What ails the royal family? By Tina Brown’s telling, the answer to this perennial and highly thorny question is: just about everything. Yes, it’s partly a simple matter of context; in the early 21st century, there no longer seems to be much point to the hats and the parades and the tours (Kate and William in the Caribbean? Cringe de la cringe! as Prince Harry’s ex-girlfriend Cressida Bonas would say.) And yes, it’s a suffocating way to live: like being a “battery hen in the Waldorf Astoria”, as Brown puts it, struggling somewhat for the right image.
But the former editor of the New Yorker and Vanity Fair, having applied all of her famous wit and intelligence to the problem, identifies many other maladies, too. Sadism, parsimony, profligacy, infantilism, randiness, ruthlessness, rudeness, coldness, extreme entitlement and, last, but not least, incredible stupidity; alas, among the Windsors, all are present and correct. The family is a walking, talking advert either for – take your pick – intensive group therapy or religious seclusion (after all, wasn’t Prince Philip’s ma a nun or something?). No wonder the Queen Mother’s steward, William Tallon, used to herald dinner at her Scottish retreat, Birkhall, by swinging a censer, as if he was a priest.
I must admit that I did not have high hopes of The Palace Papers, whatever its author has to say in her prologue about the zillions of insiders (OK, 120) she spent two years stalking; the first person she quotes by name is – zzzzz! – Gyles Brandreth, which didn’t seem to me to bode well in terms of hot new info (when isn’t the former Tory MP up for talking about Prince Philip?). But having ploughed through almost 600 pages of “truth and turmoil” – I do these things so you don’t have to – all I can say is that if one must read royal gossip, let it be written by Tina, a woman who, as a former editor of Tatler, not only knows how to write an extended picture caption – “Harry’s hot and heavy glamping retreat!” – but who also remains, in spite of the long years she has lived in Manhattan, crazily attentive to the minute gradations of social class that make this country such a basket case. Was the Queen Mother preposterously posh or seriously suburban? For days now, I haven’t been able to stop thinking of the two cherubim on her four-poster bed at Clarence House, whose little angel outfits – I’m not kidding – were washed and starched by her servants every month.
The book, which is as fat as Paradise Lost and definitely won’t fit in your Launer handbag, begins with a waspish account of the memorial in 2006 for the Queen’s cousin, the photographer Lord Lichfield, an event at which Brown was happily in attendance (she sat beside the aforementioned Tallon, in whose Kennington flat she would later see “a draping of pearls he said belonged to the Queen Mother” and many other “discarded bibelots… whether bestowed or pilfered was anybody’s guess”). Brown carefully notes the appearance of the royal family on this occasion: the Duchess of Cornwall’s hat made her look like an air steward; a person could, she thought, have rooted “for truffles in the forests of bad teeth”. But naturally she’s delighted by their shabbiness, just as she’s thrilled to hear that, afterwards, Andrew Parker Bowles (“a walking pink gin”) was seen strap-hanging in his morning suit on the tube. Her interest is in dust, not diamonds. She has a taste, you soon gather, for minor characters. The sad, Norma Desmond-ish spaces these types inhabit – Prince Andrew at home with his 50 teddy bears, many of them dressed as sailors; Princess Margaret complaining that she only wants to see pictures of her sister on postage stamps, not “ghastly buildings and birds and things” – are so much fun to describe, after all. Far better than the garden at Highgrove, at any rate.
Thanks to all this, the bits about the Queen and Philip, and Kate and William, are a bit boring. The pace picks up when she’s analysing the Duchess of Sussex, who henceforth will always be known to me as Number Six on the Call Sheet (Brown’s account of Meghan’s acting career – she has watched her Suits audition tapes – is going to be a huge hit with Piers Morgan). As Brown sagely states, calling your agent won’t help in the case of primogeniture. But I think she’s at her absolute best when she’s dealing with the likes of Andrew and Fergie and with Camilla in the days before she finally married Charles. In these chapters, simply everything is either comical or ghastly, or both. In case you were wondering, it’s Andy who’s the sadist. “What are you doing with this fat cow?” he asked an American media executive who’d come to have lunch with his ex-wife at their home, Royal Lodge, in 2015. The Queen’s second son is so stupid and so pompous, he once seriously pitched to the then London mayor, Boris Johnson, the idea of reducing the number of traffic lights in the capital. The deep thinking behind this masterplan was that this would result in fewer red lights. He also thought the Queen Elizabeth II conference centre should be bigger; God alone knows why.
It’s Camilla, though, who really fascinates Brown: her stoicism, her earthiness, the fact that she once French-kissed Charles in front of her husband (this was in 1980, at a polo ball hosted by the heir to a meat fortune Lord Vestey and it went on for hours, apparently). What drew her to Charles, a man whom Brown depicts as a ruthless, spoilt baby – and who would, she can’t resist reminding us, come to be known as Prince Tampacchino in the Italian press? (Work it out.) What kept her at his side for so long? I’d have quit once I’d finished dying of laughter at the revelation that the coronet he wore for his investiture as Prince of Wales was topped with a gold-covered ping pong ball. I suppose it was sex in the beginning – “Pretend I’m a rocking horse,” the young Camilla is said to have urged the sexually “diffident” Charles – and then, later, it was comfort. She subsumed the role played in his life by the Queen Mother, “the buttery scone to his mother’s steamed broccoli”.
Anyway, this bit of the book fairly rips along, the bastard child of Jilly Cooper and Tom Wolfe. Like Queen Mary, who once said to a relative: “We [the royal family] are never tired”, Brown is quite inexhaustible. But as for what all this hard labour has been for, exactly, I don’t know. Hasn’t she anything better to do with her time than to tell us about – no, this is not a euphemism – Andrew’s 6ft-long ironing board? About Charles’s preference for Kleenex Velvet loo roll? Honestly. I’m embarrassed for her. Cringe de la cringe.
• The Palace Papers by Tina Brown is published by Century (£20). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply
• Tina Brown will be in conversation with Pandora Sykes at Conway Hall, London on Tuesday 3 May