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Jan-04-2013 21:51printcomments

Dabbling With Royalty: A Confession

Richard III was King of England, and there he has the advantage over me. But he was a hunchback, and there I have the advantage over him. - Mark Twain

Royal crown
Courtesy: photo-dictionary.com

(DAYTONA BEACH, FL) - My father was an imperialist. He was raised in Tory Ontario in a Baptist family that was perhaps embarrassed by the existence of the rebel Philip Annett who, four generations earlier, had seized the family flintlock and hastened to join William Lyon MacKenzie during the abortive rebellion of 1837. (Ontario history may not have been as dull as we thought.)

But my father, Ross, was totally inured to the imperial tradition shared by Stephen Leacock, who wrote an “Apology For The British Empire,” employing the archaic apologia, meaning “in defence of.” Because Leacock, despite his humorous take on just about everything from Christmas to piling cordwood, remained hopelessly North Toronto and “one of our chaps,” except when he performed as a full time economics prof at McGill. He even married the niece of Sir Henry Pellatt, Toronto financier and builder of the architectural horror we know as Casa Loma.

Sir Henry, sometime Major General and peace time war hero, was knighted for his courageous financing of a regimental junket that transported the entire Queen's Own Rifles to England for military exercises. Knighthood, apparently, was still in flower in the roaring Twenties, although its chivalric reach was more recently outdone with the anointing of Sir Elton John for scribbling a pop ditty about Diana.

Not surprisingly, Sir Henry died in near penury in 1939. If you've joined the other gape-mouthed tourists inspecting Casa Loma, you'll understand why. The stables may have been the final extravagance that broke him, with polished Italian tile floors and napkin rings for the equine tenants. Egalitarian critics have dubbed it horse shit, but in this instance the expression is totally without relevance.

Ross, my father, without hesitation enlisted in the European Great War “for King and country,” just as he cheered on my late oldest brother to follow suit some two decades later. Canada had declared war on Germany just when Sir Henry was meeting his Protestant Maker in Mimico, scarcely before the ink had dried on Neville Chamberlain's famous document signed by Hitler confirming “peace in our time.”

Come to think of it, I haven't totally departed from the faith of my father. At least, as a youth I was wont to amend that blanket royal aversion, inserting the single exception of old Eddie VIII who, despite his Nazi affiliations, was fairly cool, according to my boyhood perception. He was to me “the glass of fashion and the mold of form,” what with the bags under his eyes and his fin de siecle ennui, his obviously dissipated globe-trotting lifestyle with Bessie Wallis Warfield Spencer Simpson Windsor, whose multi-matrimonial achievement rivaled that of Liz Taylor or Larry King-Live. I've favored a Windsor knot ever since.

But my limited royal watching reached its zenith in September, 1939 when, with ancestral voices prophesying war, G-G-George and the Queen Mum were dispatched to stir up royal fervor and rally the colonial troops. The Royal Visit of 1939 succeeded in spades, because the First Canadian Division was on the way to Blighty before the Big Dunkirk Bug-Out. But that royal tour cost them my vote forever, and I'll tell you why.

The royal train couldn't go everywhere in Canada and the closest it came to my little Alberta town was the rail line 80 miles to the north, which passed through the metropolis of Wainwright, then boasting at least twice the population of the 300 souls in my town. The patriotic subjects of the entire surrounding region flocked to Wainwright by car, truck, Bennett-buggy, horse and on foot. In our case, we arose at 4:00 A.M., having pre-arranged box lunches and a sort of car pool in our town. My father's Model A Ford was pressed into service, and was assigned several kids in addition to our family. That fact is key to the following anecdote.

I must note that the subsequent brief view of their Majesties was ante-climactic, in terms of adventurous excitement. Bobby Turton, who rode with us, unaccustomed to such world travel, was afflicted with violent car sickness around Mile 60. My father, pressed for time and preoccupied with driving over a dark prairie trail, instructed Bobby to let fly out the left-rear window. The instruction came too late. Bobby had already upchucked on John Coulton's sandwiches. After that, it was all downhill, entertainment-wise.

My father, behind the wheel, persisted in doing his best, but by the time our old Ford rattled into Wainwright, we were noticeably late and a vast multitude had descended on the railway station. Dad managed to get parked four hundred yards west of the Visit's epicenter, where their Majesties had already detrained, right on schedule.

They proceeded to shake hands with the Mayor, receive a three-finger salute from the local Boy Scouts and a bouquet of pussy willows and prairie roses (Alberta's official floral emblem) from the Ladies Aid. Then with flawless timing they retrained, and were almost immediately flashing past our position, as we scrambled out of the car and up onto the roadbed.

