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Sunday 25 September 2011

All hail Zara, patron saint of stiff upper lip

The royal and her rugby-playing husband have not caved into the media scrum, cheers Ruth Dudley Edwards

Sometimes I have fantasies about making punishments fit crimes. Jailed bombers would have the testimony of the bereaved and the mutilated played into their cells all day; noisy neighbours and young tearaways would have to listen for long periods to Mozart's late string quartets; and night and day intrusive hacks would be stalked by paparazzi and private investigators.

Said hacks have really got me worked up with the so-called revelations about Mike Tindall, aka 'The Fridge', an enormous English rugby player who recently married Zara Phillips, an equestrian champion, who happens to be a granddaughter of the Queen.

Tindall and Zara have in common an ambition to excel, a fierce professionalism, great physical courage and stoicism in the face of pain, misfortune and disappointment. Tindall has broken various bits of himself over the years, had a lung punctured and a liver torn and has been unable to play for long periods, but always he gets back on to that muddy field. Zara has fallen off many a steed, has missed the Olympics because of an injured horse and, in 2008, had another horse tip over a hedge, breaking her collarbone and his neck.

At present 13th in line to the throne, Zara loves her family but mostly finds her royal status a nuisance. Despite media attention and large crowds, her Edinburgh wedding to Tindall in July, after six years together, was as private and understated as possible; afterwards, the bride and groom went straight back to train to represent their country in international events. There was no whingeing about having no time for a honeymoon or about the separation forced upon them by his commitments to the World Cup in New Zealand and hers to the International Horse Trials in Cork.

Tindall led his team to victory against Argentina on Saturday, September 17. They have tough matches ahead, so, on Sunday, encouraged by the team manager, they went off for a rugby players' night out to let off steam. Strangely, rather than taking in a Shakespearean play or visiting an art gallery, they headed for a bar where there was some light-hearted event featuring self-styled 'mad midgets', a great deal of alcohol and general relaxed banter. Some scum-bag bouncer posted on the net grainy shots of Tindall being approached by an over-friendly blonde, and in no time at all he was alleged to be throwing dwarves, snogging a woman not his wife, putting his marriage in jeopardy and letting down the Queen.

Next the gleeful tabloids were bellowing about Tindall's shame and Zara's heartbreak, no doubt anxious to ensure she went to compete in Cork in the right frame of mind. The hunt was on for photographs of her looking strained or tearful. What Zara did was to issue a terse statement dismissing the accusations, to emphasise that as planned she would be going to New Zealand after Cork to cheer on the team; she then triumphed at the trials. Since then, despite the tabloids' pleas that she have a showdown with her husband over his alleged sins, she's been photographed with him looking happy at their reunion. Zara Phillips is a wise woman who won't dance to the hacks' tune and she doesn't do self-pity any more than does her excellent mother.

I'm always irritated by the unfairness of those who go on about the dysfunctional royal family. The Queen and Prince Philip have been happily married for 63 years. Charles made a disastrous first marriage but his second is a success and despite the horror of what happened to Princess Diana, he has been a model father. Princess Anne and Mark Phillips also divorced, as did Prince Andrew and the Duchess of York, but both couples have a civilised relationship with their exes and are exemplary parents. Prince Edward's marriage seems sound. When you consider that these people have been tracked and hounded -- and some of them hacked -- it's a miracle that they are as normal -- and their relationships are as good -- as theirs are. Many consorts find the strain intolerable.

In the middle of our bizarre presidential election, some look wistfully at the notion of a hereditary head of state, trained from childhood to put up with fools and knaves, endure boredom, stay away from politics and withstand setbacks and criticism. But in the meantime, let's hail Zara Phillips as the patron saint of those of us who believe that gritting your teeth rather than moaning is the way to deal with the blows of fate. I'm minded to sentence the self-pitying to a harsh prison regime accompanied by a continuous broadcast of morally-improving cliches like 'It could be worse', 'It will pass', 'Grin and bear it', 'Keep a Stiff Upper Lip' and 'Keep your chin up'. It might strengthen their characters.

Ruth Dudley Edwards

© Ruth Dudley Edwards