This morning I was at Buckingham Palace, but I’ll admit I have yet to figure out what Buckingham Palace is, exactly. I got an ice cream from St. James’s Park and, so that I could better create moments for people around Buckingham, tried to sort out the history of this, as Neil Gaiman puts it, remarkably unpalatial palace.
It’s a dizzying history but I think I’ve sorted it out to something like this:
One thousand years ago, on a clear, autumn morning of 1066, a French duke (not an English duke) was collecting conches on his daily stroll of Normandy beaches, saw the shores of England glistening green across the channel, and because the saying, The grass is always greener on the side, hadn’t been invented yet, said to himself after some considerable thought, “That. That is what I want for Christmas this year.”
As far as I can tell, this Duke of Normandy next went to his horse stables, dropped the stirrups he had invented while trying to fasten them because he was laughing so hard, and while wiping away tears muttered to his squire, “They aren’t going to see this s*&t coming.” Then he kept on giggling while he and his army crossed the English Channel, while the Saxon knights rode up to meet him, and while those knights dismounted their horses and proceeded to the Battle of Hastings on foot. At this point, the Duke of Normandy stopped laughing, pressed his boots deep into the stirrups he had invented, leaned forward, and before the English knights could say Bob’s your uncle, their lips were wrapped around the business end of a lance.
Santa must not watch bad behavior as closely as the song hints at, because on Christmas Day in Westminster Cathedral, the Duke of Normandy was crowned William the Conqueror, King of England. To sum up what happened next: there were a few kings’ speeches and one thousand years later, William the Conqueror’s 24th great-granddaughter Queen Elizabeth the II sits on The Throne (not much of a game, after all) and calls Buckingham Palace home. And every morning a crowd of Americans gathers to peer through gates they will never pass through to watch British soldiers play American pop tunes on classical instruments.
So there I was, ice cream not yet licked for the depths of my thought, staring up at the palace, when who should approach but William the Conqueror’s 26th great-grandson, Prince William of Wales.
“Hiya,” said the Prince.
“All right, mate?” I answered in my best English-casual.
“You’re looking a bit lost,” he said.
“Seriously mate. Just a bit concerned. That’s all.”
“Well it’s your bloody palace that’s got me wound up, isn’t it?” I said.
The Prince turned and looked at his palace as if nobody had ever mentioned anything about his home except to ask how many servants were in the Queen’s employ, or if, with just the one glass slipper, Kate walked the halls at a slight diagonal.
“It’s theming it that proves difficult,” I continued. “I mean is it a history of war? Of rich vs. poor? Is it the remnants of an empire?”
“It’s a symbol of the glory of the English people,” Prince William said mechanically, then licked my ice cream. “Everybody needs something greater to aspire to.”
“So anyone who aspires to be royal can be king one day?”
“I’m afraid you have to inherit that one, mate,” he said.
“So I can own a palace one day?”
“Those techie billionaires couldn’t even afford the art, mate. Priceless, that. Are you going to finish that ice cream?”
“Can’t you see,” I said, “that it’s hard to fit Buckingham Palace in because at the end of the day all of the glamor and dazzle of English royalty is kept by one family’s line of first born children that goes back one thousand years to your great-great-great-granddad, who just happen to be better at war than the other dukes and earls fighting for the crown at the time. And it’s a bit difficult for me to believe that the sole representative of the English people is the position of Queen, which is the one position in the entire planet than not one of the English people can ever become no matter how hard they try.”
“The only thing I can see is that ice cream melting. Look mate s*&t or get off the pot with that thing.” Prince William raised his eyebrows. “Now you’re just being wasteful.”
“Would you forget about the bloody ice cream!”
“But it’s melting.”
“Yeah, mate. It is. And you know what? It’ll soon be gone, melted away, and I’ll throw away the cone and get a napkin and wipe it all off my hands and then find some bloody sink around here to wash my hands and nobody will ever know there was ever any bloody ice cream for a prince of bloody England to be so bloody worried about while I’m trying to have a serious bloody conversation.”
