I know I have been here in London for a month now because I have begun to dream about Queen Elizabeth and Prince Charles. Although tethered by what destiny has dealt them, they were untethered by my having dreamt about them separately. It felt like a favor I was doing them actually, this American who loves London so much even though I have never been fixated on this family of royals full of tabloid-fodder foibles. London is a place where I am actually a republican, a homonymic confession that can sound rather horrifying to my liberal American ears. And yet is my subconscious being subsumed by this culture here, one that fixates on its royals fumbling about in their designer genes that just don’t seem to fit the century in which they now find themselves? They and the country have gone from the Six Wives of Henry VIII to a kind of Housewives of Buckingham Palace. It has become a reality show that needs a better producer. I wish Andy Cohen would come over and whip them into shape then sit around with them all in a semicircle and just let them hash it all out.
Oh, the dreams? Each was a kind of “buddy picture” since I was just hanging out with them. Charles and I talked about the climate – a subject that seems to help him weather the burden of having, you know, subjects. We also talked about his vintage Aston Martin which was a gift from his mum when he was 21 to make him feel – to push him to feel, one presumes – as cool and manly as James Bond who famously drove one. He and the car were in the news recently over here. I guess that’s why I dreamt of him. Prince Charles told the BBC’s Justin Rowlatt that he had converted the little sports car to running on “surplus English white wine and whey from the cheese process … It smells delicious as you’re driving along … Why do you think I’ve done [climate activism] for all these years? Because I’ve minded about — and always have done — the next generations. I’ve been doing this really to make sure my children, your grandchildren and everybody else’s have some future.” I let him prattle on a bit in the same manner in my dream in that hangdog hauteur of his – one hand in a cashmere coat pocket, the other holding a gin and tonic – as we walked about the grounds at Highgrove until I interrupted him and suggested he lay off the gin since it was making his face blossom even in the autumn which is itself a signal of climate change: blossoms that bloom out of season. He chuckled in his chinless way – well, reined in a chuckle – but then chugged the gin and tonic in defiance of anyone other than his mum deigning to demand anything of him. I also told him he shouldn’t drink and drive that cheesy little car of his. “I have those who drive me,” I was reminded. “I think you could be a bit more driven actually,” I told him. He more than chuckled at that and I swear I saw a chin emerge he was so surprisingly amused by my little dig. He seemed enlarged by the needed laughter caused him at his own expense, not diminished by it.
In the other dream, I was walking the corgis with his mum whom the doctors have advised, in fact, to lay off her nightly dry martini as she watches her late-night television shows. What did we discuss? Charles. But I promised her I’d keep it off-the-record. “Oh, you can go deep background,” she said. “But blind quote me in such a way that I can’t be identified.” A corgi defecated on the grass at that point and, taking a monarch’s handkerchief (I saw her initials stitched upon it) from her macintosh (no cashmere for her), she picked it up herself. She carefully folded the monogrammed fabric about the feces then handed it all to me. “What am I supposed to do with this?” I asked her. She smiled and said, “Now you understand my country.”
The irony in those dreams is that I’d never have a chance to talk to either of them in such nonchalant buddy-buddy ways. But there is a chance – an outside one, but still a possibility – that I could actually have a conversation with Prince Harry and his wife, Meghan, Duchess of Sussex. Maybe that is why I haven’t dreamt of them and why the royals seem so put off by them now: Harry and Meghan are no longer the stuff of dreams but of possibility.
The members of The Firm – as the royal family is known by its corporate-like courtiers – have become rather tiresome to me in their performative, perfumed* pedestrianism even as they dutifully are put on their pedestal, the ultimate plinth of white privilege. And it is that privilege, that whiteness, that plinth, that dutiful dullness that Harry and Meghan are rejecting – not exactly the royalty of the family. They’ve been able to keep their titles while perfecting the performativity. Perhaps it is their being better performers that irks the others so. Or maybe it’s just their having the gall to settle in America, specifically Santa Barbara, California. At least they could have chosen Canada which is still considered a colony. “Have you been to Santa Barbara?” I was asked by Suzanne Noble, an entrepreneurial expat American writer and app developer who has lived in London now for over 30 years. “I recently visited there when I flew back for the 90th birthday of an uncle who lives in Beverly Hills. Hung out with some famous people and partied at the Alisal guest ranch in Santa Barbara. You know the type of place: where the bourgeois bring their children to wear little cowboy hats and boots. I can understand Harry’s wanting to move there for the weather alone,” she said, circling back to that subject. “I am certain that Meghan has been confronted with the racism for which some of the extended members of the Royal Family are rather infamous. But what did Meghan think she was marrying into? The Royal Family is an institution based on its whiteness. It is inherently racist if not functionally so.”
