Princess Margaret’s Knee
by Clancy Sigal, May 5, 2011
The royal razzmatazz over Will and Kate is temporarily over, which I hope gives the loving, handsome couple some breathing space before the Palace's formidably world-class PR machine claws them back into the voracious public eye. We small “r” republicans — apparently, small in number, too — wish them all the best in their personal lives in the vain hope that one day the monarchical principle will die a natural death and let them fulfill their destiny in more interesting ways. Some hope.
Because, way down deep in the sour, beleaguered hearts of most of us anti-royals, is the same sick will-to-deference and courtly obedience, an archetypal Jungian fantasy of liege-lordism, that fevers the most hyper-Beatlemaniacal lovers of pomp and vastly expensive circumstance screaming their lungs outside the Buck House balcony, imploring Will to give Kate a second, more passionate kiss. What's wrong with the lad, anyway?
Before emigrating to England, I began having these bizarre night dreams of becoming Laird of the Manor, with valets and maid servants bowing submissively to me, dreams that multiplied into wild fantasies of marrying into young Queen Elizabeth's family and taking my rightful place in the order of precedence. Clancy Sigal KCMG — that sort of thing, with dishy Princess Margaret as my consort (not I hers). A psychiatrist friend in Los Angeles told me that several of his Jewish male friends of the radical persuasion had also shamefacedly confessed identical dreams. There is something so deeply compelling about bowing to king- and queen-ship by us plebes that it almost seems a physiological part of us, like the amygdala, the part of the brain that processes emotion.
I put it down to having been a suggestible child and seen too many Warner Brothers movies where Errol Flynn as Robin Hood loyally risks his life for the absent King Richard — with Maid Marian as his reward — and Bette Davis as Good Queen Liz has it off with Flynn's Earl of Essex, not to speak of almost-regal Greer Garson as “Mrs. Miniver” and, of course, Laurence Olivier as Henry V in disguise before Agincourt, mixing with the demoralized troops: “Methinks I could not die anywhere so contented as in the King's company.”
So when I came to England, in the fifth year of E-II's reign, first as an illegal immigrant, then as a respectable taxpayer to the Inland Revenue, my personal baggage included a personality split between Tom Paine-like republicanism and seemingly ineradicable ur-dreams of rescuing the Queen from her enemies — of which I, philosophically, was one.
At first down and out in London, I earned a few pence as a singer of skiffle (a sort of bluegrass) and washboard player in coffee bars in Soho, Earls Court and thereabouts. One night, I had a gig in a Fulham Road coffee bar when Princess Margaret, then in her slumming-in-bohemia phase, walked in with some friends. At the time, Margaret was popular with the masses due to her allegedly broken heart over a very tabloid, Palace-disapproved romance with the divorced war hero Peter Townsend, where she had, again allegedly, chosen duty over love. Unlike ice-faced Lilibeth, Margaret was on her way, as had been her uncle Edward Prince of Wales in the 1930s, to be the people's choice royal.
One thing led to another in the coffee bar, and Margaret and I began chatting. Sitting at adjoining tables, we swayed in time to the trad jazz group on the podium, our shoulders touched, eyes met, I caught the signal, and placed my hand on her knee. Oh gosh! Instantly, she sat bolt upright and her eyes grew cold and distant as diamonds. Within seconds, a couple of her chinless Guardsmen escorts — equerries? boyfriends? — loomed over me threateningly. I had unwittingly crossed a threshold into lese majeste. Who knew?
Well, there went that dream of living out my life as a Jewish prince in Balmoral.
Gradually, as my Inland Revenue tax payments mounted and TV showed more images of Prince Charles spending my hard-earned cash on polo ponies and talking to green vegetables, Princess Anne on her steeplechasing stallions, the deeply rightwing Prince Philip jaunting off on the royal yacht Brittania, and all the rest of the expensive folderol, my senses returned. I began to see what a shrewd, hard-case, greedy bunch of public-service layabouts — “oh, but they work so hard!” — the royals were. Excuse it as frustrated ardor that Margaret hadn't welcomed my grubby advances.
We met once again, years later, at the Dorchester hotel, during an intermission at the Marlene Dietrich “farewell” concert. Again, my table adjoined hers. As I watched, the actor wife of a friend of mine, a Fleet Street columnist, wobbled drunkenly over to Margaret's table and made a deep, loyal, peasant bow that almost made her topple into the Princess's lap. Now, my idea of really royal is graciousness under stress. But Margaret chose to be insulted by the actress's woozy performance and, again, froze the poor sozzled girl with a killing glare. No class. That also killed any lingering affection I might have had for the royals.
A small point of protocol? Perhaps. But when that ancient Lancaster bomber flew over the newly married couple, Will and Kate, on their wedding day, it suddenly reminded me of the politics of the whole damn thing. It's no MI5 secret that gaggles of the pre-second world war establishment, including certain royals, harbored pro-German and Nazi sympathies, abdicating Edward VIII being only the most notorious example. A gruesome mental game to play is to speculate what our leaders at that time would have done if Hitler actually had invaded? Who would have gone underground to resist — Churchill, surely — and who would have collaborated? O, what an inappropriate thought at this happy time. ¥¥
(Clancy Sigal is a novelist and screenwriter in Los Angeles. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org .)