Prince William looked at the British, cloudless sky. He cupped his forehead with his hand to shade his eyes from the sun. “Have you ever heard the saying, The sun never sets on the British Empire?”
“It insults me you would even have to ask, Your Royal Highness.”
“And why is that?”
Prince William turned, and moved closer to me, so that the hand that shaded his eyes now shaded mine as well. “Because it isn’t true.”
I looked away, embarrassed at how close he was, and saw a woman walking her dog in St. James’s Park. It was a grey lab, or it could have been a Dalmatian, like in the movie when Pongo roles around in the ash to blacken his spots. “It isn’t?”
“No. It isn’t. We as an English People have, in fact, spent many nights alone in the darkness. But you’re right about one thing—you’re flimsy little ice cream is soon to be forgotten, wiped away with a dirty rag, swept away into the gutter with a dirty broom, no remnants except a dried sticky spot on your nose to remind anyone it was ever here. Do you know, Johnny, the real tragedy of World War I? It’s not that the world descended into darkness and that the English people lost an entire generation of young men. It’s that then it happened again. But we as an English people still stood. What of the The Great Plague that exterminated a quarter of London’s population? The English people still stood. What of Spanish Armadas who’s sea of ships and cannons eclipsed even the sea on which they sailed, ships that carried in their cargos the Spanish Inquisition and a forest fire of English Protestants burning at the steak. We still stood. What of Vikings and the sharpened blades of their axes? What of famine? What of sleeping in sewers as German bombers through their most advanced mechanizations of death at us and yet that palace behind me still stood because the English people still stood, and stood with dignity, and stood with splendor, and stood with radiating brilliance. And you’re bloody right, one family of English people stood beside them, holding their palaces and splendor and brilliance in trust, and the world saw that an English family, a family of the English people, stood in the dignity of what the English can accomplish through any adversity. But more important than that, those palaces are a symbol that we won’t be swept away by any dirty broom.” The Prince took a bold lick of my ice cream. “It’s not that the sun never set on the British Empire, it’s just that, because of our will of continuity, which that palace in front of you represents, it just never set for very long.”
“Oh. Yes. I’ll, um…I’ll get that into my journal immediately, Your Highness.
“It’s for your journal that you’re here?” asked the Prince.
Prince William looked at his feet. “Oh.”
“Is something wrong, sire?”
“It’s nothing, really.”
“Try singing it.”
“Well if it means that much to you that you would make such a silly request, then I’ll tell you, and you mustn’t tell. But I’ve always harbored dreams of becoming a travel writer one day. In fact, it’s all I’ve ever really dreamed about.”
“You’re going to be the king of bloody England, Billy.”
“Don’t take liberties. Only my family calls me that.’
‘If Captain Barbosa can call your great-granddad Bertie in The King’s Speech, then I can call you Billy.’
“That f*&kin movie ruined my life,” muttered the Prince.
“I can do Prince Billy, but I won’t go any lower.”
He sighed. “Deal.”
“And you can call me Prince Johnny.”
“I understand,” I said. “You aren’t used to speaking with commoners like me.”
“That’s it!” Cried Prince Billy. “That’s how you theme Buckingham Palace. That’s how you create a moment with it. Commoners can never be a part of the palace lifestyle…”He started.
“…And princes have everything except the one thing they want most, which is a normal London life,” I finished. So we check out the Buckingham Palace first thing, get an ice cream from St. James’s Park, and once the obligatory palace visit is out of the way, then we just walk into London, heading north into the city for…for…Marylebone High Street!”
“High Street, eh?’ said Prince Billy. ‘I have heard that’s where Londoners go about their daily lives. Then lead the way, and when I’m king, you’ll be knighted. I am next in line, you know.”
“I thought your dad, Prince Charles, was next in line.”
“S%*t,” muttered Prince Billy. “Keep forgetting about that.”
“You can call me Sir Johnny, though.”
“Then lead the way, Sir Johnny. Your prince commands it.”
“Just call me Johnny.”