Royal marriages, and the collision of duty and preference, remain topical. Queen Elizabeth II, always one step ahead of her Republican critics, sees the sense in importing new blood and fresh air into a hidebound institution. Hence her approval of Prince Harry's wedding to American Meghan Markle.
And yet the Queen is old enough to remember a different time, when her uncle King Edward VIII announced his intention to marry another US divorcee, Wallis Simpson. This news was greeted with a spectrum of hostility, ranging from a traditionalist sense that such things were "not done," to the studied indifference of socialists.
In his superb account of the Simpson controversy (Abdication, pubs. MacMillan, 1966, now reissued in e-book form by Endeavour Media), Brian Inglis tells us that the Labour Party establishment approved of the Monarchy for its stability (Clement Atlee had ruled that Edward's predecessor King George was a "democrat." Under Edward, the institution seemed much less safe.). For the radical left and its devotees (the book's photo gallery shows the smitten Nye Bevan alongside his bride, the giggling Jenny Lee), the Crown was a relic and embarrassment. And yet the new king's undisguised interest in social policy, his brief yet riveting comments on poverty and unemployment, presented the Tory and Labour parties with a challenge to be weathered, and in the eyes of some, a quandary best disposed of.
Brian Inglis is at his most objective—and it must be said, most fun—in this best-seller from his early days at the helm of Granada Television's 1960s documentary series All Our Yesterdays. The language on the cover explains the stakes: "The first full account of Edward VIII's agony and crisis—the grueling test of a nation and its prince." For an author wary of the Establishment, who ignored the royals except when hailing their support for his own personal hobby-horses (such as unorthodox medicine), Brian Inglis's treatment of King Edward VIII is surprisingly fair and sympathetic. Brian Inglis's role as the nation's historian—an avuncular and weekly presence in homes throughout the country—meant that he had to tread carefully.
When I visited the National Science and Media Museum in Bradford in 2008 (as part of my own family history project), the staff pulled two episodes of AOY from their vaults. Brian Inglis was a midstream replacement for the first AOY broadcaster James Cameron. As such, the eyes of the world were upon him—his nerves are apparent from his body language, a fidgeting later concealed through camera-work. His first AOY appearance addressed the events of the Abdication, as dictated by the show's format, which focused on the events of 25 years previously. Inglis portrays the early life of the Prince—a young man in a hurry, popular, dynamic, vibrant, and full of promise.
When the time came for Brian Inglis to write a book-length treatment of the Abdication, it is clear that further research, including Edward's own sparkling memoirs, would be no hardship. More to the point, Inglis could identify with Edward's choice of a romantic partner who was prepared to answer back to him.
Nor was Wallis tempted to shed her Americanism. The American woman of her generation "judged it important to be a little different, or in any case interesting, and was prepared to pit her ideas spiritedly against those of the male." When on her arrival in England she found that English women were still accepting the status of an inferior sex—“if they had strong opinions they kept them safely buttoned up"—she refused to allow herself to be over-awed, continuing to speak her mind as freely as before. Sometimes this startled people, sometimes it annoyed them. Anti-Americanism was quite common in the circles in which she found herself, and though women were allowed a certain latitude, they were not thanked if they tried to give their views on the topics of the day. That was for men. But Wallis refused "to cancel out my own personality and substitute an artificial one, made to an English pattern...I clung the more fiercely to my own American ways and opinions—possibly to the point of exaggeration.”
The parallels between the royal love affair and Brian Inglis's courtship of my mother are too vivid and inescapable to ignore. Upon announcing his own engagement to Ruth Langdon at the start of the 1960s (not a career-ending decision in my father's case), Brian Inglis was amused to observe The Daily Mail hunting down his own previous conquests to gauge their reactions to this unwelcome news.
It would go completely against Brian Inglis's grain to introduce personal touches into a work of history, but here, as in other areas, he could not resist. In his account, Edward's accession to the Throne is attended by auguries, noticeable to rock-ribbed skeptics in Whitehall (and even to Premier Baldwin, "not normally psychic"—although he appears to have experienced hunches, a quality Brian Inglis would later liken to extrasensory perception).
The only outwardly disturbing signs of the times were certain omens. The British do not believe in astrology or in the occult, but millions of them follow their horoscopes with an avidity that is hardly accounted for by the usual explanation—that it is for amusement. The British do not place credence in fortune tellers—but they listen to them. The British affect not to believe in omens—but they notice them. They noted when the Maltese cross on top of the royal crown—on which there is a sapphire, flanked by eight medium-sized and ninety-two smaller diamonds—fell off when the crown was being borne through the streets of London on King George V's coffin.
Nor can the author resist hurling slingshots at the Establishment worthies of his youth. Cosmo Gordon Lang, Archbishop of Canterbury, is remembered for his remark that if the 19th century was regarded as the age of production, the 20th century would be considered the age of redistribution. The Church of England's mystical bond with the great British public is dismissed as a "hoax."
Moving on to other public figures, a linking thread emerges: few showed signs of greatness in their youth. Stanley Baldwin was remembered at Harrow for his stash of pornography (viewed with horror by the staff, but not "by the boys"). Neville Chamberlain tried and failed to grow sisal in the Caribbean. Later the appeaser Geoffrey Dawson (editor of The Times) mocks opinions he disagrees with as "mischievous", when greater receptivity to alternative viewpoints would have done him no harm whatsoever. Even King Edward is portrayed as an unremarkable student, yet he developed a flair for public life, and grew to be loved, even revered, by the general public. But only up to a point, and only for so long.
Official secrets legislation is unkind to works of instant history, even those written 25 years after the fact, as Brian Inglis was the first to admit.
Of necessity, mine is an interim assessment. The materials for a definitive study will not be available for many years. Some of the relevant papers are in the royal archives. State papers, too, are withheld under what used to be known as the "Fifty Year Rule," banning inspections for that period.
But personal recollections by authors preparing "the first draft of history" have their own merit, their distinctive freshness and wisdom. The young Prince had a verve and approachability that captured the fancy of a nation—and, it would seem, of the budding historian Brian Inglis as well. And if the Abdication soon faded from memory and ceased to be the most important issue of the 1930s, that was only because a multitude of other pressing concerns would shortly capture the world's attention in the runup to the Second World War. Consider the era of Appeasement; the deadly march of the German Army across Europe; wanton destruction, bloodbaths, and hellfire; the remaking of the global chessboard; and the resilience of the human spirit and endurance of the creative impulse in times of bleakest devastation. These and countless other stories would be explained and analyzed as Brian Inglis guided audiences through the WWII period from his presenter's chair at the helm of All Our Yesterdays.
"The Power of Prose"