So why the marriage was welcomed into the institution is another question entirely. Is this – the falling out – the result that was wished for from the start? It is a ‘Harry’ situation, to use another homonym, and always has been according to the conspiratorial whisperers who theorize that his own genes aren’t as designed as his brother’s and this was a way to ease him away from The Firm. His love for Meghan and their refusal to be cowed by the culture that could welcome a Camilla but not a Meghan was the prince and the duchess just falling into the trap set for them. I didn’t call the courtiers corporate-like lightly for there is a corporate jujitsu maneuver when such c-suite suits don’t want to fire the person they want to leave but instead make that person’s life so miserable that the person quits instead. If such whispers about such machinations are to be believed then this is a plot twist worthy of Hilary Mantel if she had read some Jackie Collins as a respite from her research into her Booker Prize-winning historical novels – Wolf Hall, Bring Up the Bodies, and The Mirror and the Light – which are about the earlier Royal Family told through the narrative of Thomas Cromwell’s life.
“I must admit, I love Meghan Markle,” Mantel told Susannah Butter of the Evening Standard on a break during rehearsals for the West End version of The Light and the Mirror, which she and Ben Miles, the actor portraying Cromwell, have adapted from that third book in her Cromwell trilogy and which is currently running at the Gielgud Theatre on the West End. “She cheered me up no end,” Mantel continued. “I just love to see her shining face. I love what she wears.** I was so sorry she left because I thought that took some of the jollity out of life. … I have nothing but respect for people trying to behave well within roles they didn’t choose. But there is a huge difference between being a celebrity and being a royal and I think that probably the older generation at the palace was aghast that Meghan couldn’t see that — and why should she? I feel the monarchy is a burden that each one gladly assumes, but it is a trap for them. The Prince of Wales takes his role every bit as seriously as the Queen does. There’s a spiritual input there. But I don’t know if the young generation feels that same sense of duty. It would be really interesting to hear what William thinks is the world of the monarchy — but what is the platform for him to do that?”
One of the platforms was his recent Earthshot Prize event – a kind of Oscars for climate activism – which he created through his charity, the Royal Foundation. His plans are to name five winners each of the years that remain this decade. Among the winners this year were the Republic of Costa Rica, which picked up the “protect and restore nature” award for its policies to restore ecosystems that has resulted in a boom to the country’s ecotourism business, and Milan, which won the “food waste hubs” award for being the first major city to implement a policy to recover food from local supermarkets and restaurants in order to redistribute it to the needy. Prince William is not only truly the offspring of Charles in his concern for the environment but also has smartly taken up this mantel passed on to him from his father – not just waiting around for a crown to be passed on – because it is a cause dear to the heart and minds of the younger generation, hearts and minds that have to be won over to his side if the royalty is to survive further into the 21st century along with the planet itself.
It is also a political platform that ignores the niggling subject of the class structure on which the English society is based. The climate is an overarching cause that affects us all. In that sense, it is classy of them to have found it as a focus for themselves yet, at the same time, slyly classless. I am sure the courtiers – no matter how sincere Charles and William are – game planned it out for them and road tested it as if it were a sports car winding its way around Highgrove with surplus white wine in its tank in order to solve the surplus of white-whining that Charles was doing attempting to find some purpose in his life instead of just being damned by duty. The Royal Family may have a rather large carbon footprint which puts a lot of this in a context that can be generously described as ironic in a world where irony goes to die, but as a public image campaign there is a front-footedness to it that I grudgingly admire, as I do these two men who are attempting to navigate with modernity and even mindfulness their way to the outmoded throne that awaits them.
But there is nothing grudging about my admiration for Harry and Meghan. A London friend, who does hold a royalist grudge against them refers to them as the H&M of the Royal Family, referencing the down-market emporium with its knockoffs from runaways, its facsimiles of the real thing. “And I am not talking about the one even in Oxford Circus. I’m talking abut the one in Islington.” But Islington is cool and hip and exactly where I’d want to live in London if I ever lived here. In fact, I am sitting here in Islington in a cafe right now writing this column on my way to a dinner party over on Lonsdale Square given by writer and social critic Candace Allen, an African American who moved to London in the 1990s. She is the ex-wife of conductor Sir Simon Rattle and has some experience piloting herself with both the grit and the grace it takes to survive the insular titled enclaves here that cling to the whiteness of their pearls in the 21st century as much as clutching the pearls themselves, an enclave of shared Royal Boxes and the do-I-curtsy-or-not moments when introduced to the Queen. A curt polite respectful nod sufficed in Candace’s case so she could continue to live with herself if no longer, like Meghan, in such a suffocating world for an American who happens also to be a Black woman whose innate dignity cannot be denied her.
