Of all the gin joints, chintzy drawing rooms, Chelsea pub back rooms, Norfolk kitchens, and private members’ clubs in the UK; of all possible backdrops for a couple of deeply illuminating royal moments, whoever would have thought the 22nd Commonwealth Games in Birmingham would be it?
The first one took place outside a train toilet. Really.
Matthew Syed is a journalist and Commonwealth Games gold medal winner – for table tennis, no less. This week, he and his son Ted were traveling to the Games to catch the action and he took to the pages of the Times to recount a truly extraordinary tale about the trip.
“Five minutes before pulling into [the Birmingham station], I use the bathroom (we are traveling first class) as Ted waits outside. As I am doing my thing, I hear him talking to a woman in the vestibule.
“They continue chatting as I use the soap, then tap, then dryer. Judging by the laughter, they are having a whale of a time … By the time I am finished, we are only a couple of minutes from the station.
“’Come on Ted,’ I say, ‘we have to get off!’
“’Oh, and thanks for keeping him company,’ I say, turning to the woman waiting [for] her turn when I am stopped in my tracks. My brow furrows, my face works. ‘Kate?’ I blur out. There are no security guards in the vestibule; no armed guards. But here is the Duchess of Cambridge, chatting merrily with my son.”
Then we get to our second moment, starring Kate’s husband, Prince William, Duke of Cambridge in a chlorine-soaked aquatic centre.
On Tuesday, the Duke, the Duchess and their daughter Princess Charlotte attended the swimming. While sitting in the middle of the crowd, he happily posed for a selfie with a group of Games volunteers who were seated in front of him.
Now, both of these instances could be filed under ‘Aw, aren’t they lovely?’ examples of two people who might be destined for coronations and crowns but who have not let their elevated status turn their heads.
But, this all comes after the publication of Tom Bower’s Revenge: Meghan, Harry And The War Between The Windsorsa 464-page full-frontal take-down of Harry and Meghan, Duke and Duchess of Sussex.
And this week’s William and Kate stories? Those two, simple, brief interactions with the public? Well, they go a way to underscoring one of his key arguments, which is that Meghan’s expectations of royal life were a world away from the often unglamorous reality. Think, more making polite chitchat outside a public loo than private jets and Pol Roger.
At the heart of Bower’s book is the contention that when Meghan, clad in several hundred thousand dollars worth of couture Givenchy, made her way up the aisle of the 15th century St George’s Chapel at Windsor, she had little understanding of, or interest in learning about, the fabled institution she was joining.
Having, for so many long years, failed to claw her way out of the B-list, here she was, finally, about to become one of the most famous women in the world. The case that Bower makes is that the California native’s assumptions about what would follow were markedly different from what was, in actual fact, about to come next.
In Bower’s telling, even before the opening strains of Handel’s Eternal Source Of Light Divinewhich played as she made her way towards the altar, things were going off the rails.
Pre-engagement, when the couple was dating, Bower says that after “Harry’s demand for a dedicated female bodyguard for Meghan had been approved” that on one occasion, he met the Duke “on the tarmac at Heathrow with a police escort”.
“Meghan sped out of the airport towards Kensington. This was indeed the super-celebrity lifestyle for which she had always yearned.”
Then in the run-up to the big day, Meghan already “was confusing being famous with being a royal,” he writes. However, “the royal world is expected to be one of altruism, history, tradition and low-key patronage for no personal gain.”
Meghan’s misconception, in Bower’s reading of the situation, is that she fundamentally mistook the global fame of the royal family with Hollywood stardom, not grasping that, despite having become a Duchess and been catapulted to the highest stratosphere of stardom, she was not therefore automatically entitled to Beyonce-worthy treatment.
Take the issue of luxury gifts. Bower writes: “Palace gossip related that the publicity departments of some famous designer labels – Chanel, Dior, Armani, Givenchy and others – had been surprised by calls from a member of Meghan’s staff with a request: Meghan would be delighted if the House were to bequeath a handbag, shoes or an accessory to Kensington Palace in the near future. These items would be treated as goodwill gifts, the publicists were told. The women were puzzled by what they called ‘the Duchess’s discount’.
“In the past, their offers of gifts to Kate had been rejected on principle that the royal family did not accept freebies. Meghan’s staff, it appeared, were not worried by that rule.”
The veteran biographer writes that it would only be in 2019 that the Duchess “began to understand that the British monarchy, costing the public just £85 million ($A148 million) a year, was neither flush with money nor an invincible luxury Rolls-Royce machine. The power and influence which she assumed to have acquired from her marriage to Harry was an illusion.”