In the pre-dawn darkness, I caught a brief glimpse, on the last pullman's rear platform, of what I recognized – being a keen 12-year old – as the pusser winter blue uniform of an Admiral of the Fleet (five-star rank to American readers) surmounted by Bertie's bored Windsor countenance. Alongside, there was a blur of white dress, a small white hat (which would dominate Canadian fashion for months) and a fluttering white-gloved hand.

The Royal Visit @ 30 mph accelerated into the still night in the general direction of Edmonton.

Since that brief revelation, we've retained in our society a lingering sentimental Queen Bee devotion, partly a conditioned matrilineal yearning, partly the gloating notion that, while our royalty is only symbolic (apart from our judicial system, our parliamentary structure, our speech, our syntax and our religious dogma), it is one of the few national treasures we have over the bloody jealous Americans.

And yet...

In 1952, shortly following our exodus from Canada, my wife was employed in Manhattan's Tenth Avenue garment district, a solitary Episcopalian among a buying office's 125 employees. One morning – like any other, as far as we were concerned - she arrived at work, noting a hushed silence, as if someone had clicked on a mute button. She was immediately approached by a crestfallen Belle Bernstein, the blouse buyer, who entoned: “Mr. Greenberg asked me to tell you to take the day off.”

My wife could only respond: “Lovely. But why?”

“Your King died,” said BBBB. (Belle Bernstein, the blouse buyer.)

My wife thought for a moment, nodded and – suitably condolenced, headed for the nearest outside phone booth (there were no cellphones, then), and dialed my office. I met her at Grand Central with alacrity and, while Princess Elizabeth ascended a distant throne, we spent the day at Jones Beach. In London, as in Hamlet's rotten Denmark, the funeral meats may have coldly set forth the coronation table, but our muted mourning consisted of hot dogs and beer.

And then there's the item of taxpayer expense. Some people object to the $50 million ponied up for a token visibly minority vice-regal figure (no Wasps need apply in liberated Canada) to live in a sprawling government mansion in Ottawa – together with smaller replica sprawling government mansions in the ten provincial capitals – for the singular purpose of these assistant Queens to be told by the Prime Minister (or the ten Premiers) what to tell the Prime Minister (or the ten premiers) every four years or so.

Take Normie Kwong. Please. The Honorable Norman Kwong, third generation Chinese/Canadian, first generation sensational former fullback for the Edmonton Eskimos (ethnicity doubtful) and sometime stock broker in my cousin's shop, was until recently Lieutenant Governor of Alberta. Normie is also a great guy. I've followed his career since he was a flashy halfback at Crescent High in Calgary and I led the ping-pong team at Mount Royal 65 years ago.

But he is perhaps about as qualified to be a supernumerary monarch as I – an octogenarian beachcomber – am capable of being an astronaut.

But let modesty draw the veil, and let my son Kevin have the last word in this slow-moving and disjointed apologia:

“Like the Vatican, the Crown is above the natural law of the land. Canadian courts refuse to hold it responsible for crimes against our people, just as a feudal compact of church and state still runs our country, severely truncating the legal rights of all Canadians. It is time to fulfill the founding vision of our two nations with a sovereign Republic, an elected head of state, and a Senate and Congress representing all our people.”

Don't bet the homestead on it.

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Bill Annett grew up a writing brat; his father, Ross Annett, at a time when Scott Fitzgerald and P.G. Wodehouse were regular contributors, wrote the longest series of short stories in the Saturday Evening Post's history, with the sole exception of the unsinkable Tugboat Annie.

At 18, Bill's first short story was included in the anthology “Canadian Short Stories.” Alarmed, his father enrolled Bill in law school in Manitoba to ensure his going straight. For a time, it worked, although Bill did an arabesque into an English major, followed, logically, by corporation finance, investment banking and business administration at NYU and the Wharton School. He added G.I. education in the Army's CID at Fort Dix, New Jersey during the Korean altercation.

He also contributed to The American Banker and Venture in New York, INC. in Boston, the International Mining Journal in London, Hong Kong Business, Financial Times and Financial Post in Toronto.

Bill has written six books, including a page-turner on mutual funds, a send-up on the securities industry, three corporate histories and a novel, the latter no doubt inspired by his current occupation in Daytona Beach as a law-abiding beach comber.

You can write to Bill Annett at this address: bilko23@gmail.com

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