On July 11, after two-and-a half months of roaming around Africa for the third time, I flew (via Lilongwe, Addis Ababa and Khartoum) from Lusaka to Cairo. 48 hours later I was on my way to JFK (via Rome and Milan). I spent 18 hours in the Tri-state Area. Then I was off to Seattle to meet my favorite boy for the first time. At 6am on July 21st, I flew to San Francisco for 24 hours and caught a showing of Batman: The Dark Knight, my third film in a real movie theatre in two years. Last night (twelve days after taking off from Lusaka, plus or minus whatever happens when you cross the international date line), I arrived in Beijing.
Yesterday was the day all the Beijing taxi drivers started wearing uniforms. Yellow, collared shirts, blue cargo pants with silver zippers, yellow and blue-striped ties. My driver, Mr. Gao, was very proud of his new uniform, but confessed he couldn't keep his tie on the whole day, what with the 90-degree heat. He designated his left-hand pocket for the big bills (100s, 50s), right-hand pocket for the small change.
The Olympics only days away, Mr. Gao seemed especially happy to be chatting up a "foreign friend"--a chance to brush up on some of his English phrases ("Hello ladee, please sit. You want go weir?") and hone some of the finer points of international diplomacy and cross-cultural understanding. He asked me whether it was better to make the "OK" sign with his left hand or his right hand, and whether there might be some cultures where the "OK" sign might offend. I didn't have the heart to tell him the OK sign was just a tad retro, but I did advise him it might not be the best idea to call his clients "beautiful ladies" and "handsome men." (Gallantry doesn't always translate well.)
he first thing I noticed was the rapidly averted gaze. Toting a clipboard immediately marks one as part of the ‘untouchable’ caste, languishing in the same pit as cold-callers, Betterware agents, market researchers, and people who spend train journeys choosing a new ring tone. We had our little stall set up outside a travel agent and a herbal remedy shop and it was amazing just how utterly captivating both of these establishments would suddenly become to the people who passed us.
So people aren’t going to come up and sign. OK, then I’ll go to them, clutching my clipboard and favouring them with my most winning of smiles (which is never likely to win more than an honourable mention, to be honest). Then come the excuses -generally delivered with no eye contact and a stiff bristle.
One common response, which quickly provoked my ire, was “sorry, I don’t have time” or “I’m too busy”. I let this remark pass the first few times I heard it. Since I had accepted the status of being the person essentially bothering other people, it initially didn’t occur to me to question this, even in my own head. This changed, though, when I was parried by a rather rotund early twenty-something. As he shuffled along the pavement, the burger at his face shedding wreckage across his fulsome stomach, I intercepted him with a couple of long strides and invited him to sign. "Sorry mate, too busy". I nodded and smiled but my real reply sloshed around my head like contents of a knocked tea cup.
Princess Diana undoubtedly did a fair bit for any number of charities and I’m quite willing to believe that her celebrity was a shot in the arm to many of them. What I find absolutely confounding, though, is the level of sheer veneration that attaches to the woman for her charitable works. Quite simply, what else was she meant to do?
Diana Windsor -and this holds for the whole wretched grasp(1) of royals- had enormous material wealth, privilege and leisure thrust upon her. Or rather, she married into it, while others were born to it. From her marriage onwards (and from much earlier frankly, since the Spencers hardly lived on that kind of estate), Diana never had to worry about money, food or shelter for herself or any of her loved ones. It is not merely that all her material needs were met – a prize enough in itself. Virtually all her conceivable material wants were also catered for. Short of having lake Windermere filled with Dream Topping or a bed manufactured entirely from the dreams of small children, she was minted.
So with all of that daily drudgery taken care of, the trivia that occupies 70% of most people’s waking hours, what did she have left to do? Work anyway? Possibly, but if you’re working at a job you enjoy for no reason than because you enjoy it then it’s pretty much a hobby. That leaves recreation of one sort or another: hobbies, sports, travel and so on. Even so called 'royal duties' involves little more than being ferried from factory to function, eating meals, reading speeches you didn’t write and being fawned over by the little people. Prince Edward wasted his time with a toy television company making programmes no one watched and, while Prince Harry is allowed to be a soldier, this is on the express condition that he never go anywhere he might get shot. Prince Charles produces biscuits so expensive that he's one of the few people who can afford them but I doubt he does much baking.
So with all that free time, money, profile and, let’s be honest, power, should we expect anything less than that they use their clout for humanitarian ends? Should it not be the least we expect for that enormous privilege? Why on earth should we think they deserve praise for doing what, in any reasonable analysis, is the absolute bare minimum? Devoting a solid portion of every day to charity should be the default for a member of the royal family in return for the obscene wealth that fate and the absence of a decent revolution has dropped in their lap.