Royal Wedding, Take Two: the sermon, the hats, the kerfuffle

We had planned for 20 guests, but in the end several who had promised to come to our royal wedding party found the early (or late) hour too much of a stretch. A dozen of our friends did make it over at 1:00AM California time this morning to watch the royal wedding. We offered tea and scones, Stilton and Plymouth gin. We had a wonderful time, enjoying the build-up as well as the ceremony itself. I tried to explain the intricacies of the British class system to our guests, but gave up; it was an overask for the middle of the night.

I’ve explained my fondness for the royal family before, noting the distinction between respect and undue reverence. Both American and British, I’m comfortable with moving in two different cultures — though I am certainly at my core more coastal Californian than anything else. (I feel more at home in L.A. than in London. But I feel more at home in London or Exeter or Durham than I do in Bakersfield or Baton Rouge or Boise. My thoroughly cosmopolitan wife feels much the same way.) My brother, raised as I was in the same places, feels English, and has chosen to make his home in the land that saved my father’s family from destruction.

I posted on Facebook about the wedding, and “live-tweeted” my response to various happy aspects of the ceremony (like Princess Beatrice’s splendid hat and Bishop Chartres’ wise homily). I was stunned by the vehemence of some of my friends and acquaintances who were not only uninterested in the goings on at Westminster (perfectly understandable) but nakedly hostile to the entire event. I knew it was coming: on this Feministe thread, some commenters were unhappy that a feminist blog celebrated the wedding uncritically. And a few Facebook friends of mine went further, insisting that progressive politics were fundamentally incompatible with affection for the monarchy. It got a bit heated.

I like Dan Hodges’ bit in the Guardian today: We needn’t be royal wedding party poopers just because we’re leftwing. Hodges wrote: What we saw today wasn’t a celebration of aristocratic privilege. It was a celebration of a shared heritage. A heritage that is owned as much by the left as by the right. I agree.

As for the sermon by the Bishop of London, it was splendid. My favorite bit:

Marriage should transform, as husband and wife make one another their work of art. It is possible to transform as long as we do not harbour ambitions to reform our partner. There must be no coercion if the Spirit is to flow; each must give the other space and freedom. Chaucer, the London poet, sums it up in a pithy phrase:

“Whan maistrie [mastery] comth, the God of Love anon,
Beteth his wynges, and farewell, he is gon.”

As the reality of God has faded from so many lives in the West, there has been a corresponding inflation of expectations that personal relations alone will supply meaning and happiness in life. This is to load our partner with too great a burden. We are all incomplete: we all need the love which is secure, rather than oppressive, we need mutual forgiveness, to thrive.

Bold mine. (And I’d add that this is true of any enduring commitment, including those between two people of the same sex. What is needed is the complementarity of spirits and hearts, not necessarily the complementarity of male and female.) We all need reminding that no other person can be the sole, or even primary, source of our joy.

Royal Wedding

Eira and I are hosting a small royal wedding party at our home on Friday morning. Kate and William are set to be married at 3:00AM Pacific time, and our gathering kicks off two hours earlier, continuing until the couple has returned to Buckingham Palace and we’ve been treated to the sight of the balcony wave. (For an earlier post on this particular union, see here.)

It’s fashionable to appear mystified at all the hoopla surrounding the Windsors. The right sort of people, especially on the left, are expected to engage in the customary round of eye-rolling about American Anglophilia and public laments about the continued cruel appeal of monarchy. It’s acceptable to be interested in the royals from an anthropological standpoint, or if your fascination is presented with a thick layer of ironic detachment. But to be genuinely moved by the pomp and circumstance, to be uncritically joyful — this is said to be a sign of an unreflective and vulnerable mind.

I’m not offering a Palinesque critique of the “cultural elite”. There’s much to question about the continued relevance of monarchy in the 21st century, particularly about the way in which it legitimizes enduring inequality. There’s also a great deal that’s right in the suggestion that what we do to the royals is cruel, a point Christopher Hitchens makes so eloquently in the second link above.

