Today (November 20) in London History – “the fierce light which beats upon a throne”

For some reason November 20th is a date that “hosts” important royal goings-on. This Today in London History podcast tells the tale.


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London Walks here with your daily London fix.

Story time. History time.

To paraphrase George Orwell, all iron filings are created equal. But some are more equal than others.

Or another way of putting that, there are iron filings and then there are royal iron filings. Which is by way of introducing November 20th. November 20th is one of those dates. It’s a magnet date. But not any old ordinary magnet. November 20th is a date that attracts royal iron filings.

Let’s go there. It was on November 20th, 1947 that Princess Elizabeth and the Duke of Edinburgh were married. It was on November 20th, 1992 that Windsor Castle caught fire. It was a conflagration. It burned for 15 hours. It destroyed 115 rooms. Nine of those 115 rooms were State Rooms. 1992 was the 40th anniversary of the Queen’s accession. In wedding terms the 40th wedding anniversary has always been synonymous with the ruby, the fieriest gemstone of them all. How very appropriate. In so many ways. Because Queen’s accession was a wedding of sorts – and the 40th anniversary was pretty much a conflagration. Or so the Queen told us – though she used a different phrase. Four days later – in a speech at Guildhall to mark the 40th anniversary of Her Majesty’s accession – the Queen said it had been an annus horribilis. A horrible year. Let’s play the hand of disastrous face cards Her Majesty was dealt in the annus horribilis. There was Prince Charles’s and Princess Diana’s royal tour to India in February. And one moment of that tour in particular. A never to be forgotten moment because it was photographed. I’m talking of course about the image of Diana all by herself in front of the Taj Mahal.

The princess’s isolation – what the near future held for her and Prince Charles’ marriage – there it was, prefigured, in that iconic image.

Then a month later Prince Andrew and Sarah Ferguson announced their separation.  That was followed, in April, by the divorce of Princess Anne and Mark Philips.

May was the lull before the June storm of the publication of Andrew Morton’s sensational biography, Diana, Her True Story. 

And then in August, more royal scandal, more dirty royal laundry. Namely the photograph of Texan John Bryan sucking Fergie’s toe. The which was followed a few days later by the so-called Squidgy-gate scandal – namely the publication of a recorded conversation between Princess Diana and James Gilbey in which she hung life in the royal family out to dry. Well, her life in the royal family at any rate.

And to cap it all, the Windsor Castle fire. Except it didn’t cap it all. There was also controversy over the announcement by the Secretary of State for National Heritage that public money would be used for the Windsor Castle repairs. And in that same month, the announcement that come 1993 the Queen would pay income tax for the first time. So, yes, at Guildhall the Queen said of 1992: “not a year on which I shall look back with undiluted pleasure.”

And now, 30 years later, virtually to the day, all of that’s coming back, we’re all revisiting it – and more – thanks to the just-released Season 5 of The Crown on Netflix. I say “and more” because the new season also made much of Princess Margaret’s woes, her sister’s preventing her from marrying the love of her life, Group Captain Peter Townsend. 

And that was just 1992. Bad as 1992 was the annus horribilis was by no means the end of the nightmare for the British royal family. And sure enough, it was our date again, November 20th, that was cutting up rough. Three years later – 1995 – it was on November 20th that the shocking Diana Panorama interview was aired. 

The interview was filmed on November 5th. Yes, November 5th of Guy Fawkes fame. And sure enough the episode is called Gunpowder. And no question but that interview was an explosion. It well and truly blew things up. Diana’s looking at the camera with those big doey eyes and telling us – telling the world – that “there were three of us in this marriage, so it was a bit crowded” that was fuel on the flames. As was her saying she doubted she’d ever be queen but hoped to be queen of people’s hearts. Let alone her admitting her own affair with James Hewitt. 

November 5th…November 20th…Guy Fawkes…the explosive Panorama interview…the Windsor Castle Fire…all of that seems to have been in everybody’s sights. But it looks to me as though the Queen’s and Prince Philip’s wedding anniversary also falling on November 20th somehow went under the radar. Maybe not but I had a good look at the coverage of the Panorama interview in the Times and the Telegraph and there was no mention in either paper that the programme had been aired on the Queen’s wedding anniversary.

Thanks to a simple arithmetic error I had a serious frisson for a moment about all of that. For a minute I miscounted and thought November 20th, 1995 was the Queen’s 47th wedding anniversary. And it turns out that for number 47 the traditional theme is anything relating to gardening and plants. And sure enough there’s a fair old bit of gardening going on in Season Five of the Nextflix series. Prince Charles is shown planting trees. On another occasion the Queen is shown wiping the leaves of a houseplant. And all of that connects up of course with that phrase that gets used to describe, in one instance Prince Philip and in another instance, Group Captain Peter Townsend. Princess Margaret says of Townsend, he was my sun and my water. And the same thing is said about Prince Philip – he was the Queen’s sun and water. 

Well, yes, that was too good to be true. I’d miscounted. 1995 wasn’t the Queen’s 47th wedding anniversary. It was her 48th. But it was a nice thought – a frisson thought – while it lasted.

