This is an excerpt from my book The Best I Can Do (2016) available from the usual suspects and also blackwells.co.uk. I’m prompted to re-publish it here by a “Court Circular” story in Private Eye 1592 (17 Feb 2023) about a forthcoming Coronation.
Prince Charles is a year younger than me. He has been heir to the throne for so long (since 1952 in fact) that if and when he becomes King and I am still alive, I am sure I shall continue to think of him as Prince Charles. Over the years I have watched his face age and the number of medals on his full dress uniforms increase. One day it occurred to me that most of his medals are birthday badges given to him by his Mum. He is still pinning them on sixty years after most of us stopped. They infantilise him.
In Africa during the past sixty years, kleptocratic and psychopathic tyrants, backed by their old colonial masters, have lorded it over impoverished peoples using a rhetoric of visual ostentation taken unashamedly from those former colonial rulers – and not just the British. But with no Mum to award them, they have simply had to award medals to themselves, getting some lackey to pin them on until their chests attain the full splendour of which Imperial kitsch is capable. The Emperor Bokassa - every whim indulged by the governments of France (Bokassa had uranium) - is the all-time outright winner for mirror-imaging the ostentation of the European Imperial powers. His coronation in 1976 cost the dirt-poor Central African Republic more than its entire annual state budget. The images are still worth Googling. You can see a copy of Ruritania’s famous Coronation coach and surrounding Bokassa, you can see haute couture-styled flunkeys like those – all male - who still surround Imperial President Hollande.
Bokassa’s rivals have included General Idi Amin (with a taste for British military top-brass tassels), and Colonel Gadaffi (specialist in Italianate gold braid) and dozens of more forgettable bit players who have strutted and killed for a short while, all of them weighed down by this abject drive to outdo European levels of ostentation.
You would think it would shame Prince Charles into dressing a bit more like Nelson Mandela or maybe the Dalai Lama but, no, when it comes to keeping up appearances he is still determined to provide a role model for the next dictator up. One day, he hopes to live in a Palace where the Guards are dolled up in such a way that they could not guard a goldfish bowl and on hot days, no bare skin visible, collapse from heat exhaustion. It is both ostentation and irrationality. The tourists love it; it’s much more fun than the Zoo.
In Charles’s country, those who are likely to become his Subjects are introduced at an early age to irrational dress. The British not only do ostentatious uniform at the top; they do school uniform at the beginning. They really have a thing about it - some of it part of a long paedophilic tradition - and, if anything, it’s getting worse. Parents off their heads on Janet and John think that education from three years up is about woollen caps and blazers and the more brightly be-ribboned the better for indicating your aspirations. Colour co-ordinated knee socks, striped ties, polished shoes, pleated skirts, boaters for summer, all obsessively listed in pages of Rules, declare that aspiration as a commitment to maintain Ruritania’s social order and its established Table of Ranks.
British schools devote a great deal of time and money to devising and enforcing their uniform rules. It can be almost a full-time job for one Deputy Headteacher and they don’t come cheap. Some parents grumble about the cost, forgetting that cost is partly what it’s about – about showing that your child is in a different class to the riff-raff child in that school (unfortunately) just down the road. It is sometimes said that school uniform makes social distinctions less visible: you will not so easily spot the poor child in the classroom. But if you work back from the sharp-elbowed one-upmanship which characterises the uniforms of rival schools, it is most unlikely that social distinctions are not still visible in one school’s classrooms. Showing off as better than someone else does not stop at the school gates.
British parents do not really find it possible to believe that there are successful countries, not plagued by juvenile delinquency or illiteracy, that manage to function without any school uniform at all. But dreadful as it may seem, they do exist, and if you want living proof of what can be done without the benefit of school uniform, check out the Cusanus-Gymnasium, Erkelenz, a German High School in a fairly ordinary town of just 45 000 people. It doesn’t have a fancy website but you can get some idea there what the pupils look like. Normal is a word that comes to mind. Go to YouTube and – though I should give you a trigger warning that you will have to look at trai**rs - enjoy listening to the Erkelenz choir, the Oberstufenchor. They do English, of course. And lots more. Time and money isn’t taken up with uniforms, you see. It’s one reason German education gets better results.
Meanwhile, African dictators can still look to Prince Charles as a role model. British parents will take their cues from how the child known as Prince George is got up for school.