We find out more about Princess Margaret and about Craig Brown: the prolific writer behind critically-acclaimed, multi-award-winning Ma’am Darling.
Craig Brown is not a toady, tweedy double-barrelled royal biographer. He’s not even a biographer really, unless you count The Tony Years: a satirical look at the era when Mr Blair was charged with making big decisions on behalf of British citizens. He’s written an awful lot of books, but most of are more likely to appeal to fans of his Private Eye column rather than pink-rinsed Daily Mail readers poring over the latest tidbits from Buckingham Palace. And so Ma’am Darling: 99 Glimpses of Princess Margaret is perhaps not what anyone would have expected Craig Brown to write next.
Perfectly-timed in its publication – just a few months before The Crown’s second series aired – Ma’am Darling has been named Book of the Year by more newspapers, magazines and critics than we care to name. And we thought it was such a funny, special, fascinating book that – despite the fact that we promise to feature fiction only – we had to include it in our boxeas our August book. We hope you’ve been reading it with a generously-dosed martini.
What did you know of Princess Margaret before you started writing the book?
No one who lived through the 1960s and 1970s could have remained unaware of her. In the era before it all went haywire and soap-opera-ish, with Princess Diana, and Fergie, and Princess Michael of Kent, etc, etc, Princess Margaret was the only Royal who misbehaved. This is why The Crown TV series doesn’t really have to embroider her story, whereas they have to make things up about everybody else.
Have you always wanted to be a writer?
I am unable to do anything else, like sums, or changing a plug, so I was always destined to be some sort of writer.
Why did you choose the short story-style format?
Most Royal biographies are deadly dull, as they have to go through each Royal tour of Canada, and every ship-launching. I wanted to only put in what was interesting, and exclude anything boring. The episodic, non-chronological format allowed me to do this. I also wanted to show what might have happened to her in parallel lives – eg, what would she have been like if she had been the elder sister, and become Queen? What if she’d married Peter Townsend? What if she’d married Pablo Picasso, who had long fancied her? Or if she’d married Jeremy Thorpe, who had also set his sights on her?
Was there anything you liked about Princess Margaret?
She had good points. She was occasionally very kind to people – letting friends of her who had fallen on hard times come to stay in Kensington Palace for quite long periods of time, and comforting Aids victims some time before Princess Diana did the same. She had several old friends who remained very loyal to her – though one of them recently said to me that she now couldn’t think why they let her get away with being so demanding. Her children also turned out better than her sister’s, so she must have also done something well in that department.
Why do you think she was so difficult?
She was always pretty difficult – as a child, she was the mischievous one, whereas the young Princess Elizabeth was almost obsessively dutiful. In her 20s, she was already showing signs of being rude and inconsiderate – I include a long description by the wife of the UK ambassador to Paris of having her to stay in her 20s, and the amazing demands she made on everyone. In Rome around the same time, a British diplomat had taught his little daughter how to say grace before lunch with Margaret. When the time came, the little girl was tongue-tied. Her mother tried to encourage her. “Come on, darling, just repeat what Daddy said”. “Why must we have that awful woman for lunch?” said the girl. I think one of the reasons she was increasingly difficult as time went by was that she hated the idea of being an object of pity, so she thought it better to lash out.
How do you feel Princess Margaret relates to the royals of today?
· She was the first to become a showbiz figure, preferring to mix with writers and actors and celebrities. Now they’re all at it, so much so that royalty has become yet another branch of celebrity. So in that way she was a pioneer.
Tell us about your favourite books…
I read at least two books a week, and have done for the past forty-odd years. I suppose if I have a bias, it is towards the humorous and the suspenseful.
Which writers inspire you?
Saki. Simon Gray. Geoff Dyer. Alan Bennett. Auberon Waugh. Most recently, Rose Macaulay..
What would you say to anyone thinking of writing their first book?
Keep going. Avoid self-pity. Make every sentence as taut as possible.
How have you felt about the reception to Ma’am Darling?
It’s succeeded beyond my wildest dreams, both in terms of general popularity and literary acclaim – it’s won The South Bank Show Sky Arts award for literature and the James Tait Black Award for biography. Yet every day when I was writing it, I thought it would be a complete flop – too odd to be popular, and too frivolous to win awards.
What’s next for you?
I’m writing a book about the River Thames.