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Friday, 5 July 2019

Review: Craig Brown, Ma'am Darling: 99 Glimpses of Princess Margaret




Some countries which choose to have a titular, non-executive head of state - the Republic of Ireland, for example - take care to choose that person by methods which are more or less guaranteed to produce someone decent, responsible, and of years sufficiently advanced  to make it less likely that they are driven by unsatisfied ambitions or hormones. Such Presidents are not much fun, but they often do a very good job.

But in the United Kingdom - or at any rate, England - the addled population is by and large happy to take their chances with the unchallenged offspring of a family which in the not very distant past spoke German and which currently provides a known line of succession to last a hundred years: after Elizabeth comes Charles and then William and then George. It’s all stitched up - though in case of accidents unforeseen, the full line of succession is rather more elaborately mapped; Wikipedia’s short article on the line extends it to 59 places which must be a huge disappointment to the person in 60th place left to dream of plane crashes, terrorist outrages, and heroin overdoses.

The Royal Family, as it styles itself - not unreasonably: it manufactures births and marriages at increasingly frequent intervals (deaths much less often) - tirelessly promotes its brand and with great success. Hardly a news outlet fails to attend closely and to report everything, including - nowadays - the really important thing, the gossip. We all love gossip about our betters, and the more wicked, the better. It is of much less interest that we currently find ourselves in a terrible political and even constitutional crisis and with a dutiful but ninety-three year old head of state.

Gossip about the living is more satisfying than gossip about the dead, but the advantage of the dead for the gossiper is that they can’t sue. Craig Brown’s imaginative book about Princess Margaret is very much about the dead, no holds barred and no holes barred. It’s cleverly done, funny, thoughtful, multi-faceted, and much helped by the fact that its cast of mostly dead characters is comprised of people who wanted very much to be larger than life, even if their actual lives were merely chaotic. Not only do we have the tragically larger than life Princess Margaret but also a cast of famous writers, actors, directors, poets, painters together with those famous for being famous, nearly all of whom succeed in dwarfing their own achievements with outsize egos (or ids), sometimes poured into their diary pages and letters-for-posterity-to-read.

These very self-indulgent people had children, often in quantities, and Craig Brown says little about them, except for a bit about Princess Margaret's grown-up children who auctioned off all her stuff after her death. Many of the other children are still alive. Some suffered for the sins of their parents - I thought of that when I came across the name of someone who I once knew, briefly, and who did suffer, not fatally (as happened with those who succumbed to drug overdoses) but, still, enough.

It would be possible to read this book in a very serious frame of mind - as I have just started to do - and to start asking the questions which, in this book, only dogged (and dead) Willie Hamilton MP asks: Why do we pay for all this? Why do we put up with it? But not only that, What is so wrong with us that so many of us are so absorbed by the bad behaviour of those who are famous or, nowadays more frequently, famous for being famous?

Brown provides us with many snapshots  - the sub -title “99 Glimpses” is apposite - and most of the time he leaves us to make our own judgments. He is hard on a voyeuristic footman who spills the beans, but then quotes repeatedly from his book (My Life With Princess Margaret by David John Payne) which could not be published in the United Kingdom because the courts banned it - in effect, as a breach of what we would now call a Non Disclosure Agreement. He is less hard on those higher up the social order who tittle-tattled their way into his book.