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Sweden’s princesses next door

Observations on bicycling monarchies

During her visit to London earlier this month, the next queen of Sweden came to a reception in the Barbican. She sat through a short film about Ingmar Bergman, but skipped his early, glorious Summer with Monika. Then she returned to listen to the Q&A with the film’s star, and it was explained that none of us might leave the room before her. After the Q&A, she left with the ambassador, leaving the rest of us to reflect that as ways of making a living on a bicycle go, being a Scandinavian monarch beats the hell out of the Tour de France.

That’s not to say it’s terribly easy. The members of the bicycling monarchies are among the very few celebrities who have done nothing to deserve their persecution by the celebrity press – except be born. The fantastically detailed coverage of their lives by the European media is not really reflected over here. But Sweden’s Princess Victoria was born about four months after my son, and I remember her baby clothes, all over the news-stands every week, more vividly than I remember his – though I suppose if I had dressed him, too, in yards of lace, things would be different.

But mostly the lives of these people are perfectly ordinary: not uneventful, but nothing happens to them that might not happen to people we know. That makes them perfect fodder for a certain kind of celebrity magazine: they are the princesses next door. Victoria had anorexia and is to marry her personal trainer, who, thrillingly, has had a kidney transplant. The Norwegian crown prince married a single mother he met at a rock festival; her estranged father then sold all the details he could remember of her adventures with sex and drugs to the gossip magazines. But none of this was enough to feed the appetite of the German celebrity press for regal soap opera. In 2004, the Swedish royal family sued one large publisher claiming it had printed 1,558 stories that had been more or less entirely made up.

The bicycling monarchies cannot take the same elevated view of gossip as the British royal family used to, before Diana. They all sell their countries abroad to places from which trade and tourists come, but the bicyclists, unlike the Brits, don’t have traditions of pageantry. There’s no Trooping the Colour, nor anything like it: a friend of mine who did his national service in the ceremonial guard outside the royal palace in Stockholm remembers the way the tourists would gawp at the soldiers’ hairnets.

Should we, in Britain, want such a quiet, small-scale monarchy? That depends how much we want foreigners to laugh at us. I think the Swedish royal family probably earns its way as a tourist attraction: in Germany, their biggest tourist market, Sweden is a country with only two indigenous life forms: princesses and elk. It would be hard to tell which is more exotic abroad or more banal when at home.

Perhaps the curiously unglamorous celebrity of the Scandinavian monarchies derives from the sense that their relationship with their people is more one of fellow citizens than rulers and subjects. They are seen to subscribe to the same moral codes as everyone else; they are better behaved, more restrained, and less rich than the general run of Scandinavian millionaires. But the one thing their experience shows is that no life could possibly be so banal as to escape celebrity.