The Windsors don’t represent everything that is British, or even the best of Britain. But they are the public face of one aspect of that country and that people, one for which I am deeply grateful, as I wrote in this 2009 post:

My love for Britain isn’t rooted in ethnic heritage; on my mother’s side, I’ve got some ancestors from that sceptered isle, but far more from the continent. The love I have is rooted in many things, but perhaps most plainly in my family’s history. My paternal grandmother, Elisabeth von Schuh, was born in Vienna to a Jewish mother and a Catholic father; her husband, Georg Schwitzer (the spelling would later be changed) was born Jewish but converted to Catholicism when he married. My father was uncircumcised and baptized, but was ethnically 3/4ths Jewish; that latter fact would have meant a death sentence for him and the rest of the family following Hitler’s takeover of Austria in 1938. My grandfather, a gentle physician, wasn’t eager to leave; like many, he thought things wouldn’t “get that bad” for Viennese Jews (who were used to anti-Semitism as a political prop.) My late grandmother knew better, and she explored every avenue she could to get the family out.

It was Great Britain that welcomed in my father’s family. Not the USA (my grandmother tried that option). Not France (lucky, too, given what would happen to French Jews during the war.) The only door that opened was for Britain, which was willing to take certain Jewish professionals, especially doctors. The family escaped just before the outbreak of World War Two, and after a brief period in London, settled in what was then Berkshire and is now Oxfordshire, in a place called Fawler Manor just outside of Kingston Lisle. Though my grandfather was briefly interned as an enemy alien, he was eventually released and allowed to practice medicine. While my grandmother and her children stayed in the south, he went to work as the staff doctor at the refinery in Ellesmere Port, Lancashire — where he would die in a car accident in 1947. Continue reading

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Kate, William, Charles, Diana, and Camilla: a note about love, age, progress and compatibility

Count me among those who felt a twinge of excitement when the news broke Tuesday of the long-awaited engagement between Prince William and Kate Middleton. This excitement has very little to do with being a British citizen. For all intents and purposes, I am culturally American — but Americans have a long-standing fascination with the House of Windsor and their goings-on, and in that regard I am no different from most.

I can’t help but do what so many are doing, which is compare this engagement announcement to the one that came nearly thirty years ago from William’s parents, Charles and Diana. As I’ve written before, I was not quite fourteen when I first saw the future Princess of Wales on television, and I promptly fell into the strongest and most passionate celebrity crush of my adolescence, surpassing even Kristy McNichol. Like millions of others, I stayed up all night on a warm summer evening in July 1981 to watch live coverage of the royal wedding from London. I was absolutely captivated, my normal pubescent cynicism replaced by wide-eyed and unabashed romantic fascination. I never quite lost my fascination with Diana over the years, and when I learned of her death (in Manchester Airport, just after I had arrived in the UK to give a paper) I was rocked to my core. Though it always surprises people when I say it, I consider the events of 9/11 to be only the second most shocking news event of my life; the first happened four years earlier in a Paris tunnel.

In 1981, much was made of Diana’s purported virginity. Much was also made, but hardly ever in a critical way, of the age gap between Lady Spencer and Prince Charles. He was 32 when they were engaged, she had just turned 19. And much would be made, in retrospect, of their painful awkwardness together, including their infamous answers to an interviewer who inquired whether the couple were very much in love; Diana offered a blushing “Of course”, Charles, a devastatingly diffident “Whatever love is.” As we would eventually discover, he was already very much in love with the woman to whom he is at last now married, Camilla Parker-Bowles.

The difference between the Charles/Diana and William/Kate engagements — and more importantly, between the relationships themselves — says a great deal about the evolution of our society in the past thirty years. Very few people think Kate Middleton is a virgin, and no one in their right mind likely cares. Equally important is the difference in the narrative arc of the two courtships: Diana and Charles were the poster children for rushing into something, while Kate and William have been very much young people of their generation, showing no interest in hurrying to the altar. As most folks know, the young couple have dated for eight years since meeting at university, and took a much-publicized “break” along the way. A great many young people in the Western world today will be able to identify with such an extended courtship that has had such obvious ups-and-downs. The sensible modern idea that sexual compatibility should be determined before marriage, and deep intimacy already established before walking down the aisle, is made manifest in the story of newly engaged couple. This is to be applauded.

And of course, I’m pleased that we’ve got a marriage between chronological peers. While Diana was thirteen years Charles’ junior, Kate is six months older than William. I’ve made the case again and again that older men/younger women relationships, for all their culturally-constructed allure, are frequently problematic, even exploitative. This is especially true when the younger woman is below, say, the age of 25 while the man involved is a decade or more her senior. (As was very much the case with Charles.) It certainly ended disastrously for Diana, not merely because her husband was unfaithful, but because she and the Prince of Wales were, like so many other age-disparate couples, manifestly incompatible. It’s no surprise that the great love of Charles’ life, Camilla Parker-Bowles, was his same age (actually, as with Kate and Wills slightly older than the prince.)

