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17 July 2012updated 07 Sep 2021 11:51am

We must be happy for the princess – though the fairy tale’s out of reach for us

By Laurie Penny

When the occupation of the uterus of the Duchess of Cambridge was officially announced, the Prime Minister declared himself “delighted”. I bet he was. The news couldn’t have come at a better time. Coverage of the Glorious Impregnation of the Magical Vagina of Monarchical Succession has conveniently knocked our woeful economy off the front pages and distracted attention from the omni-shambles that was once the British fourth estate in the wake of the Leveson inquiry. Now we’re in for almost nine months of name speculation and bump-watching. It’s as if the House of Windsor were just another soap opera, rather than an institution that continues to confiscate full democratic enfranchisement from more than 60 million other humans living on this rainy little island. Never mind, though. Babies are cute and we have to wish the royal couple well. Or else.

Even the most hardened republicans – those world-weary activists and opinionators who still get the guillotine gleam in their eyes after a few beers – even they feel obliged, before declaring the monarchy a rotten, anti-democratic monster squatting with intent over British civil society, to announce how happy they are for the royal parents-to-be. That’s what we’re all meant to say: how very, very happy we are for the prince and his pretty princess, so young and so in love and now with a baby on the way.

Young love

I’m going to go out on a limb here and count myself one of many thousands who didn’t feel any particular surge of joy at the news. I’ve never met these two people and probably never will. Like most of us, I only know what they’re supposed to represent, which is power and the ways in which power and privilege justify themselves to the rest of us with schmaltz and parades and a bugger-load of bunting.

When I think of William and Kate and how happy we’re supposed to be for them, I can’t help but think of another young couple I know, around the same age as the royals and living only a few miles away, on the other side of the river – friends of mine whose wedding I attended earlier this year. It really was a fairy tale, in its ordinary way. They met when they were just teenagers on an internet chat forum a decade ago. They fell in love and crossed the country to be together but were both too young and messed up, fell apart, lost touch. Then, ten years later, they rediscovered each other through mutual friends and it was as if all those years melted away: they moved in together, got engaged. This summer, I watched them have their first dance in the room above the local pub with all their friends, with him bent at a strange, loving angle to reach her mouth for a kiss, because he’s a lanky sod and she’s under five feet tall. Now the two of them want to have a baby. But they can’t.

Not because of any physical complications. Because of circumstances. Because he’s on night shifts and she’s in full-time further education and, despite working so hard they’ve barely seen each other since their honeymoon, they can’t afford a flat big enough for the two of them and their cats, let alone for three. The benefits they rely on to keep them in their home have been slashed. They don’t know when, if ever, they’ll be able to afford to have children together.

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Then there’s another young couple I used to know, again just a few years younger than the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge. They met at college, fell in love and were planning to get married and have children but one of them suffered from a painful physical disability that worsened the more she worked to make them a home together. Her partner watched her struggle to claim disability benefits, like millions of others, watched her self-esteem slowly eroded by the gruelling process of applying for sickness support and failing, time and time again.

She watched her slide into depression and despair. They could only afford one small room to share. There was no money left over for them to leave the house, not even for a pair of tickets to the cinema. Sometimes young love survives that sort of hardship and sometimes it shrivels. They broke up and barely speak any more.

Know your place

This is a story that’s being repeated, with different actors and the same tragic theme, all over the country this year. These are the love stories you don’t see, the ones in which poverty and hard city winters and the heart-hammering unfairness of life get between a young girl and her prince or princess. Do not be fooled by the flag-waving and fist-pumping. We are becoming a colder, meaner place and love, a force that is supposed to be more powerful even than class, is harder than ever to fight for.

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Next year, about 750,000 babies will be born in the UK. At least 250,000 of them will be born into poverty. They will grow up with no idea how they’re going to afford education, housing or any of the things even their parents took to some extent for granted. Those children and their parents will spend the next 20 years watching another infant grow up in unimaginable privilege and luxury in the pages of their daily papers. The lesson is: know your place. The lesson is: know your class and its limits and who, ultimately, is in charge. In modern Britain, despite what you might read in the international press, fairy tales are getting thin on the ground.