesting scandal. In a sense, maybe they have to be boring at a time when Britain faces into the uncertainty of Brexit and its waning influence in the world. Diana moved in a world where Cool Britannia was a cultural idea and the Union flag was everywhere.
The current royals operate at a time of lower national morale. They have subtly shifted roles over the years. William, the one who was always reckoned to be the spit of Diana (ie good-looking), has aged into a horsey, balding drink of water, while ginger little brother, our groom, has developed a charismatic swagger and an ability to shrug off indiscretions.
Meghan’s estranged half-brother has made himself seem bitter by slating her in the
Australian media, but the venom of his language seemed to discredit him. Her mother will be there, ensuring she has a family presence.
Andrew Morton, he of the notorious Princess Diana biography, has described Meghan Markle as a “supreme networker” who wanted to be “Diana 2.0” in a new book which is notably short on the kind of dirt one could dig up in the 1990s.
And, after being left off the guest list for William’s and Kate’s wedding (perhaps because of promising an undercover journalist access to Prince Andrew), Fergie is invited to Harry and Meghan’s wedding and general reception.
She is not on the exclusive list for a second, more private, reception being thrown by Charles, but the main point is that the woman who likely had prior sight of the Disney teapots that her daughters wore to William and Kate’s big day, will be in attendance and the event will be the richer for it.
I might see her there, or on a big screen from London at the very least. At the time of writing, my place on the train is set. My royal grinchiness is melting away. I’m ready for upper-crust Kardashians.
My friends have promised if I do this, I’m off the hook for the Eurovision Song Contest. I might even wave a little Union flag. It will be momentous, like when the Queen spoke Irish and Mary McAleese mouthed the word “wow!”.
And let’s see if people in the Republic don’t, after all, tune into the wedding in big numbers this coming weekend.
My place on the train is set, my grinchiness is melting. I’m ready for the upper-crust Kardashians
Nearly there: Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, and (below) the couple at trials for the Invictus Games which will take place in Sydney later this year
Big fan: Meghan is obsessed with Princess Diana
On duty: Prince Harry and Meghan Markle during a visit to Belfast earlier this year, and (below) the Duchess of Cambridge