“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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“Gimson’s Kings And Queens” by Andrew Gimson (2015)

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gimson“William I conquered England.”

The throne of our island has been occupied by forty-one individuals: a Stephen, a John, an Anne, a Victoria, two Marys, two Elizabeths, two Jameses, two Charleses, three Richards, four Williams, six Georges, eight Edwards and eight Henrys. You’ll usually find the number racks up at forty though, given the odd co-ruling of Mary II and William III, but you can expand the number further if you’re going to include Matilda and Jane. In short, though, the role of monarch is one that is held by very few people. In Andrew Gimson’s marvellous and entirely up-to-date new book, he spills the beans on every single person who has taken control of England (and later Britain) since 1066.

Gimson explores each monarch in turn, starting from William the Conqueror with his 1066 invasion, and passing on right up until Elizabeth II, dedicated two to ten pages to each king or queen. A brief biopic of each character is then laid out, going over their greatest achievements (if any) and biggest failings, what the public thought of them, how their legacy lives on, and how they got on with the rest of the family and dealt with other issues of war, religion, politics, disease, sex and money.

Some of the kings and queens featured you’ll know rather well. Victoria, Henry VIII, both Elizabeth I and II, and perhaps Richard III, are the most well-known of the people who have worn the crown, but they are far from the only ones who are interesting. It’s a great book for realising that there are may well be some pretty huge gaps in your knowledge of the royal family. You might know all about Henry VIII, sure, but did you know that his father Henry VII was responsible for providing the royals with immense riches, working more like an accountant than anything else? Did you know that William II was so hated by his people that he when he was found dead, people thought it was more likely murder than accident? Do you know which king had a head shaped like a pineapple, who was an avid stamp collector, and which queen had two phantom pregnancies, so desperate she was to believe that she could provide the country with an heir? And do you know anything about Henry IV or William III?

While the book doesn’t pull any punches with pointing out the utter stupidity of some of the monarchs, noting which ones had no interest in art and culture, and which ones were always in debt, it also doesn’t really write any of them off. They are all important to some degree or another (possible exception to be made for Edward V who ruled for just 78 days) and they paint a fascinating picture of the country as it evolved. Gimson’s even fairly nice about Oliver Cromwell in the short section about the country’s brief time as a republic, and while he doesn’t outright accuse Richard III of murder, he’s going to lay down the facts for you anyway and let you decide for yourselves.

I’ve always been something of a monarchist, really, perhaps just because I’m a sucker for this kind of traditionalism. I know a lot of people are for abolishing the monarchy, but in reality I don’t think the country would ever really go for the idea. I’ve always found it fascinating that it’s been the same family – with rather widespread branches from time to time – ruling the country for nearly one thousand years. They serve to unite our history as a people, ruling first England alone and then adding in Scotland under Queen Anne. Gimson discusses some of the ideas as to why it’s survived as it as in a final chapter.

If you’ve ever wanted to know more about the most interesting family in British history, or want a quick refresher course in who was who and who did what, then you can’t ask for more than this book. Sharp, funny, astute and hugely readable, this should be the glanced at by everyone. It’s especially poignant right now as, should Elizabeth II still be on the throne on the 9th September this year (that’s in six days at the time of writing), she overtakes Victoria as the longest-serving ruler in British history, an absolutely outstanding achievement.

So whether you’re mad for Mary I, crazy about Charles II, gaga for George V, or just think that Richard III was rotten, I advise you to take a look at this book and see if still feel the same after. Or even if you’re not enamoured, it’s almost worth it just for the excellent cartoons of each king and queen preceding each chapter.