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.
Despite the carriage-loads of clichés, Burrell’s obvious sincerity makes him genuinely touching when he writes of Diana’s death—even when describing his night spent asleep in her closet, “to be close to her.” But I’ll never understand my nation’s demented pseudo-mourning over the Princess’s death. Grieving for someone you’ve never met is a sign of madness. When the public turned on the royals for not immediately staging a public show of grief (“We pay for this family—if they’re sad we want to see it!”), it felt like the United Kingdom had become not only disunited but deranged.
The hysterical media-spasm culminated in the funeral, with Diana’s children made to publicly trudge the streets of London alongside the hearse, their grief at last displayed for the public’s appreciation. Meanwhile Burrell had stayed up all night with the dead body, remembering Diana’s vague spiritual leanings and believing that she was still around, watching.
It’s this belief that caused Burrell trouble in his role on the board of the Diana, Princess of Wales Memorial Fund. Convinced that he knew Diana’s wishes far better than the other administrators (her family), he appears to have made himself very unpopular—to the extent that not only was he fired, but prosecuted for theft.
His erstwhile employers were slow to come forward with the information that cleared him, resulting in an abortive trial costing the British taxpayers millions. The case against Burrell was apparently strong enough to go to trial but was rendered null and void after one person informally vouched for him: the Queen. Many things about this don’t add up, and Burrell apparently doesn’t understand it either. One can see the House of Windsor not wanting the case to go on, but why wait so long?
The truth may lie in the crepuscular world of Peake’s creation. “Weaned on shadows,” these helpless eccentrics rule their world without remotely understanding it. It makes sense that nothing they do makes sense—they act according to rituals whose meaning is lost to memory. They are the people whose purpose the world forgot. They travel the globe to be admired, like famous paintings, and they have as much freedom as figures in oil.
Since reading Burrell’s book my feelings about the royals have changed slightly. I’ve always felt they should be abolished. Occasionally I’ve inclined towards public execution. Now I think they should be freed. Freed from the pointless rituals, the press intrusion, the relentless luxury, and closets full of servants. Maybe then they could enjoy life more. They could all go and live on an island somewhere.
Oh wait, they already do.
David Cairns is a filmmaker and writer based in Edinburgh, Scotland. His films include the award-winning Cry for Bobo. He is currently at work on a children’s fantasy show for the BBC, The Intergalactic Kitchen.