Sunday, May 08, 2011

Four Weddings and a Funeral

I said I had something to say about last weekend's events, and at the time those thoughts were prompted by the "Royal Wedding", the you-might-not-have-heard-about-it-if-you-had-been-held-captive-by-Amazonian-tribesmen-since-2008 nuptials of William Windsor and Catherine "Don't-call-me-Kate" Middleton.

But in my usual fashion of late I failed to write anything at the time and as even those hostage in a Brazilian rainforest have heard since then late Sunday night came the news that dominated the past week, the fatal houseparty hosted by the bin Ladens in their suburban pied-a-terre in the somewhat ridiculously-named Pakistani garrison town of Abbotabad, a reminder that one didn't have to be particularly gifted, cunning, or dynamic to get ahead in the old colonial empires; being white and being there was pretty much enough.The course of the subsequent news arc, though, has got me thinking of them as curiously linked, a topic on which I beg your indulgence to expound.

The Weddings: And I use the plural deliberately, since I can't really see this in the singular. Ever since the end of genuine British economic, political, and military might some time in the Forties these intermittent royal raree shows seem to function in place of how the British used to get into the news cycle, by showing up on your doorstep with a flotilla and a small but enthusiastic expeditionary force of homicidal gutter-sweepings led by equally bloodthirsty aristos to take everything you had and leave you lying lifeless in your own gutters, turn your sons into a labor force and conscript soldiery and your daughters (those not winsome enough to find work as sleeping-dictionaries) into washwomen and drudges.

These overdone broom-jumping affairs seem harmless enough, give the remaining haberdashers of Britain an excuse to sell their otherwise terrifying creations, and seem to provide great entertainment for a certain type of person in both Britain and the United States.

And yet, they don't seem to work out all that well for the couple at the center of them, going all the way back to the original "fairy-tale" British royal wedding of the current monarch and her consort in 1947.

Whilst they seem to have managed to rub along well enough, Mr. Queen, Philip Schleswig-Holstein-Sonderburg-Glücksburg seems to be something of a sour old stick, and certainly their kids seem to have been anything but fairy-tale material. Charles, the oldest, had another one of those famous fairy-tale weddings, perhaps the most fairy-taily of them all, to a young woman who turned out to be, in her own words, "thick as a brick", facile, and profoundly self-absorbed.

The fact that she became, both in her lifetime as well as since her profoundly silly death, some sort of popular culture goddess says as much about the state of public taste as it does about the attraction of the cute and nubile to the attribution of unlikely virtues.

The second son, Andrew, married a goofy party girl who, shockingly, turned out to be a goofy party girl.

At least she seemed like she could laugh at herself.

In the beginning, anyway. But the beginnings are always easy; it's the "happily-ever-after" part of the fairytale that just never seems to work out for the people.

So for all the excitement about Pippa's arsethe dresses, the idiotic hatsthe uniforms and the military pomp
(and can I say for the record that in my opinion the profusion of uniforms on the Windsor men is really just sad, the saddest bit of the whole sad act. British royalty hasn't led British troops into battle since Dettingen; the last genuinely decent commander with royal connections was probably Louis Mountbatten, and his vita is marred by Dieppe as well as his enormous, consuming vanity.
The notion of Charles Windsor wearing the uniform of an admiral in the Royal Navy is just sad, seeing that the man left the service twenty years ago as a junior officer and hasn't messed around with boats since unless you count pushing the loofah around Camilla's bottom in the Jacuzzi. It's like seeing some old soldier still dressed up in his uniform unwilling to accept that he's past it. Just sort of pathetic and irritating)
these whole "fairy-tale" royal weddings just seem like a bad idea, and especially bad news for the people at the center of them.

Instead of amused, or entertained, or charmed, all the occasion makes me think is that Bill and Kate (who seem like nice, clean, well-bred white kids) would have been better off popping 'round to the registrar on a quiet Wednesday, a deli buffet at the local fire hall afterwards, and then off to a fortnight of wandering the Greek islands barefoot before settling in to work at some solid engineering firm in Leeds.As for Britain, the expense and the excess might have been appropriate when the word of a Saxe-Coburg-Gotha swayed half the wide earth.

