Just after the Royal Wedding, I received an email from a stranger in the UK. He explained that he wanted to write a book describing events around the world that occurred on the wedding day of Prince William and Catherine Middleton and he was contacting people he had randomly selected from Who’s Who to ask them what they were doing on April 29, 2011.
My initial impulse was to ignore the email, but my curiosity was piqued and I found myself thinking about what I had done that day and what I learnt from it.
Katherine, one of my closest friends and a colleague at McGill University, phoned me late afternoon on April 28 and said, “Are you going to watch the wedding?” I replied that I hadn’t thought about it. She continued,“I’d like to see it and I don’t have a television.” (She’s leaving Montreal and her household goods have preceded her.) I invited her to stay with me overnight.
So, there we were at 5am the next morning, in our silk dressing gowns, drinking Earl Grey tea from flowered, fine English bone-china cups and eating hot, buttered, toasted raisin buns, two women of a “certain age”, both holders of named chairs in a world-class university, watching the wedding of Kate and Wills. All we lacked were tulle hats!
Our interest in the wedding lay at several different levels.
As “the watcher watching the doer” (I often think of this phenomenon as a bird on a high perch watching the scene unfolding below), I saw the two of us sitting in front of the television as among the legions of “girls” around the world watching their “fairy tale princess fantasy” dream coming true for one “girl” in real life.
We spoke of the huge, world-wide audience, an estimated 2 billion people, sharing this experience and I thought of my 90 year-old-aunt in Adelaide, Australia, where it was Friday evening. I picked up the phone and called her. “Are you watching the wedding?”, I asked without saying hello. “Yes”, she said. Sounding surprised, she added, “Is that you, Margo?”. When I confirmed, she said, “Oh, how wonderful! Now I can think that we’re watching it together, but from opposite sides of the world!” We reminisced that we’d been together in Westminster Abbey in the summer of 1975.
Katherine and I also had a scholarly interest in the ceremony and we’ve both been publicly involved in the same-sex marriage debate. One of the most fundamental divides in that debate concerns the relation between marriage as a societal institution and procreation.
If, as I do, one believes that marriage is a cultural institution that surrounds a biological reality, namely, that only one man and one woman can naturally beget a child, and is primarily meant to protect and support the rights of children born into a marriage, then we should not extend marriage to same-sex couples, because to do so contravenes children’s human rights with respect to their natural parents and families.
In contrast, people who advocate legalizing same-sex marriage believe that marriage is not primarily – or even at all – to do with procreation, but is primarily an institution to recognize publicly the love and commitment of two adults and, therefore, to exclude same-sex couples is discrimination.
Consequently, the strong emphasis throughout the Royal Wedding ceremony on the connection between marriage and bringing children into the world and the clear articulation, both through traditional Biblical passages and contemporary statements, such as the Bishop of London’s sermon, of the belief that procreation was central to the institution of marriage was of interest to us. For instance, here’s a passage from the Bishop’s sermon: “In a sense every wedding is a royal wedding with the bride and the groom as king and queen of creation, making a new life together so that life can flow through them into the future.”
We also noted that all the commentary was relentlessly secular, despite the ceremony being a deeply religious one: “The dress”, in all its aspects, was the topic of endless analysis; the symbolism, meaning and history of the beautiful, ancient and complex liturgy was never mentioned.
And, as probably all but the most cynical amongst us did, perhaps despite ourselves, we pierced the protocol and public relations veils and spoke of how the young couple personified hope and love. As Her Majesty the Queen (whom my Aussie aunt fondly calls “Queenie”) said, “It was a wonderful day”.
That evening I attended the 2011 Media@McGill Beaverbrook Annual Lecture given by Gore Vidal, the outspoken American author, playwright, essayist, screen writer and political activist. The lecture was billed as a “conversation” and was free and open to the public. It consisted of the chair of Media@McGill and members of the audience, which numbered well over 600 people, questioning Mr Vidal, who was on stage in a wheelchair.
As it happened, a more striking contrast with the Royal Wedding than this “conversation” could not be imagined: the two events were, not only, morning and night time-wise, but also, “day and night” in terms of their content and impact on those observing them. It’s trite, but words such as Beauty and the Beast, hope and cynicism, love and hatred, peace and hostility, all come to mind to describe each of them, respectively.
The blurb advertising the lecture read, in part, as follows: “… Gore Vidal has been a professional challenger of the American mythological view of itself. His plays (The Best Man) have been performed on Broadway, his screenplays (Ben Hur) have been made into blockbuster films and he even ran for Congress (in 1960). Gore Vidal has also been a prolific and provocative writer of critical essays and memoirs, and these perhaps most of all have ensured his place in the canon of leading intellectuals of the 20th century. Well into his eighties, Vidal continues to challenge assumptions surrounding American military and economic power and calls on the American people (when not openly hostile towards them) to move beyond their provincial tendencies and preferences to navel-gaze.”
Mr Vidal dealt with the questions – and sometimes with the questioners – almost entirely by deriding and belittling them. His hatred of the United States, and most of its institutions and leaders, was “red hot”, palpable and all-encompassing. A couple of throw away lines communicated his contempt for religion. He seemed to see almost everyone else, without exception, as, at best, idiots. He came across as angry, dismissive, and, I thought, intensely defensive. I pondered later, whether he might have thought he was manifesting a sense of humour, albeit a warped and cynical one. Indeed, from time to time, the audience laughed.
Like Kate and William, Gore Vidal was riding on his fame, but in doing so was eliciting the opposite effect. Watching them was joyful; watching him was painful. My main emotional response to the presentation was to feel immense pity for him, because he seemed to be so bitter. What had made him thus?
I later sat beside Mr. Vidal at a dinner for 16 guests, mainly from the literary world, at one of Montreal’s best hotel restaurants. He was much gentler and kinder than he had been in his public performance – indeed, to my surprise, we shared stories about our cats; like me, he is a “cat fan”. (He passed what one of my wise women friends calls the “cat test” for men: Stay away from men who don’t like cats, they usually have a powerful need to be in control.)
He explained that he is not well and travels with a nurse always in attendance. The nurse was also a guest at the dinner and quite interventionist, I assume with Mr Vidal’s best interests at heart. He was solicitous for Mr Vidal’s comfort, but severely restricted what he ate. At one point, he asked the waiter for a plate of celery for Mr Vidal, who quipped, “My nurse thinks I’m a rabbit”. The nurse had his stethoscope and blood pressure cuff with him and, near the end of the dinner, obliged one of the other guests by checking his blood pressure, while he remained seated at the dinner table. To say the least, it was an interesting dinner.
The day began very early sharing breakfast and ended very late sharing dinner. It began with the young and joyful – albeit, artificial and staged -and ended with the old and cynical – albeit, honest and real. In its entirety, my experiences on April 29, 2011 bring to mind for me triumph and tragedy and the complex interweaving of both in our lives, in that sometimes tragedy begets triumph (Princess Diana’s life and death was noticeably present at the royal wedding) and, other times, triumph begets tragedy (we can no longer live up to expectations created by earlier triumphs). I wonder how we would live our lives if we knew the end before the beginning, if we lived them backwards, that is, started off old and became younger and younger.
Margaret Somerville is the founding director of the Centre for Medicine, Ethics and Law at McGill University.