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King, Queen, Knave: A Royal Pardon

In contrast to the real movers and shakers, royalty sporting crowns and ermines seem laughably powerless. There are anti-authoritarian British traditions that we would do better to celebrate, including the socialism of its artists William Morris, Walter Crane and Oscar Wilde.

Mike Mosher

Issue #62, December 2002

God save the queen
The fascist regime
They made you a moron
Potential H-bomb
God save the queen
She ain't no human being
There is no future
In England's dreaming
— The Sex Pistols, "God Save the Queen" (1976)

Patriotism welled up in many Americans on and after September 11th, and the American flag was waved with determination in response to the day's horrible killings on American soil. I'm a little different. I tend to feel most patriotic in opposition to something else, and that's the notion of privileged royalty and especially the bloody British Royal family.

One could merely resent the Royal Family for their incredible inherited wealth. One could feel contemptuous of them as a strange species not like us: bred like hothouse flowers, socially constructed like Fabergé eggs. They're the human equivalent of their prize Corgis, ugly little darlings hobbling along on unnatural, ineffectual legs in their circumscribed roles. Royals exist in our time solely to be looked at, to be gazed upon as they parade by, to be spoken about by the populace. What if they held a monarchy and nobody came?

Don't be told what you want
Don't be told what you need
There's no future, no future
No future for you
God save the Queen
We mean it, man
We love our Queen
God saves

I write this in the year of Queen Elizabeth's Golden Jubilee, the event marking fifty years of her reign. In these days of atomized existence and privatized spheres of entertainment, I suppose I shouldn't begrudge any nation its harmless collective celebration and hoopla. Such sentiment probably causes no more harm than the picture of the Thai King in a Thai Restaurant, a visual sign that asserts "We are Thai". When Queen Victoria had her Jubilee in 1900 much of the "map was red" in the non-communist sense, a globe showing much of the earth under British colonial domination and control. Today Elizabeth's Britain is a junior partner to the United States. British Prime Minister Tony Blair is content to be the cheerleader for someone else's war, led by another nation: first George W. Bush's fervent Afghan campaign in pursuit of Taliban, Al-Qaida and the elusive Osama bin Laden, and now the war against Iraq that Bush and his advisers seem determined to unleash.

The Queen Mother's three tasks in the past fifty years consisted of incessantly wearing colorful suits, waving and smiling. She waved goodbye at age 101 and, according to The Economist, "died on one of the loveliest English spring afternoons in memory; smiling, it is said."

Her younger daughter Margaret died a few weeks before and was seemingly a darker, more interesting character. Long an irrepressible devotee of nightclubbing and drink, she earned the rep among Britons and Commonwealth nationals as Mad Meg. My Jamaica-born wife was quick to playfully, punningly link mention of Meg to Mad Cow Disease. When Margaret's marriage to a rakish fashion photographer broke up, she took up with a cad who promptly published a kiss-and-tell book on their affair. Like her incautious brother-in-law Prince Charles, who pouted over unsecured cell phone lines to his married girlfriend how he wanted to be her "tampon", snug up there, Margaret's name is linked with sex scandal in the public mind. I suppose that's how we usually remember celebrities of otherwise little accomplishment.

God save the Queen
'Cuz tourists are money
Our figure head
Is not what she seems
Oh God save history
God save your mad parade
Oh Lord God have mercy
All crimes are paid

Elvis/DianaThe most dramatic death of the 1990s was that of Charles' ex-wife, Princess Diana. Some believe she was done in for planning to marry into a successful Arab merchant family. What is most puzzling is why there was such an outpouring of emotion around her demise. I suppose she filled her idle hours performing a few good works in raising money for AIDS patients and for clearing landmines. She was a stalwart supporter of the kind of Royal Trust charitable distributions for which the massively wealthy Sting and Lord Paul McCartney periodically perform their oldies in benefit concerts. Perhaps Diana was seen as the Gen X princess, who escaped her loveless marriage to the fusty Charles, two decades her senior. While I am truly sorry Lord Elton John lost his dear friend Diana, for me the sight of young Americans sobbing and marching in candlelight processional vigils in San Francisco and elsewhere had the strong perfume of high camp to it. Has Diana, along with Judy and the allegedly living Liza, Liz, Cher, Phyllis Diller and Miss Ross, been immortalized in the performative shrine of drag shows yet?