But now?It's like one of those old cartoons of the African headhunters with spear and loincloth wearing a celluloid shirtfront with silk top hat on. It's vaguely embarrassing, and clearly inappropriate to the actual condition of the wearer.

And why this is fascinating to anyone even distantly associated with the United States, whose entire premise is directly aimed at the fatuous notion that fitness to rule others is directly related to whose vagina you emerged from, I have no idea. Watching elephants urinate is probably quite spectacular, but I can't imagine why I'd bother to take time out to see it unless it was happening outside my window.

In fact, it seems to me that the entire notion of British royalty seems founded on a combination of romantic silliness and illogical atavism; some sort of - to me - bizarre human need to make other people into some sort of icon, to attribute to them powers of leadership and supremacy that seem completely at odds with the actual abilities and accomplishments of the persons so deified.

The Funeral:

Which brings us to Saudi Arabia's contribution to the pelagic food-chain of (one presumes) the Indian Ocean, the late Osama bin Laden.

I spent considerable ink on this mook over at MilPub which I won't repeat, only noting that;

1. He's dead, and well deserved, that.
2. Mind you, killing him in 2011 is sort of like finding and shooting down Isoroku Yamamoto in a Piper Cub over Brisbane in 1951. Ummm, okay.
3. And to my mind the huge alteration in global business that makes this all the more, well, sort of an asterisk, is the revolutions in the Islamic world going collectively by the term "Arab Spring"

Because, remember, the really scary part of bin Laden wasn't that he hated and attacked the United States. Other people - Hitler, George III, Tojo - didn't much like us, attacked us AND had massive armies and fleets. You know, the sorts of things that can reaaaalllly fuck your day up, instead of a bunch of ignorant back-desert fuckwards with boxcutters and a complete disregard for mortality.

No, the scary part was that he was going to transform the Middle East into this Islamofascist Caliphate; his boys were going to run amok through the "Arab street" with their patented brand of Islamic NutsoTM that would turn the downtrodden Arab masses against our expensive dictators and general-autocrat-for-lifes. Remember?Well, by the time the man came down with a 5.56mm headache, those dictators were falling like ripe dates. And were they falling to the new Islamic jihad? Was Osama any closer to the spiritual leadership of the Islamic Caliph?No damn closer than Elizabeth Windsor is to the autocratic powers of her royal predecessors.

So the last weekend of April, 2011, seems to have featured the most recent wedding and the funeral of a couple of expensive has-beens, of one group that continues to attract attention from those who rather mindlessly revere the past while failing to see how useless they are at present, while the other individual seems to have drawn the affection of those who mindlessly dream of a ridiculous future while failing to see how useless the present has made them.

And...the banality of them all!

The British royals seem to have survived when the vast bulk of their colleagues on continental Europe have been violently tossed into the dustbin of history by becoming the most sterile of suburban bourgeousie. In their attempt to become good British gentlefolk the Windsors have lost whatever manic flamboyance playing at kings and queens once gave them. And so far as I can tell, the actual effect of the "royals" on Britain's public life today is about half of that of a well-dressed empty suit on a wealthy borough council.

For my money, if I must have a "royal family", I want the most out-there version of the breed. Mad kings, wanton queens, imperious princesses, rapacious princes...if someone is officially designated my overlord I want them to live that license to the full. Be mad, bad, and dangerous to know! What good are these bland, decent, sober-living, upper-middle-class "royals"? Even their "excesses" are tawdry, ordinary ones; the product of clitoral itch and penile prurience, of common greed and stupidity. Bah.

And I like my mad religious visionaries, well...mad! Rampaging out of the desert on a camel, writhing in ecstatic revelation, producing golden tablets and flaming swords. Not hiding in some dingy compound in the suburbs of Karachi with the phones and the Internet off and their little minions scurrying off doing dirty business dirt cheap. Living the dream of conquest and conversion, not shuttered in with the domestic staff while history passes them by.No, for all the noisy news coverage, the blood, and ink, spilled over the wedding and the seems to me that they say something very sad, and simple about us as people; that a hell of a lot of us like the fantasy over the reality, are still convinced by the image rather than skeptical of the illusion, and care more about, are more interested in, the empty dress than the woman inside of it, and the sinking coffin than the man within.