But all was not lost. Back to the quarry I went and sure enough the gemstone associated with 48 is the amethyst. Its purplish and reddish hues are said to represent the chastening and purifying effects of suffering. Some believed the colours alluded to the wounds and suffering of Christ. Thus, amethysts were used to aid the healing of wounds. Well, that interview – and those troubles in general – no question about the suffering therein. 

And how’s that old saying go, a trouble shared is a trouble halved. Diana sharing her woes with several billion people very likely provided some easement. For her if not for husband and his family. 

There are other associations and coincidences that further charge that extraordinary moment in royal history. To wit: Diana was interviewed in her sitting room in Kensington Palace. That room would later become the play den for Princes William and Harry. Still later Prince William would say that he hoped the interview would never be aired again. But of course in a sense it has, thanks to the Netflix recreation. And as long as we’re at it – thinking about all those complications and sorrows and failings and troubles but also seeking solace and love and gardening and sun and water and domestic scenes – how moving is that scene of Camilla Parker Bowles playing a card game with her children and her husband and the phone ringing and her husband takes it and it’s Prince Charles and her husband, doubtless knowing full well what’s going on, says it’s for you – and she leaves that card game, leaves her family to go into another room to have that intimate and ill-fated phone conversation with her lover. Ill-fated because of course it was recorded and eventually published by the Mirror. More grist for the mill.

I think there’s one other connection here. It’s all about connections and resonances.

I mentioned yesterday that November 19th was the day – in 1850 – that Alfred Lord Tennyson became the Poet Laureate.

1859 was the annus mirabilis of English publishing. Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities, George Eliot’s Adam Bede, George Meredith’s The Ordeal of Richard Feveral, Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species, John Stuart Mills’ On Liberty, Edward Fitzgerald’s Rubiyat of Omar Khyam, and the first part of Tennyson’s Idylls of the King. 

I want to weigh anchor here with the Tennyson poem. It’s not just that it’s the greatest narrative poem in English since Paradise Lost. 

No, it’s just a couple of lines in the dedication – how they speak to the matter in hand. The point they make about fame and celebrity. The Idylls are dedicated to the late Prince Albert. The ideal prince, in Tennyson’s estimation. He was, says Tennyson, fully equal to “the fierce light which beats upon a throne and blackens every blot.” 

And of course as fierce as that light was 30 years ago, it’s even more so now.

And then later on in the dedication, the lines that I admire most of all – they’re the lines by which I take the measure not of the denizens of palaces so much as of politicians…

Here they are – this is poetic perfection. 

Not making his high place the lawless perch

Of winged ambitions, nor a vantage-ground

For pleasure; but through all this tract of years

Wearing the white flower of a blameless life,

You want the platonic ideal of the high and mighty, there it is for you in 32 words.

Ok. How about this for a Today in London recommendation? My and Adam’s Kensington walk. 

Goes every Thursday and every Saturday at 2 pm. From High Street Kensington Tube. I’m of course tempted to say Kensington Palace is the crown jewel of that walk. But if you say that you can’t stop there. Kensington’s bejeweled with crown jewels.

You’ve been listening to the Today in London History podcast. Emanating from – home of London Walks, London’s signature walking tour company. London’s local, time-honoured, fiercely independent, family-owned, just-the-right-size walking tour company. And as long as we’re at it, London’s multi-award-winning walking tour company. Indeed, London’s only award-winning walking tour company.

And here’s the secret: London Walks is essentially run as a guides’ cooperative. 

That’s the key to everything. It’s the reason we’re able to attract and keep the best guides in London. You can get schlubbers to do this for £20 a walk. But you cannot get world-class guides – let alone accomplished professionals.

It’s not rocket science: you get what you pay for. And just as surely, you also get what you don’t pay for. 

Back in 1968 when we got started we quickly came to a fork in the road. We had to answer a searching question: Do we want to make the most money? Or do we want to be the best walking tour company in the world? You want to make the most money you go the schlubbers route. You want to be the best walking tour company in the world you do whatever you have to do to attract and keep the best guides in London – you want them guiding for you, not for somebody else. Bears repeating: the way we’re structured – a guides’ cooperative – is the key to the whole thing. It’s the reason for all those awards, it’s the reason people who know go with London Walks, it’s the reason we’ve got a big following, a lively, loyal, discerning following – quality attracts quality.

It’s the reason we’re able – uniquely – to front our walks with accomplished, in many cases distinguished professionals: barristers, doctors, geologists, museum curators, archaeologists, historians, criminal defence lawyers, Royal Shakespeare Company actors, a bevy of MVPs, Oscar winners (people who’ve won the Guide of the Year Award)… well, you get the idea. As that travel writer famously put it, “if this were a golf tournament, every name on the Leader Board would be a London Walks guide.”

And as we put it: London Walks Guides make the new familiar and the familiar new.

And on that agreeable note…come then, let us go forward together on some great London Walks. See ya tomorrow.

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