Monthly Archives: December 2006

Unsung National Treasures – 2 – HRH the Princess Royal

HRH the Princess Royal

Mrs Timothy Laurence is the Queen’s second child and only daughter. The equine features of HRH the Princess Royal stand out cruelly in a family which produced people as attractive as Princess Margaret and Prince William.

She has never courted the media. Whatever pain she felt because of her first husband’s infidelity, she kept to herself. In the 1970s she famously told a bunch of photographers to “naff off”, though in retrospect it seems much more likely that the word she used began with an f rather than ending with two of them.

The Princess Royal is the only member of the Royal Family in recent times to have achieved national standing for reasons other than her birth. In 1971 she one the individual European Three Day Event, and in 1976 she represented Britain in the Three Day Event at the Montreal Olympics.

You have the feeling that she leads exactly the life she would have led if she had not been royal. She lives on a working farm, admittedly one with a large house and good views. She does practical things for practical charities. She is simply at one end of a scale which has along it all the countless women who deliver meals on wheels, rattle tins for the Red Cross and staff the WRVS shops in hospitals.

Her visits to third world countries are unphotogenic and unphotographed. This quiet pragmatism makes her seem ruthlessly unsentimental:

“The very idea that all children want to be cuddled by a complete stranger I find utterly amazing”.

She does have a point. She may not respond physically or with gushing emotion, but she is fully engaged intellectually with the charities she supports. She has been President of Save the Children since 1970, and Mike Aaronson the charity’s Director General describes her contribution like this:

“In her readiness to think laterally and to question conventional wisdom – often through vigorous debate – she has always displayed great courage and intellectual integrity.”

Integrity is a good word to describe the Princess Royal. She is the most egalitarian of the Royals. Her husbands and children have not been granted titles. Her children are 10th and 11th in succession to the throne; they are Mr Peter Phillips and Miss Zara Phillips, and their commoners’ names stand out sharply among those of their cousins who are princes and princesses.

She is modest, but she is also frequently the most hard-working of the Royals. League tables are suprisingly hard to find, but the 2001 table of royal engagements published in the Guardian shows her public engagements outstripping those of Prince Charles 5 to 4, and those of her mother by almost 5 to 3.

The Princess Royal has passed on on this hard-working and practical modesty to her children. Zara is pretty and blonde but she also wins European Three Day Eventing Championships. Peter works for the Royal Bank of Scotland managing their relationship with the Williams Formula One team. The Princess Royal herself was ridiculed for saying that if she had not been a royal she would have liked to have been an HGV driver, but in fact she has an HGV licence and uses it to drive horse-boxes around the country.

Perhaps the story which sums the Princess Royal up the best is the one that Jackie Stewart used to tell about meeting her at one of the BBC Sports Personality of the Year functions in the early 1970s when he was winning Formula One races and she was winning Three Day Events. He was expecting a la-di-da aristo who’d had everything given her on a plate. Then he shook her hand. It was the hand of someone used to manual work.

Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the one royal who’d survive a revolution, the one who would have preferred to be a commoner, the hard-working one: I give you HRH the Princess Royal.


Dumbing down: role models and the dangers of easy affluence

The grass is always greener and the past is always golden, (though in future the summers will be longer and hotter, but that just goes to show, doesn’t it?)

Where was I? Oh yes.

Attention spans are shorter these days, exams are easier, people are fatter and lazier, and we are all going to hell in a web-enabled Wii HDTV-ready handcart.

Three things I read recently and one thing I heard made me feel that this view could be true.

The history of Radio 3 and of its predecessor the Third Programme says that when it was founded in the late 1940s it was “very attractive to” 4% of the working class. Not a high proportion but still a large number of people, people who by their own accounts included Sir Peter Hall, Sir Peter Maxwell Davies and Harold Pinter. I was listening to Sir Arnold Wesker on Radio 4, talking about his working-class childhood in the East End, a childhood which was full of love, ideas, discussion and debate. These days when working class kids make good we get Victoria Beckham, Jade Goody and, goddess help us all, Ant and Dec.

Then I read these two blogs.

About half way through a post about something else, Diaphanous quotes article in Der Spiegel.

The main premise is that while a lot of people who are “poor” today have as much material as the middle classes of an earlier era did, they are poor in a different sense.

The modern-day member of the underclass is not hungry … it is not material poverty that separates him from others.

Rather, what stand out are the symptoms of intellectual neglect. The poor of today watch television for half the day. These days, television producers even refer to what they call “Underclass TV.”

But the main thing that sets the modern poor apart from the industrial age pauper is a sheer lack of interest in education. … He likewise makes little effort to open the door to the future for his own children. Their language skills are as bad as their ability to concentrate. The rising rate of illiteracy is matched by the shrinking opportunities to integrate the underclass.

When you read about poor people in times past, it seems like there was often an insistence by the parents that their children get more and a better education than they themselves had. When I see rural poverty cycling through generations today I don’t see that; instead I see one generation shoving over on the couch so that the kids can watch monster truck rallies. On cable – of course, they have cable. There’s no money for books or music lessons but there’s always money for cable TV or a satellite dish.


