Death of the whisper


How do you whisper in print? With an infectious mix of guile and panache, if you are a journalist in the British tradition. Other hacks might scream or giggle when salting their story, but nuance is an Anglo-Indian specialty. The diary, a staple of the English press, winks its way through social and political stories. The brevity of a diary item, paradoxically, provides a journalist with far more leeway to stretch a meaning than the long report. The implicit is always far ahead of the explicit, encouraging imagination to take it even further. The British press left little to imagination thirty summers ago, when reporting the most titillating fact of the wedding of the 20th century, between an excitingly pretty Diana and the jug-eared Charles, then and still heir to the British throne, in a royal wedding that had much of the old Empire agog with excitement and thousands of colonels drooling with nostalgia. The press reported, in a suitable whisper, that Diana had taken a virginity test, and all was well.
No one expected Charles to take a virginity test. That would be lese majesty. In the good old days – well, good for the sire in any case – the lord of the British manor would exercise his right to sleep with a bride on her first night while the groom comforted himself outside with either the company of friends or beer, whichever was less greasy. That privilege has disappeared with the onset of a more equitable era, but gender is not equal in the aristocracy. Girls were trained to make suitable marriages, and not bother their heads with education.
Chastity was not the preferred virtue of a royal stag. The male was, and actually still is, expected to throw his seed about a bit, with some inevitable consequences. The British aristocracy, with its belief in male primogeniture (the eldest son inherits everything, and siblings get a decent handshake) has never been a good advertisement for gender equality. British bookstores must be currently packed with anecdotal histories of royalty. Even if some have been embellished by the fertile excesses of authors in search of a quick buck, there are enough bastards in the narrative to invite the wrath of all Ten Commandments. Princes still enjoy the company of sidekicks like the Shakespearean Prince Hal’s Sir John Falstaff, even if today’s Falstaffs possess neither the wit nor extravagance of the flatulent old monster. The modern princely tavern is a nightclub, but the night offers the same vagrant pleasures to the male that it did five centuries ago.
The first laugh might belong to the prince, but the last laugh will be the prerogative of the princess. Diana was a virgin till she married Charles; after two children, she turned Charles into a virgin while she went on an international romp that sent media into hysterics, and threatened the British royal family with the prospect of its first child with Arab blood. British royals don’t do anger. Their lips are the stiffest part of their body, even at night. They are not afraid of rage. But they are terrified of ridicule. The 17th century Earl of Rochester’s famous put-down of Charles II (“Here lives a Great and Mighty Monarch/Whose Promise none relies on/Who never said a foolish thing/Nor ever did a wise one”) was only a smear, not a wound. It did not matter that Charles II did nothing wise, as long as he said nothing foolish. The frosty silence with which Diana’s lusty love affairs were treated helped preserve a dynasty that had peaked in entertainment value, but lost its dignity. While Diana’s death in a Paris car crash will be a permanent exhibit in the world museum of mystery, her sudden death must have come as a relief to a traumatised establishment destabilised by the fury of a scorned woman. Since British royals have had centuries of practice in disguising their relief, they did it well during Diana’s over-the-top funeral. Her husband Charles, surely the most famous cuckold on record, donned a mask of stone. Charles is blessed with blood, but not much luck: he has already waited 59 years to become Charles III and his mother is perfectly healthy.
The extravagant Diana changed the rules before she died. When her son Prince William gets married to Kate Middleton, a pretty lady of triumphantly middle class origins, on April 29, among the guests will be Kate’s ex-boyfriends. They will mingle with William’s ex-girlfriends. No one expects Kate to be a virgin, or indeed to have lost her virginity to William. Royalty has finally joined a Britain from which it held aloof for as long as it was possible.
There is no whisper in the British press, for Diana killed the whisper before she died.
The columnist is editor of The Sunday Guardian, published from Delhi, India on Sunday, published from London and Editorial Director, India Today and Headlines Today.