Monday, May 21, 2018


The hats? Dinner plates with garnish--flowers, fruit and bows and ribbons! Where does this ridiculous tradition come from? Why does it persist?

You'll have guessed that Ellie and I were among the on-again, off-again watchers of last Saturday's much hyped royal wedding. As one who left England more than sixty years ago, I look back on the "old country"--and its monarchy--both with a certain nostalgia and a certain ambivalence. In view of what is happening today in my country of adoption, the United States, I sometimes wonder what it might be like to return to that old country after so many years spent in self-chosen exile... Then I remember the rain, the clouds, the mists, the fog, the general climatic dreariness and I speedily return to thoughts of how fortunate I am to have lived for so many years in Southern California.

Regarding that nostalgia and the ambivalence, though: I left England in 1959, first for a couple of years in Germany, then a couple of years in Canada, and since 1964 I have lived here in America--four years in Iowa, and here in Southern California since 1968. I left for many of the same reasons the poet Robert Graves wrote about in his 1929 memoir, Goodbye to All That--albeit without the horrifying memories of the First World War. The "all that" to which I myself said goodbye had to do with the then still prevalent class consciousness, the snobbery, the hide-bound traditions that elevated a privileged elite to positions of wealth and power at the expense of the many of the "lower" social order.

This particular "that" was on extravagant display in the chapel at Windsor Castle where the Queen's grandson Harry was married to a woman who, not many years ago, would have been "infra dig"--beneath the dignity--of the royal family: a divorcée, and American at that! I actually hold no brief for the late Duke of Windsor or Mrs. Simpson, but he was forced to abdicate and they were both exiled pretty much for life for those same crimes. And Meghan, bless her, is additionally half African-American, and an avowed feminist to boot, and proud of it! The Queen, her family, the dukes and duchesses and the rest of the British aristocracy, the Church of England, the public school hegemony in both Houses of Parliament--could surely never have envisioned such an eventuality.

Yet there they were, and "that" was "that" at the royal wedding. The toffs. Dinner plate hats and all. Morning coats and military splendor! Designer gowns! Plummy voices everywhere! (A part of the "that," for me, was the fact that I was identified for my social standing as soon as I opened my mouth and spoke with my public--i.e. boys' boarding--school and Cambridge educated accent. And I was treated accordingly, with undeserved respect or equally undeserved scorn...)

And yet, and yet... to the attuned ear, there was a cacophony of accents, too, at the wedding There were Scottish accents and London accents, Yorkshire accents and Southwestern accents, South African accents and accents from a variety of other African countries, Indian and West Indian accents everywhere. There were even, for God's sake, American accents to be heard. And no one seemed the least bit bothered by them all!

Has England changed? Has England changed! This long-time exile was truly, quite emotionally impressed. The occasion seemed like a huge, royal embrace of all humanity, in all its beauty and diversity--and most particularly, most notably, most purposefully, an embrace of people of color other than the immaculate whiteness of the royal family itself. At the epicenter of it all (epi-, because this was, after all, something of an earthquake; also epi-scopal!) was the Rev. Michael Curry, bishop of Chicago, the African-American head of the Episcopal Church in America (asked what was best about being in England, he said--I paraphrase--isn't it always great to be in your mother's house? He was referring to "mother" church, of course, and his joke gave the Archbishop of Canterbury a hearty laugh). His sermon, with its resounding theme of mutual love, assailed the austere and hallowed walls of the chapel of St. George with the passion and verve of a black preacher. While I myself do not believe in the God he celebrated, I admit I was transfixed.

But there was much, much more than that. Though they held their own--dare I say "in spades"?--the royals took the risk of being outshone by their guests. The occasion was a powerful acknowledgment and celebration of black identity, black culture, black dignity, black civility. The large number of black celebrities in attendance included, amongst many others, Oprah Winfrey and Serena Williams--but also  diplomats and notables from the world of philanthropy whose faces I would have no reason to recognize. Participants in the ceremonies included not only the spectacular Karen Gibson and her Kingdom Choir in the American gospel tradition, but also the teenage classical cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason, whose delightful and immensely talented family of siblings, every one of them classical music instrumentalists, we learned about the next day on CBS Sunday Morning.

The embrace of this royal family occasion reached out also, and particularly, to those lesser known folk who know that they are in this world to do some good, to work to make it a better place. Aside from the leaders invited to the chapel ceremony, there were crowds of less prominent worker bees who were given access to the choice spectator spots outside the chapel and in the streets of Windsor. This could, I suppose, sound like a patronizing gesture from the folks privileged with wealth enough to lend their names and energies to such philanthropic efforts, but it was surely also an act of kindness, recognition, and inclusion.

I am, as I suggested, ambivalent about the monarchy. I find it absurd, even slightly obscene, in this day and age, to be required to address one of one's fellow mortals as "Majesty" or "Highness." I am uncomfortable with purely inherited rank and privilege. The accident of birth seems a poor reason to elevate an elite handful above the rest of us. Far from a rabid monarchist, then, I do still believe there are good reasons to commend the British royal family. Now that their peculiarly bad spell is behind them, they seem to be good people. They work hard--no one harder than the nonagenarian Queen herself. Her sense of duty, her quiet modesty, and her commitment to her job are unrivaled. Her grandsons share her dedication to help those less fortunate than themselves.

As for the expense, which many anti-monarchists, complain about, much of the national treasury spent on them goes to invaluable PR for the United Kingdom, and the upkeep of precisely the kind of things that attract much-needed tourist dollars: the palaces, the castles, the impeccably poised guards, the parades, and so on. Also--and I think this is an important point--it can be considered a good thing that the nominal head of state, unlike our own here in the US, is free from political entanglements and responsibilities, leaving such mundane tasks to those for whom the people vote.

So there is much to be said in defense of the monarchy when it fulfills its function and behaves itself as it should--and as it did so splendidly on Saturday. But we could surely do without the hats.

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