For queens and country

Why gay men love the royals

The phone went in the middle of it. I answered. “What’s that?” my friend said, without preamble. I didn’t even pretend I didn’t know what he was talking about. It was 2018. I was watching the marriage of Princess Eugenie of York to a bloke called Jack. I was also feverishly hunting through Suzy Menkes’ classic book The Royal Jewels in search of what had baffled me, and obviously baffled my friend too: the tiara she was wearing.

“I’ve no idea,” I said. “Never seen it before.”

“Russian?” he said. “Look at the size of that emerald up front.”

“There’ll be security guards hovering at the reception, making sure Granny gets it back,” I said.

“Granny’s never worn it,” he said. “To my certain knowledge. It’s the old story of that Brazilian aquamarine tiara all over again, stick it at the back of the cupboard, forget you ever had it.”

“It couldn’t be new?”

“She’s not splashed out on a new tiara since that hideous Burmese one with the rubies,” he said. “No, she’s found it, believe you me. But what is it? Oh hush now, Huw Edwards is reading out one of his file cards. Ooh.”

“Ooh,” I said. “Mrs Ronnie Greville’s tiara. Left it to Queen Elizabeth in 1942. Never worn it.”

“Fancy,” he said.

As the Queen celebrates her Platinum Jubilee (“so unflattering, loathe the stuff,” my friend said), the time has perhaps come to ask an urgent question. Why is it that gay men, in very large numbers, are simply obsessed with HM? You can keep a gay dinner party going for hours by asking the right question, whether about tiaras, the cakes served at royal garden parties, HM’s health, living arrangements, relations with public figures or the footmen, or opinions about almost anything. (“Well, I’ve always heard that she never spoke to Harold Wilson again after that.”)

We hoard up stories told to us by people who heard them from somebody who was definitely in the room at the time. We skip off Fringe-visiting duties at the Edinburgh Festival to go with minute, leisurely scrutiny through the G-plan interiors of the Royal Yacht Britannia, berthed at Leith. We have long, detailed, happy dreams in which Her Majesty walks with us as a close, confiding friend with a marvellous brooch. We were first in the queue when Buckingham Palace opened to ordinary tourists. We long for the day when you can go on tours of Balmoral – that sentence on the Balmoral website, “the Ballroom is the only room available to visitors – all other areas are Her Majesty’s private residence,” is like a dagger to the disappointed heart.

Now, of course, this doesn’t go for all gay men. Some of them voted for Jeremy Corbyn, would only go to Balmoral for the hiking and couldn’t identify the Girls of Great Britain and Ireland Tiara if it was presented to them on a plate, bless them. All the same, the enthusiasm and energy expended by many gay men in wondering about Her Majesty is quite remarkable, and one which has helped define her reign.

In extreme cases, this has led individual gays to go and work for the royal family. Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother led the way. When her page Billy Tallon went to work at the Court in 1951 at the age of fifteen, he had already been writing to them, begging for a job, for five years. His long-term boyfriend, Queen Elizabeth’s footman Reginald Wilcock, was the inspiration for the totally apocryphal tale in which his employer asked them, as one old queen to two others, if somebody could bring her a drink. Other famous examples at Court include Diana Wales’ butler Paul Burrell, whose hyperventilating when the Queen intervened in his criminal prosecution for theft quickly inspired catty impersonations all over Soho and Vauxhall. Gay associates of Princess Margaret, of which there were many, often derided her, taking their lead from her husband Lord Snowdon, who once left a note in her glovebox reading “You look like a Jewish manicurist.” Francis Bacon, invited to a party where Princess Margaret accepted an invitation to sing, disrupted the occasion by booing her.

It is, however, the Queen that gay men return to obsessively. They are certainly capable of mounting grand speculations about the real sexual predilections of the men around her – I think at one point or another some queen or other has implausibly assured me that nine different male members of her immediate family are definitely gay. Most of the energy, however, goes into maintaining that curious tone of mockery and awed deference that Proust captures so well when the Baron de Charlus comments on the fan that the Queen of Naples forgets at a reception. “Oh how moving… it is all the more touching for being so hideous; the little violet is incredible!”

“Oh, the Queen’s marvellous,” her long-term dresser “Bobo” Macdonald is supposed to have said. “She’s the only person who can walk downstairs putting a tiara on. She does it by touch.

A friend in the 1960s was apparently granted the privilege of saying to her “You can’t possibly wear shoes like that.” A million observers, a lot farther away than these intimates, have taken the opportunity of discussing her shoes and handbags at great, derisive length (couturiers, according to Ben Pimlott, were in the past reduced to handing over accessories as presents in total despair). We phone each other up during royal weddings, moved and supplying running commentary. (On the morning of the Cambridges’ wedding, a friend texted me at 8am to say, “I’m watching the BBC and a royal correspondent has been despatched to a housing estate in Newcastle to interview a shirtless man who is drinking vodka from the bottle.”) We love her, we deeply admire her for the most part, and we have decidedly caustic views on her shoes, hats, bags and the Tupperware boxes she apparently uses to preserve her cornflakes at breakfast.

The category all this falls into is, of course, camp, of which gay men are not the sole possessors, but certainly the primary guardians. Camp is like a flirtation; it means and yet does not mean what it says, like someone testing the possibility of love by stating love in a way that could be withdrawn. In the case of camp, we admire what may be hideous; we are enraptured by what we laugh at; we don’t mean what we say, and yet we mean it with all our hearts. Camp is camp because its meanings prove impossible to pin down. Do we, as gay men, identify with the Queen because, like us once, she is not allowed to say what she thinks and feels? Or do we like her because, as Quentin Crisp thought, we are inexhaustibly interested in other people’s lives, and of all people’s lives, hers is least like ours?

Not everyone feels like this. The 70 years of Her Majesty contain the 50 years that Pride has been running, too, and nobody knows how she feels about that. Peter Tatchell was invited, this year, to be among the National Treasures who will appear on stage at the climax of the Jubilee celebrations, and unhesitatingly refused, complaining about her lack of support for lesbian and gay causes, and her apparent refusal to allow the same-sex partners of her staff to attend social functions at the Palace. Everything he says is true, and I don’t suppose many gay men actually care that much.

Of course, all this is immensely silly, and without the slightest justification in thought, serious consideration or constitutional significance. But it is strange to reflect that the silliest of their day survive and, like Evelyn Waugh, are often found to have told more truth than serious observers. There is a fundamental truth about the hideousness of the Queen’s handbags that there is not, for instance, about the foreign policy statements mulled over by her successive governments. Who is to say which is more important in the long term? For the moment, the Queen is serving her purpose, which is to let people speak their minds and say what they really think. The other day, a long, idle, fey afternoon conversation turned to the question of Her Majesty’s eventual demise. “Oh,” a friend said enthusiastically. “I think about the funeral all the time. It’s going to be amazing. I can’t wait.” And then he popped his hand over his mouth, appalled at what he had just said. But it was out there, and the silly cow had definitely meant it, and some of us could only laugh. 

Philip Hensher’s most recent novel is “A Small Revolution in Germany” (HarperCollins). His new novel, “To Battersea Park”, comes out from 4th Estate in 2023

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1 Comment. Leave new

  • Roderick Keegan
    June 4, 2022 9:38 am

    Brilliant! I’m reminded of Arthur Marshall’s accounts of his frequent dreams of teatime (à deux) with HMQ. Hot buttered toast, Cooper’s Oxford marmalade: ‘Conversation flows, and we ROAR!’

    Reply

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