In the summer of that same year, one particular Meghan incident made international headlines. Attending Wimbledon with a couple of friends, their party sat in the middle of a sea of empty seats for a match, unlike when Kate regularly attended and took her place in the stands, sitting in the midst of other tennis fans.
At one stage during the match, when a man sitting in the section in front of Meghan’s, got up to take a selfie of himself with the players, one of the Duchess’ protection officers “warned him about taking pictures in her vicinity,” according to the Daily Mail.
Former BBC sports commentator Sally Jones was also courtside.
“I felt this tap on my shoulder and was asked not to take pictures of the Duchess – but I had no idea she was there until then. I was absolutely gobsmacked,” Jones told the Mail.
That Meghan took umbrage (or someone on her team took umbrage) at anyone trying to take her picture, despite that she had chosen to sit in a public place, where there were live TV cameras, looked all too much like suspiciously diva-ish behaviour .
Contrast that scene with the events this week in Birmingham: In each instance, we have members of the royal family, at sporting events yet demonstrating two starkly different approaches to royalty.
At the end of the day, what William and Kate seem to fundamentally understand is that royalty is not the same thing as celebrity; it is not about special treatment, favorable seats or four-figure accessories finding their way into your wardrobe, gratis. It is about tedious devotion to duty no matter how repetitive or dull it might often be. (How many times do you think the Queen has asked, “And what do you do?” in her life? I think we could confidently say the figure would have to be in the hundreds of thousands.)
The meat and potatoes of royal life is not swanning off to New York for an A-list baby shower held in a $100,000-a-night hotel suite but sitting through hospital wing openings and charming pensioners.
Really, HRHs are part public servants, albeit ones who don’t have to contend with home brand tea bags in the office kitchen, and part politicians stuck on lifelong hustings, forever trying to win the public over one handshake and smile at a time.
None of this is any sort of secret; none of this is inside knowledge. So why wasn’t Meghan better prepared?
One of the points that the Duchess of Sussex made during the Sussexes’ infamous Oprah Winfrey interview last year was that she “didn’t do any research about what that would mean” to marry into the royal family.
“I didn’t feel any need to, because everything I needed to know, he was sharing with me. Everything we thought I needed to know, he was telling me,” Meghan said.
That turned out to be a bit of a mistake now kids, didn’t it?
That an intelligent, educated woman would give up her career, adopted homeland, one of her dogs, and all of her friends to move across the world to dedicate her life to an ancient institution she knew nothing about defies all logic.
If she had done even a cursory Google search, she might have come across an excellent piece that Patrick Jephson, Diana, Princess of Wales’ long-time private secretary, had written way back in 2006 called “What Kate Should Know” in which he imagined what advice his old boss might give the younger woman.
Jepshon argues that the Princess would have urged Kate, that “modesty must be your watchword” and to “go easy on the conspicuous consumption”.
He writes: “Remember that living in a very big house surrounded by servants and riding in a gold carriage are all the excess that your future subjects will readily tolerate in their royal family. Don’t overlook the priceless symbolic value of Tupperware boxes, and try to develop a famous enthusiasm for turning off unnecessary electric lights.”
The piece (you can read it here) is basically a very sensitive warning: Don’t let the gilded trappings of royalty go to your head. Understand the job for what it really is and get on with it.
If only Meghan had read Jephson’s piece; if only she had gone into royal life with a much clearer sense of what she was signing up for. That’s not to say she should have swallowed it holus bolus once she got there or not have tried to inject at least something fresh into the creaky monarchy – but forewarned is forearmed.
If Meghan had done a spot of Googling, she might also have come across the famous essay written by the journalist and satirist Malcolm Muggeridge in 1955 at the height of Princess Margaret’s fling with Group Captain Peter Townsend. In the piece, Muggeridge argued that “the application of film star techniques” to the royal family would ultimately have “disastrous consequences”.
He also said that the monarchy was “an institution that is accorded the respect and accoutrements of power without the reality”.
And, if the former suits star had read a bit more still, she would have learned that the reaction to Muggeridge’s essay was so swift and furious it forced him out of the Garrick Club. (source horror!)
Taking on the monarchy is not for the faint-hearted but joining it? That’s for people happy to take trains, make small talk with the public and to pretend to like watching competitive bowls.
Daniela Elser is a royal expert and a writer with more than 15 years’ experience working with a number of Australia’s leading media titles.