Ael said...

The Royal's are center-pieces of the British Regimental system. It would not be the same without them.

Besides, having a tame royal family is a good way to fend off military dictators as the troops bind to the monarch. Look at what happened with Juan Carlos.

Finally, I think you are too harsh on them. Andrew was a helicopter pilot in the Falklands (decoy and surface strike duties). Harry was a troop commander in Afghanistan till someone "outed" him and he had to come home.

FDChief said...

Ael: Like I said; the royal family doesn't seem so much "bad" or "wrong" to me as much as just "sad", like the old soldier I used as an example. He might have been a hell of a stud back in teh day, but now he's just a pale shred of himself and it seems like a mercy to retire him.

I'd buy the whole royals thing more if they really had some role other than as a thanks-for-breathing Symbol of the State. The problem with that is that, humans being humans, if they're The State personified, but not given any actual work to do, they'll probably devolve into a bunch of wankers laying about getting into trouble or developing eccentric ways. That sort of thing ends up making the State look even more fatuous than usual.

Plus there's the temptation for one of the "tame" royals to go off the reservation - that seems to me like asking for a WHOLE bunch of trouble.

So like I said; give me a real tyrant, let 'em at least have the relatively restrained powers that they had up until the miiddle of the last century, or tell the gang it's time to roll up the tent, pension 'em off, and write some sort of Constitution to be The State.

And Juan Carlos? Nice guy, but where was the Spanish royal family when Franco was running the joint as a wholly owned subsidiary of Fascism, Inc, the last one in all of freaking Europe? The guy was the right man in the right place when Franco croaked...but the point is, everything depended on him BEING the right man. IF he was a fool, or a fascist, or power-mad, or any number of other things, well...

The problem with royalism is that you get one shot per generation to get things right. If the royals are a fucking mess - and a lot of royal families are - then you either then have to wait for the ruler to die, or you have to overthrow him, and that's usually a problem. Both Spain and Britain have had good fortune in their current monarchs; but the combination of the anachronism, the chance inherent in depending on the character of the monarch, and the problem of what to do with the monarch's parasitic brood...well, the minuses outweigh the pluses, IMO.

And as for the unis, well, Andrew was a pilot thirty years ago, the same as I was a young trooper. But those lights, he should either wear his subaltern's uniform to church or I should be able to dress up like a fucking General of the Army. I'm fine with the notion that a young aristo gets to play Army or Navy. But the ridiculous convention that shoves these former lieutenants and captains into admirals' and generals' togs? C'mon.

The sun has set, the old regiments have been amalgamated and re-amagamated until they're a mockery of their old selves. There's nothing wrong with reshaping yourself to reflect the changes that have taken place. Clinging to this stuff doesn't make me think of the history or the glory, it just looks like an unwillingness to face the facts.

Hey, I love tradition, too. But there's a time when tradition just becomes too heavy a burden...

Ael said...

I have seen the royals in action. It is hard, unrelenting work performed in a well lit fishbowl. I would not want the job and you would have to do it for love or duty.

The shocking thing is that they appear to be willing to continue their work. (If you were an 85 year old ailing multi-billionaire, would you spend your time handing out awards to an endless succession of snotty kids, all the while pretending to to enjoy it so as to not ruin the illusion?

Also, note that they are not actual rulers, rather they are safety valves. If safety valves work, great. If they don't work, oh well, it is no worse that if they were not there at all.

Finally, constitutions are over rated. Living social compacts are much more powerful. They have at least the potential to take an active action, whereas a constitution is just a thing.

FDChief said...

But if that were the case you'd expect the social contract in Britain to be in much better heart than it is in the U.S., and whilst I'd argue that they're marginally better off than we are most of that is the lingering results of the social engineering done right after WW2 when Labour put in stuff like the National Health. The British oligarchs have been beavering away at returning their proles to serfdom and just started further away from the goal than their U.S. counterparts.

I don't see this famous living social contract doing much to make the ordinary British sod's life all that such of a muchness.

And whilst I'm sure that chairing welfare committees and opening charity bazaars is a long, Somme-like slog, I suspect that any penny politician could manage the work for a fraction of the cost.