The eerie apricot says that that this is not just about low expectations and a lack of ambition at home, she says that schools like the one she teaches in are also responsible:

… it’s that all the adults in their lives … do not encourage them to achieve. When the students do only the minimum, we all shower them with praise and attention. Later, in advanced classes or the real world, when they are asked and expected to give one hundred percent, suddenly the students are overwhelmed and their self-esteem suffers. No one has ever asked or expected one hundred percent from them before. Every task becomes “too difficult” and they give up without a fight. We do a serious disservice to these kids …

How do we expect the children to learn to take things seriously when the school and the parents do not?

the eerie apricot

I urge you to both posts in full – the eerie apricot in particular describes the most shocking and depressing school concert I could ever envision.

I don’t have any answers but I am sure that both the eerie apricot and Diaphanous are asking the right questions. There are other questions of course.

Surely ambition needs you (a) to dislike where you are now, (b) to know that there is something better, and (c) to believe that it is possible for you personally to get from a to b? These days “something better” is celebrity rather than achievement. Young people now want to be famous. They don’t want to be famous for anything, just famous.

Education used to be the route out. The advantage of a meritocracy is that it rewards people who are able, and education is the quickest and simplest way to improve your capabilities. It is a system which rewards academic and sometimes artistic achievement. It isn’t quick and simple, but it used to be quicker and simpler and more likely that a working class boy would get a degree than, say, to marry an heiress.

Now we have a pulchritocracy, the rule of the beautiful. Why bother working at school when a pubic wax, a fake tan, a reality TV show and maybe an opportunist celebrity bonk can give you all the designer labels your bedazzled heart desires?

The spiralling ironies of the story of Chantelle Houghton illustrates this perfectly. She was a pretty but not a successful girl who got her 15 minutes on Celebrity Big Brother. She succeeded in fooling the real celebrities that she was a singer in a girl-band, even though she wasn’t. She looked vaguely familiar to them though because she looks like Paris Hilton. So what we are talking about here is a woman whose route to vacuous fame is being a cheaper and even chavvier version of Paris Hilton. The mind reels.

But if the problem is the fatuousness of the role models provided by our all-pervasive celebrity culture, what is the answer?

I wish I knew.

PS – in reading the Wikipedia entries I’ve linked to I found this:

[Jade] Goody competed in Celebrity Mastermind in 2006 for Sport Relief. Her specialist subject was EastEnders, but she was beaten by Chantelle Houghton, whose specialist subject was Coronation Street.

I am now speechless.

Picassing around

Blue silence

I’ve just spent the last 30 minutes or so producing this with Mr Picasso Head. I’ve justified it with the thought that adults don’t play enough in our society. It’s a fun toy, but I don’t think the site saves the pictures any more. I nabbed this with a screenshot.

It’s harder than it looks.

Have fun!

“christmas poems with swear words”

Someone landed here who had been looking for “christmas poems with swear words”.

I really wish they hadn’t.

You know I want to write one now.

I know you hope I won’t.

Waking up to the working girls

Are we finally developing a mature attitude to prostitution in the UK?.

The news reports about the victims of the Ipswich serial killer have all been kind about the women and supportive of their friends and family, with no exceptions that I have seen. [Since posting this I had a conversation with a friend who pointed out that this may say more about what I read than about what is written. I hate it when reality spoils a good theory like that. AB]

The police spokesman calls them “working girls” which is friendly and not disrespectful.

The local paper has set up a condolence website. Ok, local papers do this sort of thing to generate readers or website hits but, even so, I found it is notable that the paper responded by giving the women who work in the town’s red light district the chance to ‘pay their respects’ to each of the dead women rather than by getting hypocritical and prurient about the very existence of a red light district in a town like Ipswich.

The women’s families speak of their daughters with love and pride as well as grief. They use words like “sad” and “difficult” not “shame”. I am not a fan of the victim culture, but perhaps acknowledging that drug addiction creates victims, and that drug addicts lead lives that are nasty, difficult and impoverished, are steps towards accepting that we will only solve this problem when we stop viewing it as an individual’s moral failure.

There is a matter-of-factness about the reporting of the Ipswich murders, a lack of knowingness, almost a lack of prurience, which feels different from the way in which newspapers and other media used to write about prostitutes.

What I remember about the Yorkshire Ripper case was the sense that “respectable women” and “innocent students” lived in fear in case he mistook them for prostitutes. There was, as I remember, a sense that the students he killed were more innocent, and therefore more victimised, than the prostitutes.

If this story does show that we have more respect for prostitutes, then where has this come from? Cynthia Payne and Christine Keeler were not treated with respect. They were not drug addicts of course, and so they did not get any sympathy there. They were treated with rather sarcastic contempt so far as I can remember.

