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October 24, 2006

Harry Phibbs asks, what turned Republican Paxo into a Royalist? On Royalty - Jeremy Paxman

Posted by Harry Phibbs

On Royalty
by Jeremy Paxman
London: Viking, 2006
Hardback, 20

Jeremy Paxman is our country's leading sneerer. His sneers have formed a key part of the checks and balances of our political system since he joined BBC TV Newsnight in 1989. Natural enough that someone who sneers with such aplomb should have been a republican. How touching that in the course of writing this book he changed sides and became a Royalist.

Many may be frightened of Paxman. He is afraid of The Queen. He recalls a few years ago her spending a day touring radio and TV stations to see how broadcasting worked. In return 300 broadcasters were invited to Buckingham Palace in the evening for a reception. I suspect this may have been quite a while ago when Paxman was a junior sneerer as he was not allowed in the room where The Queen was.

Paxman sneers,

It was definitely not one of Buckingham Palace's grandest occasions - warm white wine and the occasional plate of Twiglets scattered here and there. The media crowd would certainly not later accuse the Royal Household of profligacy. We milled about in some of the enormous state rooms talking to one another and vaguely speculating why any of us was there.

"Is the Queen here?" I asked a courtier.

"Oh, very much so," she said.

"Well, where is she?"

"She's in thet room over there," came the cut-glass reply.

Impulsiveness, braggadocio or the effect of the wine took over. "I'd like to speak to her," I said.

"Oh! But you're not on the lest. If you'd been on the lest, you'd have been told as you cem in."

"Well, I'd like to talk to her."

"She's in the room over there."

I cut through the crowd, my resolution wavering with each step.

Once he had got into the room he
realised how remarkably short she was
and felt too shy to speak to her.

A year before she died Paxman was invited to lunch with Diana, Princess of Wales. In contrast to The Queen, Diana was "much taller" than he expected. He asked if William was looking forward to being King. Diana replied:

Well, he often says he doesn't want to do it, but then Harry says, well, if you don't want the job, I'll have it.
Given the trivia that passes in the tabloid for the strap Royal Exclusive splashed across the front pages, I was surprised these quotes didn't attract more attention.

Paxman seemed to have a jollier time more recently when he was invited to visit the Prince of Wales in Sandringham. Thank goodness he is discreet:

Some aspects of that visit - the swimming expedition which involved a group of us processing with the Duchess of Cornwall through a nudist colony, the expression on David Hockney's face when the Prince of Wales asked him to look at his watercolours, Charles's recitation of a monologue taught him by, if I recall correctly (it was late at night after dinner), Barry Humphries, or the bizarre spectacle of one of the country's best-known character actresses and apparent Lefties suddenly erupting into "Three cheers for the Prince of Wales" over dinner - will have to wait for another time.
There is plenty of history in this volume and for that the tone changes from the political knock about of Newsnight to the erudite, but often quirky and amusing, tone of University Challenge quiz master. He recalls the Evening News front page of 16th August 1923:
A CROWN AWAITS AN ENGLISHMAN. Wanted a King: English country gentleman preferred. Apply to the Government of Albania.
Historical references include those instances that will be wounding to the Royal Family. George V denied refuge to his cousin Tsar Nicholas. Paxman says:
Having abandoned his cousin to be murdered by the Bolsheviks, George V attended a memorial service at the Russian church in Welbeck Street, Marylebone. He recorded in his diary that his cousin had been the victim of a "foul murder", and added, "I was devoted to Nicky who was the kindest of men and a thorough gentleman."
The concern was that providing refuge might in some way have undermined the British monarchy.

Generally George V takes a bit of a pasting. He was sent to Oxford. His great-aunt the Grand Duchess Augusta of Mecklenburg-Strelitz declared:

Why is he to become an undergraduate? Surely this cannot be true! It is too democratic.
But how much use was George V's time at Oxford. After he left his mistress gave him a copy of Wuthering Heights:
he looked at it suspiciously and asked "who is this Bronte?"
Prince Charles's modern day extravagance is recorded but so is his misery at Gordonstoun:
His jug-handle ears were a come on to the bullies. But the real provocation come from his status. Any boy who tried to befriend him would be pursued around the grounds by gaggles of others making slurping sounds, indicating that they felt he was "sucking up" to the heir to the throne.
Perhaps it was the weekend in Sandringham that turned Paxo into a defender of the Crown. Perhaps after a life of destruction he thought it was just a bit too obvious and simplistic an approach to the monarchy.

But he is only a Royalist on a kind of points system. He refers to the tendency of Royal books to "cringe or spit" and it is fair to acknowledge this book does neither. Plenty of space is afforded to all the easy soft targets of absurdity, but then he agonises over the "priggishness" of the republicans who want to sweep it away.

Harry Phibbs is a journalist.

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