While attraction, fueled by fantasy and need, can offer flourish across a significant age divide, deep and enduring romantic compatibility can rarely survive that divide when the younger partner hasn’t even reached full adulthood. (And the rental car companies are right — most of us, as the brain research suggests, need until our mid-twenties to hit that full adulthood.) Charles lacked the courage to push against the culture and the palace in order to marry the woman he loved, but the heartbreaking example of his tragic first marriage seems to have made a considerable impression on his elder son and future daughter-in-law. Kate and William, despite colossal media pressure, have allowed their relationship to unfold slowly, have allowed themselves their very public doubts, and have built a bond based on both the eros and shared experience of the sort that is really only possible with a generational peer.

As a feminist, I worry for Kate — but I’m hopeful as well. Diana tried to fashion a more modern vision of royalty, and met with spectacularly mixed success. Middleton will face tremendous pressure to conform to a traditional ideal, and the fear is real that she may find her individuality disappearing behind the royal veil. But if she and William can be as different from his parents in their married roles as they were in their engagement process, then there is real hope that she can be a more modern and egalitarian icon than we’ve yet seen.

So here’s to their marriage, but more so, here’s to the route they’re taking to get there.

Budget disaster in Britain

My younger brother and I are both college professors at public institutions: I at Pasadena City College, and Philip at the University of Exeter in England. I’ve been teaching full-time since 1994, and Philip has been at Exeter since 2001.

California higher education is in dire straits, to be sure. But it’s nothing like what my brother and his colleagues and students are coping with in Great Britain, where teaching budgets are set to be slashed by a flabbergasting 80% by the new Conservative-Liberal Democrat government. There had been some suggestion that universities would be able to raise fees substantially in order to offset the cuts, becoming essentially private (similar to the strategy used successfully at the flagship campus of the University of Michigan). That strategy seems to have been dashed by the junior partner in the governing coalition, the Liberal Democrats.

The future is very frightening for higher ed in Britain, particularly outside of the relatively financially stable “Oxbridge” institutions. British universities don’t have strong alumni backing the way universities in the States do. If the universities have their budgets slashed by the Tories in the name of austerity, and then are prohibited by the Lib Dems from raising fees substantially in the name of fairness and accessibility, then things will be very bleak indeed.

My father did his undergraduate degree at the University of Reading and later taught briefly at York. My brother, whose heart belongs to Albion in a way that mine doesn’t, is committed to staying and raising his three kids in England. But it is a sobering and sad thing that is unfolding. And as dark as things have been lately in the Golden State, we are far from the worst off.

The UK ought to stay left

One note on the UK general election. Though the Conservatives have finished as the largest party, it’s worth noting that well over half of the UK electorate voted left-of-center. Add the vote totals for the Liberal Democrats, Labour, and the Greens and you’ve got nearly 55% of the national vote. Throw in the left-leaning Celtic nationalist parties like Plaid Cymru (Wales), the Social Democratic and Labour Party (Northern Ireland), and the Scottish National Party, and the number creeps closer to 60%. Put together a coalition of Liberals and Labour plus the single Green MP and the Ulster/Wales/Scotland left-leaning nationalists, and you’ve got a working majority in the Parliament.

From that perspective, on what basis could the centre-right Tories claim a mandate to govern? The right — defined by the Conservatives, the xenophobic United Kingdom Independence Party, and the loathsome racists in the British National Party — are together at about 40% of the vote, while nearly six in ten voters in the UK want a left-of-center government.

They ought to have one.

And for what it’s worth, I do appreciate that Conservative leader David Cameron — who believes in cap-and-trade, who believes in legalizing same-sex unions, who believes in supporting the single-payer National Health Service — is in some respects to the left of Barack Obama.

Here endeth the politics.

A note on the UK Election — and on gratitude for Britain

Too much to get done today, and not enough time in which to do it. If I have any readers in the UK who have not yet voted, I urge a tactical vote against the Conservatives wherever possible. Here’s a good guide as to how to do that.

My nearest and dearest in Britain are voting Green; were I there, I would likely cast my vote for the Liberal Democrats. I like the latter party’s commitment to environmentalism, civil liberties, and capitalism with a human face. And from a psephological perspective, I am passionate about proportional representation and instant run-off voting, the sort of innovations that strengthen democracy and which only the Lib Dems support.

