The church bells were pealing for Princess Margaret Rose (as she was known when she was a pretty and vivacious child) as I arrived on a bright, cold Sunday morning. Breaking with the habit of a lifetime, I decided to attend divine service at one of the more upscale Anglican churches, and see if I could test the temperature of the nation. The pews were almost empty as the choir struck up the opening hymn, and the prayers for the departed one–which augmented the Church of England’s mandatory weekly prayer for the Royal Family–were muttered only by a few of the sparse and elderly congregation. The newspapers had done her proud, splashing big pictures and running long obituaries, but the question was: Had Fleet Street overestimated demand for royal obsequies?
The queue to sign the book of condolence at her personal palace was almost humiliatingly small, and the attempt to create a mound of floral tributes outside the railings was positively pathetic. (She might not have minded this: She detested the show of crowd emotion that followed the death of the Spencer girl, and indeed took a very frigid view in general of the "People’s Princess" and her doings.) All through the week I was in town, I met people younger than myself, many of them workers in the media, who had not known that there was any such person as Princess Margaret. This surprised me more than perhaps it should have done (I never tire of G.K. Chesterton’s definition of journalism–that it involves the press telling the reader that Lord Jones is dead, when the reader never knew that Lord Jones had been alive), but it also reinforced something that is otherwise very much noticeable: the deroyalization of British life. The most recent symptom of this was a portrait commissioned for the Queen’s Golden Jubilee, which falls in the summer. Painted, or perhaps I should say executed, by Lucian Freud–what could they have been thinking?–it shows a sour-faced, prune-like old lady with a rather vacant look.
When I was a lad, everyone had heard of Princess Margaret, all right. You stood a fair chance, if you went to a nightclub in London, of actually tripping over her. More than one young squireen of the town, indeed, could boast of doing more than that. I myself cannoned into her at a cocktail party, without sufficient warning. She was standing there agreeably enough, with a baby’s bath of gin in one hand and a lancelike cigarette-holder in another. "Evening, ma’am," I ventured, forgetting that with royalty you are supposed to wait to be addressed. "Know anything about China?" she screeched in reply. Whether it was porcelain or Peking that she intended, I was equally at a loss. Her complexion even then–this was the late 1970s–had acquired a sort of smoked-salmon tinge, which slathers of rouge, alternating with tanning holidays on the privately held Caribbean island of Mustique, did little to soften.
Somewhat frustrated in her pointless role as spare princess to her plainer older sister, she had a tendency to insist on the most appalling of the courtly etiquettes. For instance, protocol demands that when royalty is present, nobody may leave any social gathering, formal or informal, without permission. A hostess known to me, heavily pregnant and quite exhausted, inquired falteringly rather late in the evening whether she might withdraw. "No," said Princess Margaret, exhaling sullenly and with a glittering look of exerted privilege. The Windsor cause suffered a defection or two that night, and I’ve since heard of several other people who endured the same petty humiliation.
For all that, I am still ready to feel sorry for her. She was made into a human sacrifice by her sister about half a century ago, and forced to abandon the man she loved because he had been married before. It was announced by Buckingham Palace and by the Archbishop of Canterbury that such a match would scandalize the nation, when of course it would have done nothing of the sort. The sheer coldness of this, and the awful strained and affected sense of a painful duty being discharged by the Queen, became for me a working definition of official hypocrisy (as well as of the absurdity of a hereditary head of the church, which in turn is nothing to the absurdity of a hereditary head of state, let alone a hereditary chief of the armed forces). Princess Margaret had a small private revenge here: She designed the license plate of her official limousine so that the numbers represented the date on which she had first fucked the unacceptable Group Captain Peter Townsend. But after that, she declined into a fog of faux gaiety; of endless tedium alleviated by white-trash boyfriends, spongers, snobs and poseurs. The image of the disco princess, in hock to social climbers and gossip columnists and showbiz values, but doing her bit for charity on the side, predated the supposed Diana "phenomenon" by almost a generation. British embassies throughout the world would suffer paroxysms of dread at the thought of an official "royal visit" from the Margaret factor. The consulate in Chicago is still reeling from the time when she commented on the assassination of Lord Mountbatten by saying bluntly: "Irish pigs." Nobody quite believed the cover story that this was a misquotation for "Irish jigs." Ah, the magic of monarchy…
I was in London to do an onstage conversation with the great Francis Wheen, biographer of Marx, feared muckraker and deputy editor of the indispensable antibullshit magazine Private Eye. When I turned up for the event, he had brought a white piano onto the proscenium. Since I cannot play a note and am in scant demand as a singer, I eyed it nervously. But as we closed the event, Francis stepped to the keyboard and did an imperishable dead-pan of Elton John’s terrible song "Goodbye England’s Rose"–the most cringe-making ditty since "MacArthur Park." (Perhaps you yourself have noticed how often roses fade with the sunset as the rain sets in.) Slowly, I joined in the chorus for "Goodbye Margaret Rose." We had a pretty full West End house if I say so myself, and one can never be sure who will be offended. Nobody was. I used to wonder if I would ever outlive the House of Windsor. Now I feel that, in the most essential ways, I already have.