As I wait to head over to Candace’s dinner, I google Meghan’s name to see what is the latest bit of badly-spun news about her as it is covered here in the tabloids and am shaking my head as I read the attacks on her for having the audacity to write a letter to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer – and on Royal stationary, no less, the horror of it, can one imagine – in support of family leave in America. In The Telegraph there is this headline, MEGHAN ISN’T MICHELLE OBAMA – SHE SHOULD BUTT OUT OF POLITICS, over a column by Zoe Strimpel. Notice the headline writer didn’t compare her to Hillary Clinton or Jill Biden. The columnist in her first sentence invokes the name of Marie Antoinette, making it clear – sort of – that she is not calling for the chopping off of Meghan’s head.
The Duchess of Sussex wrote the letter more as a mom to her children, Archie and Lilibet, than as a member of the Royal Family. Here is some of what she wrote that has incensed the press here:
“Over the past 20 months, the pandemic has exposed long-existing fault lines in our communities. At an alarming rate, millions of women dropped out of the workforce, staying home with their kids as schools and daycares were closed, and looking after loved ones full-time. The working mom or parent is facing the conflict of being present or being paid. The sacrifice of either comes at a great cost.
“For many, this sacrifice goes back further than the past 20 months; it’s 20 or 30 years, even longer—decades of giving time, body, and endless energy not just in the pursuit of the American dream, but simply the dream of stability.
“I grew up on the $4.99 salad bar at Sizzler—it may have cost less back then (to be honest, I can’t remember)—but what I do remember was the feeling: I knew how hard my parents worked to afford this because even at five bucks, eating out was something special, and I felt lucky. And as a Girl Scout, when my troop would go to dinner for a big celebration, it was back to that same salad bar or The Old Spaghetti Factory—because that’s what those families could afford to do too.
“I started working (at the local frozen yogurt shop) at the age of 13. I waited tables, babysat, and piecemealed jobs together to cover odds and ends. I worked all my life and saved when and where I could—but even that was a luxury—because usually it was about making ends meet and having enough to pay my rent and put gas in my car.
“I expect many of your constituents have their own version of that story. Perhaps you do too. People in our country work incredibly hard, and yet the ask is soft: for a level playing field to achieve their version of a common dream—what is fair, and equal, and right. Many of our economic systems are past their expiration date, and as you well know, too many Americans are forced to shortchange themselves when it comes to what matters to them.
“In June, my husband and I welcomed our second child. Like any parents, we were overjoyed. Like many parents, we were overwhelmed. Like fewer parents, we weren’t confronted with the harsh reality of either spending those first few critical months with our baby or going back to work. We knew we could take her home, and in that vital (and sacred) stage, devote any and everything to our kids and to our family. We knew that by doing so we wouldn’t have to make impossible choices about childcare, work, and medical care that so many have to make every single day.”
But to so many in England for a Duchess to write such a letter and take such a political stand simply “is not done” – except, as I’ve stated above, when it is about climate change. The difference here is that Meghan, in her role as Duchess of Sussex and the wife of Prince Harry, the Duke of Sussex, pointedly and with a sense of purpose invoked class in order to help those who have not been as fortunate as she has been to rise above their station, as the British would look on it. Not only do they expect one to stay in one’s lane, they expect one to remain in one’s station in life. I guess they find some sort of order in that, the class structure inculcated within this culture. Raising oneself up by one’s bootstraps is admired in America but is not really here in England. Here one is just mocked as an arriviste.
When one is also a woman of color, one is reminded both outright with coded language that such women are only princesses in the eyes of Disney animators. Color-blind casting should be kept at The National Theatre. Regarding the Royal Family, the British public is an audience it seems instead of a citizenry. Netflix, to its credit, realized with its massive success with The Crown that the British are not alone in this; rest of us are an audience enthralled by this ur-family full of folderol and fee-fi-fo-fumbling about, of pageantry mixed with any household’s harried mom and distant dad replete with sibling rivalry and riven with the petty slights and heartbreaking tragedies that limn the human condition. The Crown was created by the estimable Peter Morgan, a writer who also scripted The Queen which starred Helen Mirren on the stage and onscreen. The real Royal Family should call Morgan in for some rewrites of itself. Or maybe a better idea would be to call in Zadie Smith who, in fact, is making her playwriting debut in November at the Kiln Theatre with a modern-day adaptation of Chaucer’s The Wife of Bath reset in the 21st century and titled The Wife of Willesden which refocuses the story on a Black woman and the many narratives within her.
