There’s a lot of chatter floating around this morning about Buckingham Palace. Apparently Prince Charles has said something about not wanting to live in the draughty old pile and that he wouldn’t mind hawking it out as a hotel or similar. Cue a certain amount of hand-wringing and lots of commentators pointing out that, if the Royal Family is seated at, say, Windsor instead, there is simply nowhere for crowds to go for Royal Weddings, or at times of crisis.
I am unsure who, at times of crisis, heads to the Palace these days, but in a country where one of the biggest selling tabloid papers still regularly features Diana on its front page, you can be certain that there are people who do.
The practical consideration of Royal Weddings seems a simple enough question to me: maintain a royal residence at the Palace and trot everyone out on the balcony as usual whenever someone gets married / has a baby etc. After all, the place is geographically convenient and is one of the few spaces in London equipped for massive crowds and ornate processions.
But I have beef with the Palace. And it is beef I have stored up yea these 35 years or so, since first I saw it.
Back in those days I suppose my only knowledge of the Palace was from the odd photograph or bit of film I might have seen of people in crowns and gowns waving from the balcony. Other than that, being five or six, one had a general impression of what Palaces ought to be. They were a sort of girly version of castles, as far as I was concerned. A palace was generally square in shape. It had arched doorways leading into a central courtyard. At the corners were tall turrets with steep, circular, or onion-shaped roofs (sometimes, due to the whims of geography, the palace was not square, in which case it was permissible for it to have turrets of different heights, or even ones that stuck out from the side of the palace like trees growing out of drainpipes). Generally speaking, a half-decent palace would stick out above, say, a great gorge or lake. If this could not be managed, then it was permissible to provide it with a very broad moat, or to situate it on a hill of some description, because the important thing about a palace was that it should stand proudly against the sky. When looking at a palace one ought to have a sense of ancient beauty. Of one’s history. Of the unquestionable superiority of whomever dwells therein.
The Austrians, the French, the Romanians and Germans and the Indians, the Vietnamese, the Chinese, the Indonesians and the Russians – all these people and many more have built palaces just so. Bright white or coloured, they protrude from mountain-sides or forest floors like the teeth of some buried dragon.
This, for instance, is unquestionably a palace:
And the Brighton Pav is one of the most palacey palaces ever built:
I was aware that in England we do things a little differently. But Blenheim Palace, for instance, while undeniably suffering a deficit of turrets and a complete absence of snapping pennants, is still beautiful. It is a beautiful building in beautiful grounds.
Imagine my glee when I understood that I was to be taken to see Buckingham Palace. My imagination assured me that this would be the jewel of all palaces. Versailles? PAH! The Taj Mahal? FOO!
And then you get there.
Tourist board photographs of it are always taken from just behind the two large flower-beds that cup the head of the Mall.
The Palace floats in a sea of tulips or cannas, and one might not notice for a few minutes – one might not look beyond the colourful pow! of the flowers – and notice that beyond that gay display lies, essentially, an enormous block of tofu. With windows.
In real life, you get past the flowers and what awaits you is an unbroken sea of red tarmac.
Now, I can get behind the idea that the Mall should be red. It needs to be red. And I suppose that paving it with stone would be quite spendy. So the Mall being red tarmac is acceptable. Buses and all sorts run on it, after all.
But the entire forecourt of the Palace also being red tarmac is completely and utterly unacceptable. A palace should not have tarmac. And this wasn’t a palace, this was the Palace.
Back at home, some local people had tarmac’ed their drives. All right-thinking people thought less of them for it. Even the ones who had that tarmac with the little white stones in it. It looked cheap. It was cheap. I don’t mean to give the impression that we had any money at all – we hadn’t. We were perpetually penniless. But it’s a question of taste.
We walked past the flowers and slogged on for what seemed to my short legs to be miles and miles of tarmac. Cars wheeled around a central monument and its two parenthetical fountains, rendering them inaccessible, but since there was no greenery they weren’t very inviting anyway. We got to the railings – which resembled a larger version of the railing you see around every public space in London, except that these ones were taller and had gold painted tips – and I peered through, and there was just more red tarmac, and then the big block of tofu with windows. A couple of guards stood in boxes. They looked very impressive. I daresay the day was hot and I was out of temper, but I can recall few occasions in my life when I have been more bitterly disappointed.
I appreciate that you have to have space in front of a palace to parade your soldiers. But if it were my palace, I would’ve stuck in some flowerbeds between the railings and the building, just to break up the awfulness of the tarmac. In fact I would, with great urgency, have dug up the tarmac. Plant a few good sized palm trees to create some movement and softness. If you’re not going to have huge parades every day, roll in some fountains – it’s not beyond the wit of man to have fountains that can be moved when necessary. If you don’t want to do that, then have some soldiers parading about at all times. Have one of them riding an elephant or something. Lions. Something. Anything.
They ought to let me loose on it. I’d give you Palace.