London

I really must come to England more often. The last time I was here, in mid-February, Princess Margaret gave up the ghost. And now, even as I step off the wondrous train that connects Paris to London, the flags are hauled halfway down to mark the passing of Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother, last Empress of India. This was supposed to be a Jubilee year, marking half a century of the present sovereign’s rule. But it has been a series of black-draped obsequies so far. And I plan to come back in early June…

A sycophantic American media (for which there is even less excuse than a sycophantically royalist English one) has already bombarded you with the palace spin on the old girl’s life. Amazing sprightliness into advanced old age; always a kind word and a wave for the commoners; great pluck during the Blitz; devotion to duty; a symbol of historic continuity…. This is all utter rubbish. Take only the most celebrated of the myths: the one about her stoicism during the Nazi bombardment of London. It is true that the royal family decided not to leave the capital during the war, and it is also true that a few bombs did strike Buckingham Palace. But no account of this period is complete unless one recalls the long, steady support of King George and his late wife for the Chamberlain-Halifax policy of appeasement. They did not go as far in pro-Hitler sympathy as did the disgraced Edward VIII and his famous consort, Wallis Simpson, but they did their best.

When Neville Chamberlain returned from Munich, having betrayed Czechoslovakia to Hitler, he knew that he could expect a strong attack on his shameful treaty from the Labour and Liberal benches in the House of Commons. He therefore had himself driven straight from the airport to Buckingham Palace, where the King and Queen presented him to a cheering throng from their balcony. I possess a photograph of this disgusting event. The Queen Mother looks, as people always say, "radiant." The late John Grigg, who was known as Lord Altrincham and a distinguished Tory and court historian, described this as "the most unconstitutional act by a British sovereign in the [twentieth] century." And so it was: The Munich agreement received a royal warrant and baptism before Parliament had even debated it. Other Establishment historians, such as Philip Ziegler, have revealed that the Queen was an enthusiastic supporter of her husband’s policy of backing Chamberlain and, when that administration collapsed, of pushing for the even more reactionary Lord Halifax to replace him. The hostility of the monarchy to Churchill was well-known at the time, and he could never have hoped to gain the succession without the Labour and Liberal votes that had been pre-empted and annulled, by monarchical intervention, a short time before.

Much more recently, guests would stagger away from lunches and dinners with the Queen Mother, appalled by what they had heard of her "table talk." She always stuck up for Ian Smith’s white-settler racist rebellion in what was then Rhodesia. She could invariably find a kind word for P.W. Botha’s apartheid regime in South Africa. Her most loyal courtier and chronicler, a man with the absurd title of Lord Wyatt of Weeford, confessed that he was sometimes quite taken aback by her observations about Jews and her fondness for feeble-minded pursuits such as astrology and the paranormal. Since she never deigned to give an interview in the entire course of her life, so the credulous and the loyal were never exposed directly to her prejudices, but there is quite enough on the record to make it outrageous for the press to have been so reticent and deferential.

As for her sprightliness and longevity, she may have had good genes, but since she never in her life had to open a door, pull a curtain or lift anything heavier than a gold fork, and since she never went anywhere without an enormous staff of personal attendants, she certainly managed to minimize the sort of stress that can carry off even the toughest grandma in a less fortunate family. She was also, I must add, a good advertisement for the medicinal properties of booze. Borne along on a wave of gin and champagne (and apparently convinced to the end of her days that Dubonnet was not an alcoholic drink), it is small wonder that she managed a wave or a smile as she went giggling past. Her daughter once broke with custom and asked for an extra glass of wine at one of their two-Queen lunches. "Are you sure, dear?" replied the old lady. "Do remember that you have to reign all afternoon."

Fifteen years ago it was disclosed that the Queen Mother had had two unacknowledged nieces, named Katherine and Nerissa Bowes-Lyon. Both were born mildly retarded, both were covertly committed to a mental institution and both were falsely reported to have died. The Queen Mother grew up in Glamis Castle, but even the Macbeth family might have raised an eyebrow at this callousness. The thing is, though, that you can’t have royalty and monarchy without "breeding." And "breeding," as well as applying to pedigree in people, dogs and racehorses, has an unfortunate connection to eugenics. The theory of breeding (and culling) a master family is no different in principle from the theory of incubating a master race. It is both sinister and absurd. All the late Queen’s children and grandchildren made disastrous marriages, producing a plethora of spoiled and talentless progeny whose dreary antics provide fodder for the tabloids. All the indications are that Prince William has already made it abundantly clear that he does not want to succeed to the throne, or waste his life waiting for it as his wretched father has had to do. So as I saw the gun carriage rumble by, and surveyed the droves of people who stayed away from all the ceremonies of leave-taking, and noticed that the lines of mourners were sober rather than sad, as if really saying goodbye this time, I thought yet again that the British are growing up, and ceasing to demand the ritual of human sacrifice that the fetish of monarchy demands of them.