“What ball?” asks Ella.
My borrowed black labrador is standing on the river bank, looking back at me like I’m the four-legged domesticated pet.
I repeat my question. She looks at me, at the river, back at me. I press on: The blue one. You were holding it in your mouth, and you were going to give it to me, I was going to throw it for you so you could run after it and fetch it. It’s a game we play.
Ella looks blank. Terribly excited and interested, but totally blank.
You had it just a second ago.
“No I didn’t,” Ella says. “We didn’t bring a ball with us today.”
We so did.
“And I definitely, absolutely, 100 percent haven’t dropped it in the river and watched it drift out of sight. No way.”
Ella and I are walking through the Mells River valley, a geological wonder thoughtfully left behind by nature for dog walkers, nature lovers, and small children. The valley sides are steep but not threatening. The floor is wide and gently sloping. Through it runs the Mells, usually a gentle stream that tinkles in sunlight, the shallow water caressing gravel that is smooth and welcoming to a paddler’s toes. It is, in short, the perfect place for a family picnic.
Today, though, there is no sun for tinkling in, and the gorgeous stream has become a torrent. We’ve had several days of heavy rain, and the only paddling today will be done in knee-high boots.
We’ve reached this point, where the valley floor widens out a little and I was planning to get Ella running about with a spot of ball-chasing, but now we are without a ball.
“You’re not really anti-royal. You’re just not interested in being pro-royal. You’re anti-pro-royal.”She says, “How about chucking a stick or two?”
I look around me. Tall spindly trees loom over us, and in the drizzle they glisten slightly.
On our way here we’ve been arguing about the royal family. I am a republican at heart, but Ella remains royalist. Once, she got within barking distance of Prince William at some event, she told me.
“You can’t blame them for being born into the family,” she points out as we negotiate a dodgy-looking rusty bridge over the stream.
I don’t blame them, I say. I’m not that kind of republican. And I agree with you, it’s not their fault they were born into it.
“Apparently those two princes are pretty fun characters once you get to know them,” she replies. “William cares about people. Did you know he’s a search-and-rescue helicopter pilot? Bloody search-and-rescue! One day he might pull you off a rock at the bottom of a cliff, the next you’ll be calling him King. The tradition is for princes to join the armed forces and learn how to kill, not learn how to rescue.”
Well, yes, maybe so. I’m sure were they not royalty, you might bump into them in a pub or in the queue at the post office and they’d be perfectly lovely. They’d pick up the elderly lady’s purse when she dropped it, they’d hold doors open for others, they’d say their pleases and their thank-yous. Nice blokes. Lovely lads.
“So why won’t you let them be royal nice blokes?” asks Ella. “Why can’t they keep those personal characteristics and be princes too?”
I just think that if I were in their position, I’d consider some other option, I say.
“There aren’t many other options,” Ella growls. “If you’re second in line to the throne, about the only option you’ve got is abdication. And that isn’t really an option. It won’t change anything.”
She stops mid-stride and gives me a funny look. She thinks I’m being unfair. Perhaps she’s right.
A few hundred million years ago, this part of Somerset was a temperate forest. The trees became coal, and for a few more million years the forest gave way to sea floor. Limestone layers were laid down on top of the coal like strips of bacon.
The limestones got warped and bent, and in this part of southwest England they became known as the Mendips, a meandering sequence of hills that define the county of Somerset and provide ample field trip locations for students of geology.
Slicing through the limestones are hundreds of streams and rivers. Some of them carve out elegant valleys like the one we’re in now, while others prefer to be more secretive, carving their routes underground and out of sight. Just along from where we’re standing is the Mells River Sink, a connection between this river and its secretive underground companion. Normally, the Sink feeds into the river, just upstream from this point. But in dry periods the connection works in the other direction, and water from the river is lost to the underground network, flowing the wrong way through the Sink, and into the stones.
I bring Ella to places like this so that she can romp in the water and the woods, while I can peer at the stones, hunting out unconformities and fossils. She would much rather I stop poking rocks and play games with her instead.
She attempts to grab my attention by steering the conversation back to royalty and weddings.
The royal family doesn’t rule. It’s an overpriced adhesive.“I don’t care what you think. I’m really excited about this royal wedding!” she declares, leaping over a small fence. “It’s my first! There’ll be so much to see.”
Really Ella, it’s not that exciting, I say with a wearied tone.
“How do you know? You’re not the one planning to sit in front of the telly all day to watch it.”
No. I’ve seen royal weddings before.
“Royal wedding, singular,” she retorts. “You watched Charles and Diana’s wedding on a tiny little TV set at your dad’s house in Shrewsbury. That was the first and the only one you’ve ever sat through.”
Well, yes. I must have been about 12.
“You were 10. You got bored about halfway through and went to your room to read a book. Then you came back and watched some more, but didn’t get all the way through it.”
That’s true. I was uninterested then.
“That’s your problem, right there,” Ella prescribes. “You’re not really anti-royal. You’re just not interested in being pro-royal. You’re anti-pro-royal.”
I ponder this for a moment, leaning on an improvised walking stick I just picked up from the ground.
