The Palace Papers review – a thrilling ride through the recent history of the royal family | history books

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OWhat is the problem with the royal family? According to Tina Brown’s account, the answer to this eternal and very thorny question is: just about anything. Yes, this is partly a simple matter of context; at the start of the 21st century, hats, parades and tours don’t seem to hold much interest anymore (Kate and William in the Caribbean? Cringe of the creak! as Prince Harry’s ex-girlfriend, Cressida Bonas, would say.) And yes, it’s a stifling way of life: like being a “battery hen in the Waldorf Astoria,” as Brown puts it, struggling a bit to the right picture.

But the former editor of New Yorker and vanity lounge, having applied all his famous wit and intelligence to the problem, also identifies many other diseases. Sadism, parsimony, debauchery, infantilism, exuberance, cruelty, coarseness, coldness, extreme uprightness and, last but not least, incredible stupidity; alas, among the Windsors, all are present and correct. Family is a walking, talking advertisement for – take your pick – intensive group therapy or religious isolation (after all, wasn’t Prince Philip’s mother a nun or something?). No wonder the Queen Mother’s steward, William Tallon, announced dinner in his Scottish retreat, Birkhall, by waving a censer, as if he were a priest.

I have to admit that I didn’t have high hopes of Palace papers, whatever her author has to say in her prologue about the zillions of insiders (OK, 120) she spent two years tracking down; the first person she mentions by name is – zzzzz! – Gyles Brandreth, which didn’t bode well for me in terms of hot new info (when is not former Tory MP for talking about Prince Philip?). But after wading through nearly 600 pages of ‘truth and turmoil’ – I do these things so you don’t have to – all I can say is if one is to read royal gossip , whether written by Tina, a woman who, as the former editor of Tatler, not only knows how to write a long image caption – “Harry is a hot and heavy glamping retreat!” – but who also remains, despite the long years she has lived in Manhattan, madly attentive to the tiny gradations of social class that make this country a hopeless case. Was the Queen Mother absurdly chic or seriously suburban? I’ve been thinking for days about the two cherubs on her four-poster bed at Clarence House, whose little angel outfits – I’m not kidding – were washed and starched by her servants every month.

The book, which is as big as lost paradise and certainly won’t fit in your Launer purse, begins with a wasp account of the memorial in 2006 for the Queen’s cousin, photographer Lord Lichfield, an event Brown was happy to attend (she sat at side of the aforementioned Tallon, in which In Kennington’s flat she would later see “a drapery of pearls which he claimed belonged to the Queen Mother” and many other “discarded trinkets…whether granted or stolen, everyone could guess it”). Brown carefully notes the appearance of the royal family on this occasion: the Duchess of Cornwall’s hat made her look like an air steward; a person might, she thought, have rooted “for truffles in the forests of bad teeth”. But understandably, she’s delighted at their pettiness, just as she’s delighted to learn that, afterwards, Andrew Parker Bowles (“a walking pink gin”) was seen snagging in his morning suit. on the tube. She’s interested in dust, not diamonds. It has the taste, one suspects it quickly, of the minor characters. The sad Norma Desmond-ish spaces these guys inhabit – Prince Andrew at home with his 50 teddy bears, many of them dressed as sailors; Princess Margaret complaining that she only wants to see pictures of her sister on postage stamps, not “horrible buildings, birds and things” – it’s so much fun to describe, after all. Much better than Highgrove Garden, anyway.

The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge. Photography: Max Mumby/Indigo/Getty Images

Thanks to all that, the bits about the Queen and Philip, and Kate and William, are a bit boring. The pace picks up as she analyzes the Duchess of Sussex, who I will always know now as number six on the roll call (Brown’s account of Meghan’s acting career – she watched it Suit audition tapes – going to be a huge hit with Piers Morgan). As Brown wisely says, calling your agent won’t help with primogeniture. But I think she’s at her best when she’s dealing with Andrew and Fergie and Camilla in the days leading up to her marriage to Charles. In these chapters, it suffices everything is either comical or horrific or both. In case you were wondering, Andy is the sadist. “What are you doing with that fat cow?” he asked a US media official who came to lunch with his ex-wife at their home, Royal Lodge, in 2015. The Queen’s middle son is so stupid and pompous that he once seriously threw the then Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, the idea of ​​reducing the number of traffic lights in the capital. The deep thought behind this master plan was that it would result in fewer red lights. He also thought the Queen Elizabeth II Conference Center should be bigger; God only knows why.

It is Camilla, however, who really fascinates Brown: her stoicism, her down-to-earthness, the fact that she once kissed Charles in front of her husband (it was in 1980, at a polo ball hosted by the heir to a meat fortune, Lord Vestey and it went on hours, Apparently). What drew her to Charles, a man whom Brown portrays as a spoiled, ruthless babe — and who, she can’t help but remind us, would be known as Prince Tampacchino in the Italian press? (Working.) What kept her by his side for so long? I would have stopped once I was done laughing my ass off at the revelation that the crown he wore for his investiture as Prince of Wales was topped with a gold-covered ping-pong ball. I guess it was the sex at first – “Pretend I’m a rocking horse,” young Camilla would have urged the sexually “shy” Charles – and then, later, it was the solace. She subsumed the role played in her life by the Queen Mother, “her mother’s steamed broccoli butter scone”.

Either way, this part of the book tears up enough, the bastard child of Jilly Cooper and Tom Wolfe. Like Queen Mary, who once said to a relative: “We [the royal family] are never tired”, Brown is quite inexhaustible. But as to what all that hard work has been for, exactly, I don’t know. Doesn’t she have anything better to do with her time than tell us – no, that’s not an understatement – ​​about Andrew’s six-foot-long ironing board? What about Charles’ preference for Kleenex Velvet toilet paper roll? Frankly. I’m ashamed for her. Cringe of the creak.

Palace papers by Tina Brown is published by Century (£20). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply

Tina Brown will be in conversation with Pandora Sykes at Conway Hall in London on Tuesday May 3

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