“The Queen And I” by Sue Townsend (1992)

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“The Queen was in bed watching television with Harris.”

It’s no good pretending otherwise. Despite my left-leaning political views and modern ways of thinking, I can’t help but retain a lot of admiration for the Queen. Her family, sure, but there’s something about her. What she’s really like as a person, we’re unlikely to know, but the snatches we see suggest an intelligent woman with a good sense of humour, a love of her family, and a firm understanding of her responsibilities. She was taught that above all, the crown comes first, and I find it impossible not to admire her as she has carried on her duties without public complaint for over sixty years. She never expected to become monarch, especially not at such a young age. Despite me having no real issues with her lot carrying on, one does sometimes wonder, what would this country be like if it became a republican nation? In 1992, Sue Townsend, more famous for creating Adrian Mole, gave us a suggestion.

Following on from the 1992 election, a republication party led by Jack Barker gets into power with plans to give everyone in Britain a fair and equal existence, and the first step of that is simple – remove the Royal Family. Given just a few days to clear their belongings out of their palaces, and with the Crown Jewels sold off to the Japanese, the Queen and her family find themselves suddenly living on a rough council estate in the Midlands. Their new home – dubbed by the neighbours as Hell Close – is far from the luxury they are used to and they now find themselves with the most deprived of society, with no money and no servants.

The Queen gets to know her neighbours who are instantly interested in the posh new residents – although new laws forbid them from treating the former royals as better than them – and enters into a world of difficulty. She’s never even had to put her own bra on, or open a door. Suddenly, she’s lost and alone, as Prince Philip refuses to leave his bed and the Queen Mother begins to lose her marbles in her bungalow. Some of the others, however, take to it slightly better. Prince Charles feels freed of his responsibilities to focus on his garden, William and Harry soon join the local children in terrorising the estate, and Princess Anne is so captivated by her new world that within minutes she’s unloaded the van and is plumbing in her own washing machine.

But the country, it seems, is having difficulty adjusting, and Prime Minister Barker’s plans require emptying the vaults of the Bank of England to make them a reality. With Philip becoming weaker and weaker, and Charles facing jail for attacking a policeman, the Queen struggles to retain the composure and dignity that she has been trained from birth to possess.

Sue Townsend, who died four years ago this week, was and remains one of the greatest comic writers the world, and Britain especially, has ever seen. Like Victoria Wood, she was naturally funny but her work contained so much pathos that everything seemed bittersweet. You feel for her characters and their struggle, and this has never been truer than here. The Royals, the Queen particularly, are portrayed with affection and even the jokes at their expense are still tinged with reality and you don’t feel any of it is acerbic. It’s just gently comical. Jibes are made about the fact that the Queen Mother has never had to open her own curtains, they have to have antique furniture destroyed to fit it into their new houses, and the Queen and Philip are horrified at having to share a bed. They are shown to be real humans and despite their sheltered upbringings, have retained compassion, some degree of understanding, and a sense of duty. In turn, the poor and downtrodden residents of Hell Close are shown to be loving and community-driven, even if their ways of expressing these ideals are not what many would expect.

Because the book is twenty-six years old, the Queen and her family are much younger than we know them now. There are also a few characters present who have long since disappeared – namely the Queen Mother, Princess Margaret and, of course, Princess Diana. Later that year in real world history, Charles and Diana would of course separate, but here they remain married, although it’s clear their marriage is on the rocks. A number of other characters are absent. Prince Andrew is mentioned in one throwaway line, and Prince Edward is hardly present either, currently working for a theatre in New Zealand. It’s also unclear what happens to the other minor royals and all other members of the aristocracy, as Barker’s vision for Britain is one of total equality.

Whatever you think of the Royal Family, this book is surely worth a read. Townsend portrays both ends of the social spectrum of Britain with charm, warmth and realism. Whether one day the British public will tire of being led by characters who seem to belong in a fairy tale remains to be seen, but personally I can’t see it ever happening.

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“The BFG” by Roald Dahl (1982)

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“Sophie couldn’t sleep.”

Back to Dahl this week, as I’m away this weekend and wanted to finish up a short book before I went away so I could take a new one. There seemed little that was more appropriate than another dip back into Roald Dahl with a small story about a big-hearted giant.

Sophie is an orphan and has a horrible existence in an English orphanage. One night, unable to sleep, she peeks out of the window into the witching hour and across the street sees an enormous creature peering into bedroom windows and using a trumpet to blow something inside. Before she can process any of this, the beast spots her, and before she knows what’s happening, she is in the giant’s pocket being spirited away at great speeds to a place she could never have imagined.

