Thurifer is fascinated by the aristocracy
In 1873 Lord Rosebery heard Charles Spurgeon preach at the City Tabernacle, Islington “every seat crammed, every sound hushed, every eye eagerly fixed upon one central figure, the effect is sublime,” he noted in his diary. The congregation was “entirely middle-class without … a single exception. Neither the upper nor the lower classes are represented. Spurgeon is the apostle of the grocers.” No modern-day Spurgeon, I suspect, but plenty of similar congregations.
One book read under Covid-19 constraints was The Peer and the Gangster by Daniel Smith. As its title suggests, it deals with the indulgent, unhealthy fascination of the “ruling class” with the demimonde world of licentiousness and criminality, laced with violence. Oscar Wilde’s “feasting with panthers.” Where those worlds and values overlapped was rich in ambiguity, clandestine encounter, almost schizophrenic. The Peer, Lord Boothby, was one such who flirted with danger. The Gangsters with whom he was involved in several of ways, were the Kray Twins, their upward mobility financed by crime, protection rackets, gambling dens, night-clubs, and violent enforcement of their hegemony, facilitated by the likes of Boothby. A Conservative MP before becoming one of the first Life Peers, his brief ministerial career during the Word War II ended when he failed to declare financial interest answering a parliamentary question. He found post-War fame as an early media personality as television took off. He was an attractive roué, a mellifluous voice used to good effect, an accomplished raconteur. There is a thin line between the clubbable and the club bore. Sporting a floral button-hole, he was a ‘card’, witty, robust in his views, a popular public figure. He covered his tracks, not least lying in a court case. He conducted a prolonged affaire d’amour with Lady Dorothy Macmillan, to the anguish of her husband, the Prime Minister, Harold Macmillan. Beneath the carapace of social bonhomie and outwardly conventional appearance lay dark, violent undercurrents. He was not alone functioning on one social level, conforming to societal norms yet exploiting a seedy, sleazy underworld, society’s underbelly. Doubtless there were those similarly enthralled with that sub-culture, some who might go so far as to dip their toes into polluted water. Others come nearest to it by reading about it.
The summer before last, before coronavirus changed our lives, I attended a delightful birthday party on a balmy evening in the countryside. The dress code was black tie and Venetian masks. Not as easy as it sounds, at least, not for me. At a fancy-dress emporium I bought a mask that turned out to be meant for women. My second attempt from a well-known online provider, fell apart as I removed it from its box. The third attempt was successful. However, the rigidity of Venetian masks does not take into account the wearing of spectacles. Fortunately, the mask was only worn briefly on arrival and could be discarded. Little did I then know how significant the wearing of masks would become during the pandemic. Despite original sceptical scientific advice that wearing a mask made little or no difference to transmission of the virus, they became commonplace and then mandatory in certain circumstances. I complied but spectacles remained a problem, steaming up within seconds. No more masked balls. But the mask supplied by St Mary’s, Bourne Street was characteristically chic and elegant.
Queen Elizabeth I and Mary, Queen of Scots never met although their fates were intertwined. Yet in his play Maria Stuart Friedrich Schiller imagined their meeting and arguing face to face. Schiller is followed by Donizetti in his opera opera Maria Stuada where the confrontation between the two Queens is one of the great scenes in grand opera and is thrilling. The fictional encounter illustrates and illuminates the historical reality. It makes more intimate and dramatic the bald historical narrative. And so to The Crown. I watched Seasons 1-3 during the first “lockdown” and Season 4 in the second iteration during November. Artistic license seemed to acknowledge no boundaries. So much so that a mini media storm was confected by Season 4 with calls (one from a Cabinet Minister) for a warning before the episodes that it was “fictionalised” history. There are undoubtedly inaccuracies and conflation of events for dramatic purpose. Mrs Thatcher’s son was not missing on a car rally at the same time as the Queen’s son, Prince Andrew, was serving in the Falkland’s conflict. But the juxtaposition was dramatically appropriate as it could show the reactions of two mothers both in powerful positions to the danger in which their children were placed, even though the two sons were deeply unsympathetic characters. It is not difficult to turn human lives as they are lived into soap operas. Coronation Street and Eastenders has been doing it for years. Even longer, The Archers although I have kicked the nightly habit and have not heard it for nearly two years. My problem with The Crown is that every character is portrayed as unsympathetic, unredeemed by their flaws. Harold Wilson was, somewhat to my surprise, the only one to merge as a sympathetic figure. Given that, viewers may well begin to suspect that there is some malign underlying political motive behind the series.
Last year was bleak enough but my lowest moment was opening my 2021 Diary to see empty pages with no engagements until Easter, and no guarantee they will be fulfilled.