Friday, August 28, 2009

The King and He

Ramadan, if nothing else, does make time for reading, and I've just finished a book that's both fascinating in its own way and a dramatic contrast to the glittering writing of Leo Lerman. It's the wartime diaries of Sir Alan "Tommy" Lascelles, who served the British royal family in various capacities for much of his long career from the '20s to the '60s.

During the war years, he was Private Secretary to the King, and from that vantage point he gives a thoughtful and acute insider's view of the waging and winning of the war, in both of which George VI played a substantial role. Unlike Lerman, however, who tells all most amusingly and occasionally with a sharp little twist, Lascelles is the perfect courtier, and frankly unless you have a genuine appetite for the minutiae of court life and an almost total lack of personal detail, you may find his unfailing discretion rather dull (given my own leanings, I of course was riveted from start to finish).

Despite (because of?) the lack of gossip, the author's own admirable character shines through. He was a highly intelligent man if not an intellectual, a music lover and voracious reader, and very much a gentleman of his class and time, one whose life seems to have been divided among court, clubs, and family, in something like that order.

There's only one moment when his mask slips ever so slightly, when you get the sense of how wearing at times it must have been to be advisor, confidante, factotum, and endless encourager of a King who, while he grew admirably into his role after his unexpected elevation in 1936, would never be described by an outside observer as the subtlest or most sophisticated of sovereigns.

It it is Boxing Day 1943 at Windsor Castle, and Lascelles has had an exhausting time of it facilitating communication between the King and his Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, at a time when it seems all too possible that Germany will launch a desperate final large-scale attack on Britain. A festive dinner, which included much in the way of royal jokes, charades, and capering, ran very late. In what is absolutely the only direct observation regarding his employer in some 300 pages, Lascelles ends his account of the day with:

"The King was wearing his tuxedo made of Inverness tartan, which is a source of much pleasure to him."

And in that one clipped sentence, I think, there is a lifetime of "Oh, my God, what is he going to do next," that I find funny and touching.

1 comment:

  1. You're a better and much more refined man than I, Muscato.

    If there's not a whiff of gossip or dirt, there's not a chance of me reading it.

    I will however recommend the tome to my dear friend John. He is an Anglophile, royal watcher, and voracious reader. He has entire bookshelves devoted to biographies of royals (including Aunt Alice, the enitre Saxe-Coburg House, the Oldenburgs, Tudors, Windsors, Schleswig-Holsteins, etc.) If he doesn't have it already, it sounds right up his alley.