You know what Ella? I say. I think you’re right. If I stop and really think about it, I’m not keenly anti-royal. I don’t dislike them personally, or even institutionally. And I can understand the consequences of doing away with the monarchy altogether—for one thing, the UK would have to change its name. Its coins. Its entire process of government, because the monarch prorogues and dissolves parliaments, and appoints prime ministers. Then there’s the Church of England, a whole religion resting on royal shoulders..
If the royal family stays, that’s not a problem. So what is my problem?
I reach into my pocket and pull out an apple. Ella’s ears prick up and she immediately pays me much more attention. She loves apple cores.
I suppose it’s the desperation of pro-royalty that bothers me, I say, crunching through the first bite. The people who buy royal this and royal that. The people who’ll buy those William and Kate biscuit tins, and those William and Kate commemorative cheeses, and a pair of matching William and Kate teapots. The people who’ll go and camp out in central London in the days leading up to the event, so they can grab their place at the front of the crowd control barriers, so they can wave a plastic made-in-China flag at the newlyweds as they drive past.
All that effort for that fleeting, inconsequential moment. A moment that William and Kate themselves don’t even share in. They’re just passing.
“I know, I know,” says Ella, “but what’s inconsequential for you is a lifetime memory for someone else.”
She waits for me to finish my apple, then pricks her ears up high as I hold the core temptingly before her. Her eyes beg me, but she’s too proud to say so. I throw the core down and she catches it, delighted.
“I’ve got you well trained,” Ella mumbles as she munches up what’s left of the apple and swallows it down. “Now, those people, as you call them so contemptuously, are people too,” she insists. “That day of camping out, standing in the cold, waving a made-in-China flag, cheering and singing songs—they will remember that day for the rest of their lives. They’ll say to their children and grandchildren, ‘I was there.’ That’s the kind of event this is. It’s something you can go to simply because it’s happening. You should go, too.”
I give her a look.
“No seriously, you should go. It might teach you a few things, make you less of an arrogant asshole.”
Now I give her a harder look. She’s not looking me in the eye now, but staring ahead of herself, watching the raindrops fall on the water flowing beside us. We don’t speak for a moment, and all around us is the patter of raindrops on leaves, and birds singing patriotically in the treetops.
“Listen to yourself,” Ella says. She turns her head back and fixes me with a big labrador stare. “You’re being arrogant because you think you’re better than them. You think standing in the street and waving a flag is for lesser people. You think being fond of the royals is for fools who weren’t as well educated as you, people who fall for the trick the royal family is pulling—we rule over you! Celebrate us! Well, those people aren’t fools and they’re not necessarily falling for anything. Perhaps they’re just not as uptight as you, and more willing to let go and enjoy the moment. Something you should do more. It would do you good.”
Unaccustomed as I am to being lectured at by a dog, I stand motionless for a few seconds, taking in Ella’s words. She has a point.
The thing is, the royals don’t rule. The royal family has no actual power. The whole institution is there to maintain a constitutional status quo—which is that there is no constitution. The United Kingdom only exists, legally speaking, in a series of agreements-by-handshake and traditions of questionable origin. The monarch is little more than the physical embodiment of the nation, a person around whom the whole hit-and-miss affair can be hung, wrapped in expensive cloth, and topped with a jewel-encrusted hat. If there’s no monarch, there’s no kingdom, and therefore no nation.
Perhaps I should be a bit less uptight, and just enjoy the wedding for the sake of it. Like most people enjoy most weddings. A chance to dress smart, drink booze, and spend the day not really doing very much.The royal family doesn’t rule. It’s an overpriced adhesive.
I put these points to Ella, trying to ignore what she said about me. Mainly because she’s probably right about that stuff.
“All true,” she agrees. “They hold our country together, constitutionally and emotionally, when times are hard. People don’t look to the government for support, they look to the Queen.”
Well, it would be nice if they could pay their way, I say. They have so much money, so much land, so many palaces. It’s extravagant and unnecessary.
“And that’s precisely why William and Kate’s wedding is so important, historically speaking,” says Ella.
She continues, “It’s the beginning of a new royal era. The Queen’s been on the throne since 1952. If Charles ever becomes king, he won’t reign nearly as long as she did, because he’s already an old man. William will be king younger, and for longer than his father, and he’ll have the opportunity to change things.”
You think he will?
“Actually, I do,” she says. “He’s not stupid. I think of all of them, he’s the most likely to make some substantial changes to the way the royal household works. I can see him turning Windsor Castle into a museum, or selling off some of the royal estates for use as eco-energy farms.”
Standing in this millions-of-years-old limestone landscape, bereft of our blue ball, Ella and I watch the river Mells rushing past, and I wonder which way the water is flowing through the Sink today.
For a dog, she’s very persuasive. I’m still not convinced that the royal family is as positive a thing as Ella says, but I’m prepared to give some ground on this. Perhaps I should be a bit less uptight, and just enjoy the wedding for the sake of it. Like most people enjoy most weddings. A chance to dress smart, drink booze, and spend the day not really doing very much.
I bend down, pick up a chunk of limestone from the ground, and hold it aloft.
Fetch it? I ask.
“What? That?” says Ella, then I throw the stone into the water and she’s got no time to question me further, because she’s diving in after it, snout-down in the river, trying to sniff out that one stone among all the others.
She gives up and stands there, the water nearly up to her belly, leaning upstream to stop herself being washed away. Her ears are up and her eyes are bright.
“Didn’t you say you’d brought a ball?” she asks.