Her captor is the BFG – the Big Friendly Giant – who lives in Giant Country, scared of the other giants who are twice as big as he is and love nothing more than to eat “human beans”. The BFG, however, is much nicer, and he spends his days catching dreams in Dream Country and his nights blowing them into the minds of human children. Sophie, naturally, is appalled by the behaviour of the other giants, and sets a plan in motion to save humanity and make sure the giants can never eat anyone ever again. Her plan is ambitious, and involves speaking to the only human she thinks has the power to stop the killings…

You probably knew all of that, of course. The BFG is a childhood staple, and reading it again I found myself transported back into the mind of a child, more so than I did with the other Dahl’s I’ve read this year. While Sophie has no particularly remarkable features to set her aside from a generic child hero, except perhaps a bright mind and her kindness – she feels a rough version of Matilda who would come into existence six years later – the BFG provides a fun, engaging character. His use of language is, as he would say, phizzwizard and while there are plenty of made up words to entertain kids, there are some great malapropisms and mistakes, such as referring to fun and games as “gun and flames”. This novel also feels almost unique in the world of Dahl in that there is at least one adult who isn’t entirely useless – namely, the Queen. Although not named as the same Queen we know, it most certainly is supposed to be. It’s fun to see her in a fictional light and whether she would be so calm about discovering the existence of giants, we can only speculate, but I imagine she’s the sort of woman it takes a lot to fluster.

Despite, of course, being a book for children, there is an underlying message on how horrible humans are. The BFG says that giants don’t kill other giants, and humans are the only animals to kill their own kind. This isn’t strictly true, as many animals have been recorded murdering their own species – not least the cannibalistic spiders and mantises, but also meerkats and wolves – but it is true that these are often in cases of sexual dominance, or infanticide to give their own offspring a better chance of survival. Humans are indeed one of the very few species that kill other adults. It’s a big topic for a book of this sort, and I wonder how many children really ponder on this.

Despite the deeper themes, it can be read on a much more superficial level. It contains the perfect combination of magic, humour and horror that we’ve come to associate with Roald Dahl, and it’s well worth revisiting.

“The Uncommon Reader” by Alan Bennett (2007)

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“One has been enjoying Fifty Shades…”

“At Windsor it was the evening of the state banquet and as the president of France took his place beside Her Majesty, the royal family formed up behind and the procession slowly moved off and through into the Waterloo Chamber.”

With wind and rain lashing the south of England, and the skies the colour of a particularly nasty bruise, the only sensible course of action was to buckle down with a novella and hope that neither the roof blew off or lightning destroyed the shed. I headed for a book that hasn’t been on my shelf long, but I’ve been aware of and meaning to read for years. It concerns a very important woman indeed, and has a very important message.

In The Uncommon Reader, the main character is none other than Queen Elizabeth II herself. She has just discovered that a mobile library pops by the palace every Wednesday and, once aboard and exploring, decides to borrow a book. Although it isn’t that good, she reads it anyway and returns it the following week, taking another book with her. Soon she is mesmerised by the literary world, a world that until now she has rarely experienced.

Encouraged in her new passion by Norman Seakins, a skivvy from the kitchens (who soon recieves a rather hefty promotion), the Queen begins to devour books, finding within the pages of Proust, Dickens and Plath truths about the human condition that, in her priveliged position, she has never experienced. Her obsession begins to affect everything else. She becomes late for everything, has little interest in anything that keeps her from her books, and she is taking less interest in her appearance. She’s even learnt how to read and wave at the same time. The royal household is worried about what her new hobby is doing to her – reading, they suggest, excludes her from many of her subjects – and begin to take matters into their own hands.

More than anything, this is a love story to the written word. Reading and writing are both spoken of fondly, revealing to all the true magic and wonder that exist in the simple activities. The Queen makes for an excellent character and, while I’m a royalist anyway, I found myself even more enraptured with the notion of this mysterious old woman who rules the country and keeps herself to herself. The Queen is, of course, a very private person – by nature of her job, she has to be, really. As she says, she is not to have interests, but must be interested in everything. To see this side of her, no matter how ficticious it may be, is wonderfully interesting and brings her to life a little bit more. This Queen is sweet and duty-bound to a fault to perform the tasks asked of her, but she keeps an edge of steel that reminds you that even though she is a twenty-first century monarch, she’s definitely related to those royals of old.

The secondary characters make for interesting folk, too. Norman Seakins is a young man who doesn’t treat the Queen the way everyone else does, seeing her rather more as a grandmother figure than as his monarch. The Queen’s private secretary Sir Kevin Scatchard is less of a pleasant fellow, unable to see any good coming from the Queen’s new hobby. He gets his comeuppance in a brief scene when one realises that to deny the Queen anything is futile.

The ending tugged at my heartstrings a little, and made me somewhat sad, but otherwise this is a wholly charming and wonderful novella about the power of books and the passion people can (and should) have for them. It’s quite funny in its own way, and does very well to portray the Queen as a human being, with her own opinions, thoughts and feelings. I think sometimes we forget that behind closed doors, she must have her own ideas about things. We might never know what they are, but this book offers a tantalising glimpse of what might be happening behind palace doors.