Kate Chisholm

The nature of power

The weirdest moment on A Royal Recovery (Radio Four, Tuesday)...

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The weirdest moment on A Royal Recovery (Radio Four, Tuesday) was not hearing the astonished reaction of the Palace to the dramatic flip in public opinion in the days and weeks following the death of Princess Diana or the simmering hostility and blatant criticism of the Queen from Joe Public, but listening once again to the gushing tones of TB. He already sounds like yesterday’s man. The former PM must surely have regretted that all-too-quotable ‘the people’s princess’, but we were also reminded of a later occasion when he toasted the Queen at a formal lunch to celebrate her golden jubilee in 2002. ‘I am as proud as proud can be to be your prime minister today,’ he drooled with not a trace of estuary English, ‘offering this tribute on behalf of the country. You are our Queen. We respect and cherish you...You are simply the best of British.’

What was striking was the astonishing insubstantiality of his words, as if he was too overwhelmed by the occasion to remember his own position as PM vis-à-vis the monarch. In contrast, the Queen’s response was measured, unemotive and derived from the wisdom of generations: ‘Consent, or the lack of it, is expressed for you, Prime Minister, through the ballot box. It is a tough, even brutal system. But at least the message is a clear one for all to read. For us, a royal family, however, the message is often harder to read, obscured by deference, rhetoric or the conflicting currents of public opinion.’

The Queen and her advisers had together come up with something that was not just meaningful to her audience at that particular moment, but was also a truth about the nature of power. To paraphrase the words of an earlier Elizabeth, she has had good experience of this world and knows what it is to be a sovereign.

In A Royal Recovery, The Spectator’s editor dissected the troubles that had assailed the monarchy ten years ago, and through interviews with those who were working at the Palace showed how genuinely puzzled the royal family had been by the ferocity of the attacks on them in the media, reflecting the odd mood that had erupted within the nation, and especially in London. The edginess, the emotional instability were tangible even on the Tube, as thousands of people travelled across town clutching those cellophane-wrapped bouquets. But it was far more palpable to Penny Russell-Smith, the deputy press secretary, and Mary Francis, assistant private secretary to the Queen, who had to walk through the crowds outside the Palace to reach their offices inside. The Palace staff were puzzled and shocked. Not fearful, but very aware that something must be done.

The Queen immediately set about repairing the damage, even at the cost of her own private concerns for her two grandsons. What an ordeal it must have been for them to have to behave with such decorum (and restraint) at the funeral of their mother. But the commonalty needed a public exhibition of grief, a grand occasion, an outlet for their emotions. And the Firm came up trumps, in six days planning an impeccable event, not a circus for the crowd but a satisfying collective experience.

Since then there has been a subtle rewriting of the contract between the monarch and her people, dependent not on mystique and the divine right but on another kind of aura — based on their access to the kind of ‘celebrity’ only institutionalised privilege can bring. It’s been quite a sleight of hand, as even the arch-republican and Guardian columnist Jonathan Freedland was forced to concede to Matthew d’Ancona.

Another kind of celebrity was hailed a couple of hours later, also on Radio Four, as Navid Akhtar profiled the great Qawwali singer Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, who died ten years ago on 16 August (also the date on which Elvis died 20 years earlier). You may have heard his haunting voice on the Oscar-winning soundtrack to Dead Man Walking, or in Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ, for which the Sufi singer recorded a special Qawwali (or ‘utterance’) for the moment when Christ dies on the Cross. Nusrat’s achievement was to appeal to both Eastern and Western audiences, probably because of the sheer emotional power of his singing.

Nusrat Was My Elvis took us from his home in Lahore, filled with pink sofas and signed photographs of himself with stars like Mick Jagger and Peter Gabriel, to Birmingham, where his performances in the 1980s, often in private homes transformed for the occasion with white sheets on the floor and incense burning, inspired the newly emerging British Asian sound (Nitin Sawhney was a disciple, whom you may have heard at the BBC Proms recently).

It often takes quite a while to find your way into the wailing, often strained, high-pitched singing of Qawwali. But once you do it’s an extraordinary experience, especially with a singer like Nusrat, whose emotional involvement, whether in praise of God, the prophet Mohammed, or the Sufi poets of India, was so intense that his audiences fell into a kind of trance-like state. Grown men have wept.