I get to Candace’s a bit early for her dinner party so we can discuss all of this for this column. She has often been a commentator on the BBC, among other media outlets, on just such matters – from royalty to race, from politics to performances, from class to the classics. A novelist and essayist, she was a political activist in her time at Harvard University in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and was instrumental in the establishment of Harvard’s African and African-American Studies Department now headed by Henry Louis Gates. “For a couple of years I was doing commentary on the BBC’s World Service,” she tells me as we sit at her kitchen table. “Once it was for one of the Royal Jubilees and it was pouring down rain. During the show I was asked to comment on it all and I said, ‘Look, as the descendent of enslaved people, I think that status by the accident of birth is crazy. I respect the woman – the Queen – because she works.” Now at that point her lack of education was not very known, but she has worked very hard to catch up and to make herself comfortable with world leaders. I said back then that I know this – I was speaking of the Jubilee and the parties being thrown – gives a lot of people a lot of pleasure and I don’t have any problem with people having a good time. But it’s not a terribly talented or intelligent family – let alone attractive. But they were never going to recognize these little brown children born to Harry and Meghan.”
She pauses and sighs at having to discuss race yet again within yet another context. And yet Meghan’s forcing the topic regarding the Royal Family for the first time since Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz is an important part of her own historical importance. Charlotte, who some historians purport to have been a Black woman (she certainly appears to be one in the portraits painted of her, especially those by Sir Allan Ramsay), was the wife of King George III and thus Queen from 1761 until her death in 1818. There is even another theory that the first Black queen of England was Phillipa of Hainault from 1328 – 1369. But it has been centuries since race has entered the royal discussion. It’s about time we circled back to it.
“Look, I understand where Meghan comes from – not only socially but professionally,” Candace continues. “Her mother lives close to my sister in Los Angeles in side-by-side neighborhoods. My sister is a dean at USC. Doria, Meghan’s mother, got her Masters in Social Work from USC. I was an assistant director for years on movie sets,” she says, alluding to her own historical importance as the first African American woman to become a member of the DGA. “Meghan was just ‘the girl’ on that show Suits. Through her drive, her talent, her beauty, yes, but also her work ethic, she rose through the ranks of that series to be somebody. And she had her causes before she became a Duchess. I mean, menstrual rights, for goodness sakes. Not easy stuff. She was trying to get menstrual products to kids in Africa. That’s not glamorous. She went to Northwestern. This is an intelligent woman who fell in love with her prince who is not nearly as bright. And she saved him, this broken kid. She saved him.
“Yes, she is a product of Hollywood as well. And Instagram. But she is not a fool. I know that her mother was saying, ‘You know, you don’t have to do this. There are other ways to do it and live your life.’ People get upset that she knows Serena and she knows Oprah. She not only knows Black people but she knows Black people who have worked fucking hard. Yes, they are way up there in society. And, yes, they spend money. But they worked hard to get where they are. They are not these ‘pure blood’ Sloane Ranger children who just stumble out drunk from Daphne’s or whatever bougie place they go now.
“Meghan’s gorgeous and she knows how to talk to people and there’s no weirdness. I think that she thought that she would be able to win over the Royal Family. But she didn’t. They looked at her and thought, no doubt, don’t you freaking ‘colored colonial’ presume to think you know what’s going on with us.
“I worked for the Obama campaign. I was part of the principals of the Democrats for Obama in London. I even wrote a 10,000 word article for a German quarterly magazine trying to explain the challenges that Obama presented. I couldn’t believe that white people were really going to let him through. And then they did. I went, well, damn – and let my guard down. The ‘dinosaurs’ – these are not some sweet creatures, these are ferocious beasts from hell who are trying to take all us down – emerged to retain white power. I’m sure a lot of the courtiers in the Royal Family are motivated by this same white … ah … anxiety isn’t quite the right term. They just feel they have to win and they’ve got to win no matter what. They’re somehow managing the Andrew saga with all its criminality and sleaze. But Harry and this Black woman who have charisma and empathy have them confounded. William, bless his heart, is not a bad guy but he believes because he’s going to be king that that means something even though he can’t do anything.