From deaths both good and bad to the fascinatingly ugly, one Royal death in Elizabeth's reign has had real significance to it, the killing of Lord Mountbatten. This great-grandson of Queen Victoria was assassinated in 1979 by an Irish Republican Army bomb planted on his yacht in the waters off County Sligo. This act is the bitterest edge of Punk, a surprising gasp in history. The middle-class British public wondered how the IRA could stoop to kill this now "apolitical," beloved old man.

To many this was terrorism, as asocial and mean-spirited as Surrealist poet Andre Breton's proposed random firing of a pistol into a crowd. We have seen the most diabolical of such acts on a huge and terrible scale, in the toppling of the World Trade towers. Yet I am inclined to think that a death of a Royal or titled hereditary aristocrat is something different. By setting themselves above the rest of humanity, the aristocracy open the door to the inversion of their status. Once the mystique is gone, they are readily seen as beneath normal folks, if they stubbornly cling to the privileges of their status. Thus the dynamiting of Mountbatten became largely symbolic, minimally homicidal. The political symbolism swelled to obscure the brutality, for the duffer chose to remain to the end hidden in the role of a functioning Royal. His humanity was overwhelmed by his role, and he died for it.

When there's no future
How can there be sin?
We're the flowers in the dustbin
We're the poison in your human machine
We're the future, your future

In failing to condemn Mountbatten's killing I probably am excusing the otherwise inexcusable in a thoughtless Jacobin revolutionary fervor, a fervor that saw Diana's fatal accident as an objectively progressive event if it resulted in one less Princess alive. And like the Tom Hayden of his book Irish on the Inside, I also carry a sentimental ethnic attachment to Ireland's problematic armed struggle. There have been more gentle symbolic Irish actions against the Royals that deserve emulation more than assassinations. In San Francisco, I worked in an Irish dive with the command LET US NOW ALL DRINK TO THE FINAL DEFEAT OF THE BRITISH ARMY IN IRELAND over the door. The pub also featured a constant stream of dodgy characters "over from Ireland" traipsing through, and a cup behind the bar to collect contributions for Irish Northern Aid. During Queen Elizabeth's 1984 San Francisco visit, the bar served as an assembly area for cartoonist Dan O'Neill's Irish Republican Navy. This hastily-assembled flotilla of small boats carried whiskey-fortified passengers who tossed buckets of fish to the circling seagulls, in hopes that one or many of the birds would subsequently fly over the Royal Yacht and poop on the Queen and her entourage.

God save the Queen
We mean it, man
And there is no future
In England's dreaming
No future no future
No future for you

In our era the movements and decisions of global corporations, not kings and queens, determine and control our lives and futures. In contrast to the real movers and shakers, royalty sporting crowns and ermines seem laughably powerless. There are anti-authoritarian British traditions that we would do better to celebrate, including the socialism of its artists William Morris, Walter Crane and Oscar Wilde. These were echoed musically in the leftist inclinations of the Clash, the wry analyses of the Gang of Four, the street-level solidarity of Chumbawumba.

And this is where we return to American patriotism. It is in the tradition of Tom Paine that I bristle at the thought of any American giving obeisance or credibility to a damn Royal. Part of me aches to see all Royals beheaded, and I recommend regicide as a fitting career path for my students. But the softer — and, many would say, saner — side of me thinks, "Aww, let 'em live". The British (and to some degree, world) press has turned its attention from the remaining haunts in the House of Windsor and is currently more enamored with Becks and Victoria, the football player Davy Beckham and his Spice Girl wife, the artiste formerly known as Posh. The voyeuristic mass-media celebration of people of major or minor accomplishment, in sports or pop music, certainly isn't a democracy. Yet at least celebrity is more fluid than hereditary forms of exclusiveness, and continually lets a handful of members of the working class rise to comfort, even if the majority must gawk from the sidelines while living lives of drudgery.

But sometimes this escalator of celebrity still needs to be lubricated with the blood of Royalty.

Family lore has some ancestor of Mike Mosher awarded land in London by Queen Victoria, so please send him the deed.

"God Save the Queen"© Cook, Jones, Rotten, Vicious, 1977. Published by Careers Music, Inc., BMI/WB Music Corp., ASCAP.

Credit: "Elvis/Diana" copyright © Mike Mosher 1998.

Copyright © 2002 by Mike Mosher. All rights reserved.