My brother and I were born in the States to an American mother and to our father, the son of Austrian war refugees who had spent his childhood and young adulthood in rural Oxfordshire. My father was 24 when he emigrated to California; he lived in the States for two-thirds of his life. But he was always culturally English. In one of those curiosities of families, my brother Philip (whose most recent book has just been released) always felt more at home in the UK than in America. More or less the first chance he got, he moved to the land our father called home; my adored younger sibling has been a professor at the University of Exeter for the past decade.

For reasons I’ve written about before (here and here and here), I’m most at home in California, particularly in L.A. But I love Britain, and I never forget that in my father’s family’s darkest hour, as the Nazis closed in after the Anschluss in 1938, it was Britain (not America) that gave them safe refuge. It was the British government who made it possible for my Viennese-born father to grow up milking cows on a bucolic farm near Wantage rather than perish in Auschwitz, as many other relatives did.

My late father made his life in America: two marriages, four children, a fine university career that spanned more than four decades. What stood out about him to so many was his astonishing gentleness, his kindness, his sincere interest in other people. The best aspects of him were, in no small part, nurtured by the people he grew up with. He never forgot the simple figures of his childhood; the dairymen and teachers and shopkeepers who welcomed his family and let him know, in no uncertain terms, that he — a half-Jewish refugee — belonged. I heard their voices in his, and still do.

I carry a British passport as well as an American one for many reasons. Not least to honor that heritage, and to honor those people — who in some way are my people — whose simple decency saved my family and formed the man who did so much to form me.

My father’s parents are buried in the tiny village of Kingston Lisle, a half-hour from Oxford, in the Vail of the White Horse. We recently had their graves restored. The names Georg Clemens Schwyzer and Elisabeth von Schuh might seem out of place there, a splash of the Teutonic in this very English graveyard. But England made them welcome, so very welcome, in life. And they remain so in death.

A note on Diana and “The Queen”

It’s a rainy morning here in Pasadena, I’m behind on a great deal of paperwork (anyone who has been in my cramped, messy office can understand why), and I’m adjusting to posting here at the new blog.

I’m way behind on my emails. My wife and I were away with my family in Northern California for the Thanksgiving holiday, and I didn’t check my inbox until yesterday afternoon. It will be a while before I get back to everyone who’s written. Thanks for understanding.

I promise a more serious post later today — about race, class, affirmative action, and student essays for college admission — but for now, a note about the film The Queen. We saw it last night and loved it; Helen Mirren was marvelous, of course, but Michael Sheen’s Tony Blair nearly stole the picture. Sheen bears only a slight resemblance to the PM, but he nailed his mannerisms and the inflections in his voice, particularly when stirred up or excited. It’s a marvelous picture. It’s at movies like this that I remember that one of the gifts my late father gave his children was the right to a British passport. My brother, alone among the four of us, chooses to make his home in England, but the rest of us feel at least some attachment to the nation that gave my father’s family refuge in the darkest days of the 1930s. I am Her Majesty’s subject, and have the documents to prove it.

The film, of course, deals with the immediate aftermath of Princess Diana’s death in the late summer of 1997. As luck would have it, I flew into Manchester Airport on the very day Diana died — Sunday, August 31. I was traveling to a medieval history conference at Durham University, and had to drive the several hundred miles from Manchester to Durham in the pouring rain. It was my first experience of driving on the “wrong side” of the road, and to do so in a downpour, jet-lagged, while listening to the BBC coverage of the terrible accident and its aftermath was positively surreal. It was an amazing thing that my life didn’t also end on the same day that Diana’s did!

I was 14 when Diana and Charles married; six years younger than the Princess, I had an almost obligatory crush on her from the time their engagement was announced in February 1981. I was exactly the right age to be mesmerized by her. I followed her story for years and years, and like many, was saddened by the divorce. (The separation from Charles came in the Queen’s annus horribilis of 1992, the same year my first wife and I split up.) And I can say without question that if the 9/11 terrorist attacks are the single most shocking event of my lifetime, Diana’s death in that Paris tunnel ranks a close second. No shuttle explosion, no assassination attempt, no earthquake — no other historic happening is as vivid in my memory as those stunning days in 1997.

I signed two condolence books: one in Durham, and one in Carlisle. In one day, after the conference let out, I drove all over the north of England, seeing everything from the Lake District to Hadrian’s Wall to Fountains Abbey to York. I gave a paper at the conference (it ended up being published here), but I barely remember what the damn thing was about. That week was about Diana and the extraordinary reaction to her death.