Is it just that there have been so many prostitution-related scandals over the last 10 years that we are saddened rather than shocked when the Director of Public Prosecutions is picked up near Kings Cross or when a candidate for the Lib-Dem leadership turns out to have an on-going relationship with a rent-boy. Are we Brits developing a gallic maturity about such things?

Is it because prostitution is no longer a silenced profession? Educated and thoughtful women like Compartments and a London Ebony Escort blog about their work. We find out what they think and feel about the work they do and about how it affects their lives. They do it in ways which force us to acknowledge that they are not morally bankrupt or shameful or fallen or lost or any of the other things that the good people of the 1850s and 1950s would have us believe. Others, like Belle de Jour are almost glamourising the life. It is writing about prostitiution, but it is not pornography.

Then of course wherever we are on the Internet we are only two clicks away from actual pornography, or indeed live sex on webcams. Perhaps we are just less sexually frustrated and so less prurient. I am not entirely convinced by that line of thought, but men writing about prostitutes and brothels in the 60s and 70s, and even in the 80s or 90s, wanted us to admire them for being men of the world. The subtext seemed to be, “aren’t I a bit of a dog?”

I don’t think they could get away with that now. These days we’ve watched documentaries on Channel 4 and Channel 5 showing porn films being made and we’ve watched Louis Theroux squirm with embarrassment in a brothel in Texas. These days the colonel’s lady has a much clearer idea of what is involved in Judy O’Grady’s life.

This is all very putative, incomplete and un-researched. The shift in attitude may be something I’ve imagined. But if there is a shift in attitude, then it is something we should welcome.

As you know, I rant and rage about the dangers of our surveillance society, but the one thing I am deeply glad about is that any killer as prolific as this one will, with absolute certainty, be caught.

Stuff happens. Get used to it.

Photo by Propboy - follow link for the originalI feel sorry for Mohamed al Fayed. I really do. No grief compares with that of a bereaved parent, and denial is a tricksy and difficult emotion.

So often the stuff churned out by conspiracy theorists boils down to the fact that they cannot believe that stuff happens. Diana was our collective golden girl (apparently) and so the conspiracy theorists cannot believe that stuff could happen to her.

Now the two things I know about life, if I know anything at all, are

1) Stuff happens
2) There, but for the grace of a god I don’t believe in, go any of us

So in my cynical and unromantic world, JFK was shot by a lonely and disfunctional man with a taste for glory. Marilyn killed herself by accident, taking the lethal dose of pills because she was grogged up by her usual nighttime dose. Diana was killed because the Feyed’s chauffeur was drunk. NASA did put men on the moon. Oh and, yes, America the rest of the world really does hate you enough for 19 men to want to fly planes into landmarks.

Whenever one feels denial, one feels conflict. At some level or another one knows that one is believing something that probably isn’t true, no matter how much one wants it to be true. The conspiracy theorists don’t want to believe that chance can be that much of a bitch. And this is one of the reasons I feel very sorry for Mohamed al Fayed; he is clearly a tortured and conflicted man.

The thing snapped me out of denial in the mid 1990s was the phrase “denial is always there for an ego reason”. And this surely is the nub of al Feyed’s response to his son’s death and the Stevens Report. If he had not employed a drug-taking drunk as a chauffeur, then his son and Diana would not have been killed. To lose a child must be unimaginably devestating. To know that you have a degree of responsibility for their death must make that pain unbearable. For al Fayed it is not to be borne, and so he persists in his conspiracy theories. The Daily Express are just being self-indulgent, manipulative and stupid with their outbreaks of conspiracist tourretttes, but Mohamed al Fayed deserves our compassion.

I wonder if he has ever met Princes William and Harry.

The search for my own true swear-word

Been there, done that, used stronger expletives! (I assume you know just how obscene the word “carob” is to a true chocoholic).
Archie, to Reed, on losing a post without saving it.

So what makes a good swear-word? Personally I think it’s the sound of the thing. If it was obscenity alone, one could say “what a complete blairing fool that man is”. Well, when I put it like that, maybe “blair” does work.

My favourite piece of invective came from a friend who has a first in Classics, and who was applying for a post-grad degree at Cambridge. That is Cambridge as in Cambridge, not Cambridge as in The Fenland University or whatever the former poly is called these days. So, hardly uneducated or illiterate, this chap. As it turned out, he did not take very kindly to the academics there. The phrase he used was “fucking cunting twats”. As invective goes, I find that hard to beat, and I think it is the sequence of consonants that makes it so effective, the two K sounds, then the two very hard Ts. The rhythm helps of course.

So I think a good swear word needs good constonants. One could really spit out the tories’ names: “Thatch the snatch” is too obvious to mention, and how satisfying to call someone “total tebbitty bastard” or describe someone else as “a heseltining wanker”. And as for the bottomleys. ‘Nuff said.

But this means that “Bush” and “Blair”, fucking cunting twats and complete tebbitty bastards though they undoubtedly are, don’t actually make the grade as obscenities.

Yet another reason to hate them.

Such a shame.