Britain’s Baby Bump
By LIONEL SHRIVER - The New York Times - July 22, 2013
THE birth of the prince of Cambridge is the worst possible subject for a cynic like me. All we naysayers and pooh-poohers are obliged to stuff a sock in it. You simply cannot, you cannot, be down on the royal baby.
It’s strange, because aside from its inexhaustible capacity to cause traffic jams around Buckingham Palace for another pomp-laden Trooping the Color, the British monarchy wields no real power. The firstborn of the Duchess of Cambridge (that’s Kate Middleton to you) being third in line for the throne is of no more worldly import than my being third in line at my local London Tesco.
So why has The Daily Mail created a glossy Royal Baby Magazine? Why was there a Royal Baby app to follow the minute-by-minute progress of Kate’s pregnancy? And why was it just one of many: Guess the Name of the Royal Baby, Royal Baby Slots Gaming and Royal Baby Run, in which your avatar walks with the anointed pipsqueak balanced on a velvet pillow?
Meanwhile, the British are expected to lavish $95 million on sparkling wine to toast the birth; $38 million on celebratory party food; $86 million on commemorative memorabilia, from booties to cookies; $117 million on DVDs and books, including a history of the diapers that have clad the royal baby bottom; and $37 million on royal baby-themed toys. You can buy royal baby burp cloths and royal baby potty trainers. Little wonder that, for us hardhearted skeptics, as far back as December some wag started to market “royal” sick bags.
All this, and Britain is still crawling out from a painful recession. But perhaps that’s part of the point. Fervor over the royal pregnancy and birth distracts the masses from their enormous British Gas bills. The Wimbledon champ Andy Murray and the Tour de France winner Chris Froome aside, Britain’s been pretty grim since 2008, with the worst of both worlds: relentless legislative rhetoric about “austerity,” while the British budget continues to grow. You can’t fault the careworn commoners for latching on to an occasion of unqualified pleasantness — especially when it’s the firstborn grandchild of their beloved Diana, Princess of Wales.
Besides, it may be irrational to go into ecstasies about the continuation of a politically disenfranchised monarchy, but nations are not rational constructs, and the history of Britain is told in kings and queens.
But British culture isn’t what it used to be: it has been compromised by a deluge of imports like “Mad Men” and “World War Z” (that’s “World War Zed”), unprecedented immigration and European Union trampling on national sovereignty.
The British hold on to their sense of themselves by the fingernails, and when it comes to identity you take what you can get — especially if the national window dressing draws a handsome whack of tourist dollars. However decorative the institution, at least for the British this birth symbolically perpetuates the endurance of their own country.
More baffling is the hoo-ha in the United States. Dozens of the cameras outside St. Mary’s Hospital, where the duchess delivered her child, are American. Two of the major TV networks have anchors in London to cover the royal birth.
Have we no shame? Did we not cut our apron strings to the British monarchy emphatically and at some cost? So why do so many Americans seem to believe that Elizabeth II, her curmudgeonly son Charles, his strapping sons Will and Harry, the winsome duchess and her newborn still belong to us?
My fellow Yanks never seem even slightly fascinated by the has-been royals who survive in other European countries. Americans care only about British royalty — which someone will have to explain to me. Maybe I’ve lived in Britain too long, because I’m stumped.
Yet for Britain, royal baby mania is wholesome enough, maybe even healthy. In contemporary Britain, privilege has inverted to disadvantage. Though the country must still harbor a secret aristocracy somewhere, you’re hard-pressed to find anyone who admits to belonging to it. The cut-glass English accent is virtually extinct, “innit” Estuary English far more fashionable — even the likes of George Osborne, the tony Etonian chancellor of the Exchequer, visits hoi polloi in factories and starts dropping his H’s.
The upper crust keeps its head down for good reason. Who would put themselves in the way of the free-floating ill-will, seething class envy and accusatory economic bitterness that poisons The Guardian’s letters to the editor? Contrary to their anachronistic reputation as civilized and polite, the modern British can be some of the nastiest, most resentful people on the planet.
The royal family is all that remains in Britain of an elite that cheerfully accepts its elevated status without embarrassment. The fresh start of a new generation has brought out a flush of good will, optimism and well-wishing that is a tonic for the British soul. My God, they’re acting nice — even toward a child who has more than a leg up, class-wise. Because you cannot, you cannot, be down on the royal baby.
Lionel Shriver is the author, most recently, of the novel “Big Brother.”
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