“There is a great Nigerian woman who goes toe-to-toe with Piers Morgan whenever anything about all this flares up over here. Her name is Dr. Shola Mos-Shogbamimu. After the Oprah interview, she said, ‘The royal family is an institution rooted in colonialism, white supremacy, and racism. The legacy is right there. So one is not now surprised that a comment would have been made by several members of the Royal Family about how dark Archie’s skin is.’
“I’m glad that Meghan and Harry are over there. I hate the word ‘journey’ and the term ‘living your best life.’ But they got out of Dodge and they are going to be all right. I mean, Harry’s saying that it was a hideous way to grow up and I’m not going to do that to my children. And everybody’s going, ‘How dare you say that?’ after his father already has bemoaned being sent off to that boarding school. William has alluded to it all, too.
“Before the Queen got older there were all kinds of undercurrents about what kind of mother she was even before The Crown’s depiction of that side of her. And what kind of mother did she have? Does the word ‘dysfunctional’ come to mind? Maybe they need some Al-Anon meetings in those castles of theirs. They need Al-Anon for days. I’d throw in some ACA meetings, too. Other royal families around Europe contain highly educated and talented people. Queen Margrethe of Denmark is a set designer and costume designer for theatre and films. Princess Akiko of Japan got a doctoral degree from Oxford and has gone on to be a postdoctoral fellow and been a guest professor at universities. But here, people prefer to be thick. They’re dullards. They drink. They hunt.”
Spencer, the new film about Princess Diana starring Kristen Stewart, who is so brilliant in it, takes place over a Christmas holiday during which the Royal Family as the staticky background to the story does a lot of drinking and a lot of hunting. Even if the real Royal Family does just that over this coming Christmas holiday, I hope Harry and Meghan and Archie and Lilibet are welcomed back over here to celebrate it all with the Queen who is now 95 years old. After a recent hospital stay, she was advised not to attend the Climate Change Conference in Scotland, which she was so looking forward to attending. It’s nice when all families are together for Christmas, even this one. Come visit your grandmother, Harry, then go back home to California with your wife and children where you feel you finally belong.
Oh. One more thing. The most important one. I just realized I haven’t mentioned Kate. She’s literally a footnote here. And that, after I have written all of these words, is finally the real problem that The Firm and its courtiers were having with Meghan, the Duchess of Sussex. She was making Kate a footnote.
Perfumes reportedly preferred by Queen Elizabeth, the Duchess of Cambridge, and the Duchess of Sussex.
It has always been presumed that the Queen chose White Rose by Floris for her wedding day. Thus, the floral scent has a sentimental hold on her and she wears it to this day. Floris does in fact, hold a Royal Warrant, so there is that hint as well that it is favored. Others insist, however, that she has come to prefer Guerlain’s L’Heure Bleue which dates back to 1912, which was the second year of King George V’s reign. The perfume was designed to represent the dusk, or in the words of Jacques Guerlain himself, “the hour when one finally finds oneself in renewed harmony with the world and the light.”
(2) Clarence House confirmed that Kate, Duchess of Cambridge, chose for her own wedding day White Gardenia Petals by Illuminum London. Alas, it no longer seems to be in production so if you are having a difficult time finding a bottle, there is a rumor that she has a fondness for Dior’s Dune.
(3) Meghan, Duchess of Sussex, is reported to have had a special one-time-only perfume created for her wedding day. It is said that Floris London was the perfumer commissioned – that Royal Warrant again – to create a scent inspired by its Beramotto di Positano perfume. It was never made available for purchase however. Before she became a duchess and was doing the press round for her role in Suits, she was quote as saying, “I alternate between a few scents. I love Oribe Côte d’Azur Eau de Parfum and both the Wild Bluebell and Wood Sage & Sea Salt Colognes by Jo Malone.”
** Meghan wore Giorgio Armani for the Oprah interview. For a chat with Gloria Steinem, she chose Anine Bing. She is friends with Victoria Beckham – she and her husband David attended Meghan’s marriage to Harry – and can often be seen in her designs. On that wedding day, her wedding dress was designed by Clare Waight Keller for Givenchy and later that day donned a gown by Stella McCartney. Personally, I love her in anything by Carolina Herrera. I’m prejudiced, however, because I adore Herrera as a person, not just a designer. My favorite look for her is one of her favorites as well: just a simple rather gender-fluid white shirt – especially the Husband Shirt designed by another of her friends, Misha Nonoo.