The butler's done it now
A ROYAL DUTY by Paul Burrell Penguin/Michael Joseph, £17.99, pp. 395, ISBN 0718147202 In all the uproar of indignation surrounding the publication of this book, Paul Burrell's riveting, hilarious and ultimately rather touching account of his time as a royal servant in general and butler to Diana, Princess of Wales, in particular, one curious fact has been obscured. He was, and appears to remain, so far, the most tremendous monarchist. Just as his late employer convinced herself that she could, if only she was permitted, be a shining force for good in the royal family and indeed the whole world, so Burrell believes that by breaking all the rules of loyalty and confidentiality he is actually doing his victims a service. Both of them, blinded by self-regard and publicity and short on common sense, can have had no idea of the amount of damage done.
Like all backstairs gossip, this book is shamingly enjoyable to read. It also has all the pleasures of an archetypal tale of how a northern lad of sterling qualities from humble origins finds his way to London to meet the Queen. Burrell was 18 when after a short spell at catering college where, we learn, he won a prize for sculpting the spire of Chesterfield church in margarine, he was taken on in 1976 as an under-butler in the silver pantry at Buckingham Palace. Within a year he had been promoted to be one of the Queen's personal footmen, where he felt he bonded with the monarch as they fed the corgis (Pedigree Churn and the occasional bit of left-over pheasant) together. He enjoyed the security, companionship and of course the perks of palace life (cheap gin and a room with a view down the Mall) and draws a respectful and rather charming picture of the Queen, hardworking, humorous and kind. Prince Philip, for a change, comes out rather well too. In 1984 Burrell married a spirited Irish girl, Maria Cosgrove, a housemaid on the Prince's staff. It was all too good to be true.
He first encountered Lady Diana Spencer when she stayed at the Palace during her engagement, and recalls a nervous girl seeking reassurance who found it easier to talk to the junior staff than to daunting court officials. As Princess of Wales, her need to make a special friend and ally of everyone around her continued; the Burrells were charmed, flattered and slowly drawn into her web, In 1987 a reluctant Burrell was winkled away from the Queen to join the Highgrove household as butler.
Temperamentally, the Princess of Wales disliked formality and all barriers of class and convention. Beguiling though this attitude undoubtedly was, it had its dangers; the rules of behaviour she disregarded, as she rushed in and out of the Burrells' cottage whenever it suited her, helping herself to coffee and hugging their two small boys, were designed for their protection as much as hers. When the Wales' marriage began to disintegrate. Burrell's position became both powerful and increasingly awkward as he found himself obliged to facilitate adultery on both sides. By the time the Princess set up her own establishment at Kensington Palace, taking the Burrells with her, he was already enmeshed in an exciting tangle of loyalties and secrets.
Royal favourites always play a dangerous game. Their power rests on proximity and intimacy, and when those are gone they are exposed to their enemies. Even allowing for self-promotion and fantasy, and remembering that for much of Burrell's account of Kensington Palace life we only have his word, his relationship with the beautiful, confused and ruthlessly demanding Princess of Wales was truly extraordinary. Of course he found it intoxicating, as she asked his views on her wardrobe, lounged around chatting in her white towelling bath-robe, left him little notes full of psychobabble and sent him on midnight errands to her lovers. As he tells it, and it rings true, he read her letters and faxes, listened in to telephone calls, and was privy to her divorce negotiations and her will. She gave him private documents to look after. She showered him and his family with presents. She rang him night and day, even when he was on holiday. She took him abroad with her. She wept on his shoulder. When she died, he was the first person who really knew her to reach the hospital where she lay dead, taking with him the rosary given her by Mother Teresa.
As for last year's infamous court case, his account only confirms what we already know; the police and the Palace handled it, and Burrell, astonishingly badly. The Spencers, whose dislike and suspicion of Burrell was mutual, made everything worse. Whatever motive he had for removing nearly 400 items from Kensington Palace, it was not for commercial gain; he may have been deluded, but he thought he was protecting the Princess in death as he had tried to do in life. In court, he writes, he knew that she was watching over him (along with his mother). He also indicates more than once that the beans he has spilled so far are as nothing to 'the darkest, most intimate secrets' he still holds. That is the other thing about royal favourites; when maltreated, they can turn very nasty.