Being a royal correspondent never sounds like much of an ambition for a journalist – you get to write about a small group of people who would prefer never to talk to you (unless their hatred of their family has momentarily risen above their disdain for the media or they are in need of some urgent PR). Plus, everyone imagines that your house is full of commemorative dinky cups and saucers, and tea towels festooned with images of various jubilees, now-failed marriages and stern royal residences. Perhaps it is.
And if you attempt to have a bash at doing some critical reporting on the topic, you will soon be put in your place by your fellow royal commentators, whose ranks include those arch snobs who know every detail of palace protocol, or at least pretend to when invited on to US television shows. “Her Majesty is very fond of a Hobnob biscuit, which must be served on a plate from the tea service given to Queen Victoria by the Archbishop of Lima in 1897. If no Hobnobs can be found, you may serve her a Curly Wurly.” Today the whole of this Debrett’s-wielding mob will be clucking away on every channel as Prince Philip’s funeral service takes place at St George’s Chapel in Windsor Castle.
Yet, while we mustn’t get too giddy here – there are plenty of people who couldn’t stand the man and can’t tolerate any of this royal malarkey – there is another fascinating story in play here today. The recent warm, generous coverage of the prince’s life and achievements (and even the celebration of his so-called gaffes) has seemed to be motivated by something more than the man alone. Something harder to define but potent.
After a year of the pandemic, of grubby politics, of people being taken down for the slightest verbal slip, of endless stories about Brexit and why the UK is doomed (and I speak as someone who voted to remain in the EU), of talk of the union with Scotland breaking and that Oprah interview, it feels as though this is a sort of rallying moment for many – a time to accept that they kind of like their country and even some of its on-paper-bonkers institutions.
These things usually prove fleeting but whether it’s sport, anniversaries of great events or a moment to mark the end of a well-lived life, people need moments when there is something approaching a national mood. Perhaps that’s why in a fractured Britain, with pubs reopened and the vaccination programme proving a formidable success, that the death of a 99-year-old has become – for some – a moment to be a little proud of who they are. Well, at least until Monday.
I went to Zürich to see our chairman and editorial director, Tyler Brûlé, to discuss a big project for Monocle and start planning how it will all unfold. It has been the longest time that we have not seen each other in person since we launched the magazine in 2007. Here’s what I can report. He’s changed his look: hair down to his waist (and were they extensions braided in?), he has a sort of Tulum hippy vibe going on, has had both his ears pierced and was sitting oddly after getting a tattoo on his rear. Calm ye! Of course, not. He was just the same annoyingly sparky, engaged, dapper fellow as always.
But it’s strange that no matter how many phone calls and video conversations I have had with all sorts of people in the Monocle network, you don’t really know what people are thinking until you see them and, in conference-call land, you also end up missing a whole world of spontaneity, serendipity and speedy inspiration. We managed to plot, plan and achieve more in a few short days than would have ever been possible on a screen.
I have noticed this again and again as people have come back to the office, or I have met friends who have been hiding away for months – you align in seconds and gauge people’s moods with nimble-toed accuracy and clarity. And, as ever, it makes me think that we need to be together with friends and colleagues as soon as the rules allow us to.
Mention of the Archbishop of Lima always amuses me (hence sneaking him in earlier). It’s because there’s a story of dubious authenticity about George Brown, the UK’s secretary of state for foreign affairs in the government of Harold Wilson in the 1960s. Brown liked a drink and was said to have humiliated himself while at a welcome reception in Latin America. It was claimed that he had approached a woman dressed in red and asked her to waltz, only to be told, “I will not dance with you for three reasons. The first is that you are drunk. The second is that the band is not playing a waltz but the Peruvian national anthem. And the final reason is that I am the Cardinal Archbishop of Lima.”
Enjoy your weekends.