But in all honesty it's a Brit thing and, like all personal quirks, its useless to deplore to the person who's enjoying it. If the entire "royal" nonsense looks silly to me at this remove it's not my rice bowl. So long as the British public is willing to pay the freight, well and good.

But..."safety valve"? Since when? When was the last time the House of Windsor intervened in public life for good or ill? You'd have to go back to the days of the House of Lords veto, I'll bet.

The only real rationale for the Windsors is the one you started with; as tailor's dummies for the Flag, Queen and Country, Keep Calm and Carry On...hey, if it's stupid and it works it's not stupid.

But I will say this - it embarrasses me powerfully to hear U.S. citizens going on about it. We were supposed to have put aside that sort of thing. It's a nasty form of celebrity culture, nasty because it celebrates a principle that should be deeply antithetic to the values of a U.S. citizen, and just emphasizes that a hell of a lot of us are political and intellectual six-year-olds at heart.

Ael said...

The last intervention of the House of Windsor was when the Queen expressed her frustration with Tony Blair in 2007. Within a month or so, he was seeking alternative employment.

In Canada, our Governor General intervened in the prorogation of Parliament. There was intense discussion of which way she should go. It is good to have some uncertainty as it tends to keep the pols towards the middle of the driving lane.

Lisa said...

"the banality of them all!" -- indeed.

So many do love to be swept up by the pomp -- be it a murder or a wedding (sometimes the same?) Hence one of the more successful ad campaigns, "Calgon, take me away!"

Pluto said...

My take on this is that the British royalty are somewhat more useful than the American royalty (movie stars and retired high-level politicians) and probably cost less as well.

nuff said.

Lisa said...

Yes, Pluto -- our "royals" are an even punier lot (lest anyone doubt we have our own, crass, economic caste system.) Witness Donald Trump et. al. Q.E.D.

FDChief said...

I guess that part of this comes from catching an occasional glimpse of the HBO "Tudors" series.

Now THERE were some "royals"!

Mad, dangerous, irresponsible, reckless, profligate...but very much in the center of things. Kings in the great, brutal feudal tradition.

The very notion of a king or queen as the "First Gentleman" of the nation...well, it seems a very tame sort of ideal. Anyone can be a nice sort of toff. Where's the excitement there?

It's like Charles wearing the admiral suit. Yes, I understand the tradition. And in 1745 you had to have a royal at the head of the Army and Navy to prevent either some ambitious admiral or general from getting ideas above his station, as well as countering all those damn Stuarts (Tudors, whoever...) who were coveting your throne.

But we're NOT in 1745. And the royal family hasn't led British troops (and I mean LED, as in being the Supreme Warlord sort of led) since the 18th Century. So if Charles wants to dress in his Navy togs, why not as the LCDR (Retired) that he is, or in a colonel's outfit of one of the several regiments that he's honorary colonel-in-chief of?

I think the reason that this gets me is the way it reveals a national unwillingness (at least at the level of the royal family) to be the Britain of 2011 and not the one of 1745 or even 1945.

Being proud of your past is one thing; acting like it ISN'T past...well, that's another, and sort of sad.

FDChief said...

Pluto: Probably less irritating and divisive...

Although I think it's worth noting that the invitations issued to the wedding (technically a "private" and not a state function) went out only to the two surviving recent Conservative PMs and NOT the two most recent Labour ones.

Of course Elizabeth and her family are Tories. But the degree of partisanship they showed in their choice of political pals, well...they're no Juan Carlos. I'll just say that.

But hey, as Johnny Rotten reminds us: "God save the queen
'Cause tourists are money"

Lisa said...

I will agree with this:

"But I will say this - it embarrasses me powerfully to hear U.S. citizens going on about it. We were supposed to have put aside that sort of thing."

It seems that tendency to idolization is hot-wired into the human being. The Brits don't have much if you take away their (however moth-eaten) royalty. I think it's hard to understand the mindset if one is not a Brit, but that however misbegotten (today) pride is still there. It's hard to go from the Sun Never Setting on your Empire to the Falklands.

It also fulfills another archetype hard to bury, that of the charming prince who will redeem the young charwoman.

Ael said...

I note the queen's visit to Ireland this week. Words like reconciliation are being used.