I have just spent fourteen hours in what felt like the close company of the Royal scribe Robert Hardman. Choosing to tackle his new book in audio rather than hard copy form was no great hardship, his is an easy voice to listen to. He narrates in a conversational tone and the listener is swiftly drawn into the chatty and gossipy world of the court. Hardman is determined to tell us what is going on behind the scenes at the new court of King Charles III and Queen Camilla, and I will confess to being a ready accomplice.
Robert Hardman has firmly established himself as the most authoritative of the current crop of Royal chroniclers. He has done this by building a good degree of trust with his subjects without, quite, falling into a level of obsequiousness that would invite mockery. It is however a fine line Hardman is treading. He is not quite the self-appointed “Gold Nib in Waiting” but neither do we expect any staggering intrusive revelation or exposé. If that was his business he would not achieve the level of access he does. Instead what we are treated to is a gentle but persistent pulling back of the curtains. He does not shy away from tackling the more sensitive issues, but neither does he question the purpose of the institution of Monarchy or its fundamental approach to its business. Hardman sets out to describe what is actually going on and he does this well.
There is much here that will be familiar to those who watched his recent BBC documentary on the year he spent with the King. It was interesting there and it is interesting here. There is much detail too on the Coronation and how it compared with the last one. Indeed there is perhaps too much detail about the last Coronation, comparisons with which feel almost pointless because it was such a long time ago. Some of the anecdotes from those closest to the King and Queen border on the “’cor it’s all amazing” variety and do not really add very much to the general picture. The Queen’s sister telling us she thinks the Queen is a good thing is an example of the banality those on Royal watching duty can sometimes slip into when recording insider views.
The comments from the Princess Royal on the other hand are particularly interesting. The more so because she is not prone to giving personal insights to journalists on her thoughts about her family or the institution. More of that and less of the other for future documentaries and books would be most welcome.
There is, as always with such accounts, much on the anxieties surrounding the transition from Elizabeth II to Charles III, what to do with the Dukes of York and Sussex, how to be different and yet provide continuity, how to support causes without provoking controversy. All this is well-worn and familiar territory.
The stuff about the smoothness of transition, so long a cause of angst and worry to Charles and his team, proved in the event a complete non-issue. Charles and Camilla have long been well-established, comfortable and familiar figures to the nation. This fact seems to have escaped the notice of Royal officials. Their assumption of the leading role seems as natural as it was inevitable.
The Queen has approached her new duties with a lightness of touch and a sureness of foot that has done the Monarchy proud and gives great pleasure to all those she comes into contact with.
We are all very familiar with the presence of the King in our nation’s life, his cares and concerns. He is an avuncular, warm and gentle figure. His occasional irascibility simply shows he’s human like the rest of us. Camilla clearly continues to enchant him and helps him shoulder his responsibilities. The nation as well as the King owes her a debt of gratitude.
Hardman brings into sharp relief the sheer scale of the business side of the operation. This aspect of Monarchy is a relatively new development. The scale of the charities, the number of properties, the financial complexity of managing all the land, houses and investments is a huge undertaking in and of itself. This is something that will require considerable further thought if it is not to overwhelm the institution itself. An advisor quoted as saying no more properties are needed clearly has the right instinct.
There must be a huge temptation to always be doing rather than just being. To create new charities and prizes rather than just stick to visits and ribbon cutting. The global reach of the institution must be very seductive, the immense convening power almost head-spinning. The institution needs to be business-like but must not turn itself into a business. Service not commerce is the purpose of Monarchy.
Too readily perhaps in the book Hardman accepts some of the whinges and gripes and accepted wisdom that hangs over the Monarchy like a fog. Its international aspects, for example, matter less than its domestic ones.
It is revealing, according to Hardman, that the Prince of Wales will not unduly mind if he is not automatically taken on as Head of the Commonwealth when his time comes. If this is correct Prince William is wise to not mind. It is sad to hear that the new Prince and Princess of Wales will not be using Llwynywermod, the house in Carmarthenshire the King bought and restored when Prince of Wales.
We are reminded here that it is often those who join the family – Philip, Camilla, Kate, for example – who bring it a much-needed energy and breath of fresh air. Much as Elizabeth Bowes Lyons did a generation before. Such joiners, not brought up to the incredible pressure and scrutiny, need to be looked after well. To their credit, both Charles and William seem to do just that with Camilla and Kate.
Once again Robert Hardman has delivered a most readable and interesting book. He has served his King well and his reading public proud. Long may he write for us.