How Are the Corgis?

Forget Tolkien: When it comes to figuring out the British royals, turn to Peake

 They were all-but-forgotten people: the breed that was remembered with a start, or with the unreality of a recrudescent dream. - Mervyn Peake, Titus Groan

With Peter Jackson's The Return of the King set to smite the world's box offices, this third and final installment of J.R.R. Tolkien's reactionary fable seems to fit neatly into these warlike times: a nonwhite threat from the East defeated by the valorous Coalition of the Fellowship. But perhaps another fantasy classic has more to say to us today.

Hello. I'm terribly sorry and all that, but I'm British. This seems to mean I'm heir to a tradition of eccentricity, the heritage of Blake, Carroll, and Peake. Mervyn Peake's Gormenghast trilogy (published 1946-1959) is an allegorical portrait of post-war Britain, and reads like a version of Tolkien where nobody gets round to leaving the house. And it was this work that came to mind as I read a recent account of life among Britain's royal family.

A Royal Duty (Putnam) is a "below-stairs" memoir from Buckingham and Kensington palaces. The author, former butler Paul Burrell, was recently prosecuted for supposedly pilfering items belonging to Princess Diana (letters, an Indiana Jones whip, a Tina Turner CD), and was driven to the brink of suicide before the trial collapsed after extremely belated intervention from the Queen (Burrell had apparently told her of his intention to take certain letters for safekeeping). But Burrell is adamant that his book is not a revenge on the royals. Indeed his intense, even unhealthy devotion to the late Princess of Wales and the House of Windsor shines through on every page of his memoir.

Burrell's prose is clunky, but his story is fascinatingly weird. This man won a British catering award for sculpting Chesterfield's crooked church spire in margarine. From here it was, apparently, a short step to serving the Queen as footman (if only I'd known!). A portrait emerges of a sensitive soul, devoted to duty, convinced of his close connection with the Windsors—though the reader may be less sure. Burrell cares passionately about this family, often at the expense of his own, but do his employers care about him? In one telling incident he describes how, when he left the Queen's service after 10 years to work for Charles and Di, Her Majesty didn't even say goodbye to him. When she calls up later to speak to her son, and Burrell attempts to engage her in friendly conversation ("How are the corgis?"), she cuts him off.

The Dickensian caricatures of Mervyn Peake's mouldering fictional domain have spilled out into reality, or at least into Buckingham Palace. Charles is a dithering, melancholy figure like Peake's Lord Groan, with Diana as the kindly hysteric Fuchsia. The Queen is Lady Groan to a tee—remote, sedate, engrossed in animals. I wonder if Burrell's knees crack loudly when he walks, like Mr. Flay, the loyal but exiled servant of the Groans.

The crumbling power structure of the British monarchy stands in for the castle of Gormenghast itself. Meaningless rituals consume the time and energy of those who supposedly head the church and state. Obscure, ancient rules govern all. Change is slow to come to this calcified institution, where, unlike everywhere else in the land, people wish each other a Happy Christmas rather than a Merry one, in case merriness is taken to imply intoxication.

This really is another world, alien not just to other nations but to the people of Britain. I live a stone's throw from the Royal Yacht Britannia (I often throw stones at it), but I'm a stranger to this world of people with names like Meredith Etherington-Smith, Tiggy Legge-Bourke, Lucia Flecha de Lima, and Flavia the Heretic (OK, I made the last one up).

Like Peake's malevolent class warrior Steerpike, the servants we meet in Burrell's book wield more real power than the aristos. They steal their gin, hold wild parties to the music of Abba and Barry White, decide who gets invited to receptions at Buckingham Palace, and openly insult Sarah Ferguson (I know, I know—we've all done it).

Burrell appreciates the informality of working for Diana after her divorce, but here the abuse really begins. Working 16-hour days, Burrell becomes Diana's "rock," her confidant and paid companion, on call at all hours and expected to phone her for a chat even when away on holiday. She treats him like a devoted gay friend (Burrell has a wife and kids but is rendered sexually "safe" by the class difference between them). He worships her and devotes his life to her. He is determined to protect her image forever, citing her generosity and goodness nearly every time he refers to her. But often this saintly portrait is undercut by evidence of extreme naïveté.

Accompanying Diana on late-night drives, Burrell saw her hand out wads of banknotes to streetwalkers, telling them to go home for the night. They didn't. It wouldn't occur to her that an extra couple of hundred quid is not enough to get someone off the streets.

Throughout, Burrell is touchingly convinced that he was more friend than servant to Diana. Burrell raves about "the Boss" and her greatness, but she comes across as neurotic, temperamental, and not very bright, with terrible taste in music, films, and especially men, all seemingly chosen for their ability to make her cry—Whitney Houston, Brief Encounter, James Hewitt. But she meant well.

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