A royal skeptic meets Americans obsessed with Harry and Meghan

On a Monday afternoon, the Pig and Whistle begins filli...

Posted: May 16, 2018 3:59 PM
Updated: May 16, 2018 3:59 PM

On a Monday afternoon, the Pig and Whistle begins filling up before it's officially quitting time. Happy Hour starts every day at 4 p.m. and the bartender is pouring pint after pint of Fuller's and Guinness.

The walls are plastered with posters, photos and prized possessions of the owner. There's a Crystal Palace Football Club of San Francisco (who knew?) and pictures of the Pig and Whistle cricket club as well as vintage prints of Indian soldiers who fought in colonial British regiments like the Madras Foot Artillery.

Steve Anderson arrived from London decades ago and fell in love with San Francisco so much that he never returned to the Olde Country. He opened this pub in 1991 and since then it has become a beloved place for British expats, of course, but also for neighborhood folks in search of a cold brew and hot fish and chips.

But I am here neither for the quaint atmosphere nor the Fuller's. Curiosity drew me here, specifically about an upcoming event that is, like this pub, decidedly British and yet, equally fascinating for Americans: The royal wedding.

Prince Harry and Meghan Markle have graced almost every tabloid and magazine cover I've seen recently in supermarket checkout lines. There have been endless stories about their romance.

America's decades-long fascination

Before them, it was William and Kate -- nearly 23 million people in the United States watched that wedding. And before that, it was Charles and Diana. In 1981, roughly 17 million Americans tuned into watch Diana arrive in a glass coach and walk down the aisle at Westminster Abbey in an ivory-silk gown with 10,000 pearls and a 25-foot train. In 1997, another 33 million turned on their TVs for Diana's funeral.

Then there are countless books, movies and television shows, including Showtime's highly successful "The Tudors" and Netflix's "The Crown," which tracks the ascension to power of Queen Elizabeth II.

And, I know of Americans who are planning to spend thousands of dollars to jet across the pond and camp out for days to catch a glimpse of Harry and Meghan. Oh, just to be in their presence.

As I sit down to speak with pub owner Anderson, I think of what then-President Barack Obama said at his White House meeting with Charles: "I think it's fair to say that the American people are quite fond of the royal family. They like them much better than they like their own politicians."

Why are millions of Americans enraptured with the British monarchy? They are not, after all, our kings or queens, princes and princesses. Wasn't George III a reason why we fought the Revolutionary War? We gave blood to be free of the British monarchy.

Even some Brits don't care much for royalty in this day and age.

"I'm not a massive fan of the royals," Anderson admits.

Neither am I.

Understanding the fairy tale

I, too, grew up in a colonized country and am part of a generation of post-independence Indians who heard still raw and wretched tales of British oppression and injustice. I spent childhood years visiting Victoria Memorial, a massive tribute to the British queen (and empress of India) smack in the middle of Kolkata.

It was paid for largely with Indian money and built with the same white Makrana marble as the Taj Mahal, as though there could ever be a comparison. On the entrance is a French phrase, "Dieu Et Mon Droit." God and my right. Inside are grandiose portraits of mostly white men in all their colonial splendor. You would never learn the brutal history of the Raj by wandering these halls.

For me, it was the equivalent of black Americans having to endure monuments glorifying the Confederacy. That's how I viewed the British monarchy, and in years past I have paid little attention to events like the royal wedding.

But this year, I wanted to learn more. Perhaps it was because Markle is a woman of color, and black women have expressed enormous interest in her story. So I had recently reached out to several, including Jasmine Guillory, an Oakland lawyer and author whose latest romance novel explores the relationship between a black woman and a white man.

Guillory grew up reading history books and became interested in how monarchies often emblemized societal changes. She went on to study history in college and decided the notion of a monarch, entrusted by God to lead a nation, was not logical.

But she reveled in the pageantry of it all. The dresses, the hats, the jewels. She woke up before the sun came up to watch Kate and William's wedding and is now planning to make a vacation of the latest spectacle, traveling to Lake Tahoe with two of her close friends to watch it from there.

"I love the fairy-tale aspect of it all," she told me.

When Guillory was a child, she never imagined herself as a princess, let alone a black princess.

Markle, she said, is breaking taboos. There's something heroic about that.

Related: Why America loves the British royal family

For some, Meghan modernizes the monarchy

Annette Alexander, 63, of Houston, echoed Guillory's sentiments. She started a Facebook page for people as excited as she was about the upcoming nuptials.

"I equate it in some ways to when Obama became our first African American president," she told me. "Never in a million years would I have believed an African American woman would be marrying a prince.

"I look at my grandchildren now and think: you can do anything," she said. "It's limitless."

I started to think about what Guillory and Alexander said and things began to make sense. Sort of.

I understood the historical interest, but then again, there are a lot of historical figures who are just as fascinating as the royals. I understood more the fairy-tale aspect of it all and how Markle has elevated that.

But still. Royalty? At the Pig and Whistle, I get the expat view from Anderson.

"Traditionally, it's a great thing," he tells me as I place an order for chips served with "curry" sauce. "I moved to a country that's only 200 years old. This country doesn't have a lot of tradition, does it?"

But wait. Why are there no photos of the royals on these busy walls? I ask Anderson.

"We wouldn't necessarily find pictures of the Queen in English pubs. Or Winston Churchill," he explains.

Meghan's fairy tale

Customers have asked if he was planning to do anything to celebrate the royal wedding or even open the bar in time to catch it live on the telly. That would be on May 19 at, uh, 4 a.m. on the West Coast.

Too early, but Anderson knows there's a loyal following among his regulars. On the day Diana died in 1997, he had been playing cricket and returned to the Pig and Whistle to see eight satellite news trucks parked outside. He thought there had been a shooting on his block. But reporters had flocked to this place for interviews.

"So many people came in that day to express their grief," Anderson tells me.

So, he's sure the crowds will swell on May 19. "I'm sure we'll be doing a few toasts."

Anderson has work to do, so I sidle up to the bar and order a true American beer: Sam Adams. Bartender Chris McKenna, like Anderson, came to visit San Francisco 15 years ago and never left.

"I think Americans would love to have a royal family," he says. "They're all about celebrity -- the Kennedys and Camelot, the fairy tale. But it doesn't always play out like that, does it? There's deaths, divorces, scandal. I'd say it was more like 'The Game of Thrones.'"

Harsh words. But true, I think.

The royal family enigma

And that's probably another reason Americans are so taken with the royals. I think back to what Jessica Morgan told me.

"For Americans, the royal family is not a political issue," she said. "For us, they are like a very long running soap opera."

Morgan along with Heather Cocks writes young adult novels and the snarky celebrity fashion blog Go Fug Yourself. They covered William and Kate's wedding, and their 2015 book "Royal We" is based on reality except the Kate character is American.

"Turned out to be prescient," Morgan said, thinking of Markle.

She pointed to the drama of Henry VIII and his six wives, two of whom he had beheaded. "Operatic," said Morgan.

Or take Diana, the young and beautiful princess who eventually gets divorced and then tragically killed.

"It's like a story we have been following for a thousand years," said Morgan.

And then she hit upon something else I had not really thought of before: an air of mystery.

"American celebrities talk a lot," she said. "They do interviews. We know a lot about them. But the royals -- we don't really know what they are like."

To which journalist and author Jo Piazza added: Americans often don't see the royals for who they really are.

"We paint a pretty picture of them in our minds," she said. "We don't live the scandals every day. We don't see them as recent colonizers. We really idealize them."

Piazza, who has written about celebrity culture, said the obsession with the royals is even greater than actors and actresses because their rough edges are seldom seen in public.

"To us, it does seem like they have dedicated their lives to good work, good deeds," Piazza said. "They represent a kinder, more gentlemanly time."

I took issue with that last statement. To me, the royals never represented a kinder time. But I know what Piazza meant. Meghan and Harry, Kate and William, Diana and Charles and even the Queen and Philip -- well, they are supposed to be symbols of perfect women and men.

I pay my bar tab at the Pig and Whistle, say goodbye to everything British and wander out into the streets of San Francisco to ponder royal thoughts.

I enjoyed my conversations but still don't fully understand the American fascination with the monarchy. And I won't be waking up early on the morning of May 19 to watch the live broadcast from St. George's Chapel in Windsor.

I'll take Idris Elba and Hrithik Roshan over Harry any day. Meghan Markle or not. Sorry, your majesties. Dieu Et Mon Droit.

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