Sunday, 3 August 2008

Chuck the Helicopter

Last Saturday I held a yard sale. The increased traffic that was passing my door for Gig In The Park was an opportunity to recycle a lot of toys and clothes my children had grown out of.

Unsurprisingly nobody wanted any of the five varying vintage Apple Macs, a surplus laser printer (works perfectly) that I originally salvaged from a skip myself and the six foot stack of out of date film production directories I'd collected over the years. If anyone wants the DGA list of members 1994 get in touch. 

By the end of the day we had passed on a lot of toys and clothing for 0-5 year olds to pleasant and grateful people and had made oh, at least ten pounds. Our chickens must have sensed the occasion too because for the first time they produced ten eggs that morning enabling us to offer a full dozen for sale which were snapped up by some appreciative campers who could see the chickens that gave them their breakfast. It's nice to think that something as simple as an egg stand and honesty box will add value for visitors. Perhaps SCC's tourism department should be notified.

Although yard sales can attract to your door people living in an alternate reality and the tiny minority of dishonest people who will pocket a child's toy even though the seller was only asking 10 pence, you also meet your neighbours near and far and many people will hang about just to make conversation. Such chances for fellowship are a fine thing.

One constant topic of conversation that day was the visit the previous Thursday (July 31st) to Southwold and surrounding area of HRH Prince Charles and HRH The Duchess of Cornwall. I was asked in an employment capacity if I could be there to photograph His and Her Royal Highnesses but, being a Thursday, I had a five thousand word research report to finish and had pledged to lock myself away until it was done.

As I have done the Royal Rota before, I know that in my heart, that my report will be much more important and useful than anything that could result from any photographs I could take at such a tightly controlled photo-opportunity.

Although our corner of Suffolk is thought very conservative (my MP John Gummer has one of the safest Conservative seats in the UK) I think any republicans would be encouraged if they had polled my yard sale visitors. Southwold is a property hotspot for wealthy second-homeowners, allegedly mostly meeja types from London, and if any of them were amongst those who stopped by my stall, they joined the vast majority who were rather disparaging about there being any benefit or value in being visited by - as the official advance memo called them - Their Royal Highnesses (TRH). In fact, against the carbon footprint of a brief royal visit, they would prefer they stayed at home and didn't bother anyone.

To be fair, they didn't see any value in the attention gained from the Prime Minister Gordon Brown visiting Southwold either.

There was some tabloid outrage that the TRHs visited Southwold to see how a brewer reduced their carbon footprint and taste a carbon neutral beer by flying the 85 road miles from Sandringham to Southwold in a helicopter.

I should like to point out that it's not just the helicopter that affects the Royal's carbon footprint but the fact that someone had to drive the royal Daimler or Aston Martin empty (from Sandringham presumably) to meet the helicopter at Southwold for the twenty minute journey down to Snape Maltings afterwards and then drive it empty back again and wherever TRH go, there is an advance party of about twenty vehicles checking for bombs and snipers and any dodgy characters such as protesters outraged at the leaving of Southwold's sea defences to the whim of nature.

With all the extra mileage from the vendors convened for a 'Farmer's Market' at Snape Maltings as a photo opportunity, (as one had already been held the week before) let alone all the media, VIPs and onlookers which should be discounted of course, the Royal Party must have been a huge procession spewing tons of CO2 in its wake.

A palace spokesman is reported to have said the helicopter was the "most effective" way of travelling.

"We always look at the most effective way of travelling, taking into account the different factors... On this occasion it was felt a helicopter was the best way to travel so the Prince of Wales and the Duchess of Cornwall could carry out various engagements in Suffolk." A more neutral Press Association story is here.

Hmm, most effective for whom? So TRH can be back at home in time for tea?

A point that many bloggers and internet news stories seem to have missed is that TRH were also visiting Snape Maltings to see the result so far of the £14M of public and private funding spent on creating a music campus, which will have excellent green credentials itself, created out of long derelict buildings.

But, according to the advance reports, this trip was not about showing support for a venture that will advance Britain's status internationally and create many real and sustainable jobs in an area where the alternative employment is factory turkey farming and processing, but for a photo of the Prince sniffing at a jar of chutney to show his support for "the people behind the products that are putting Suffolk on the food map."

Given the esteem held for TRH - rather more a sort of tolerance encouraged in the great and the good by chances at the occasional gong - I wouldn't think TRH is the sort of celebrity endorsement that's wanted or even needed for Suffolk's food.

What publicity does Suffolk food need? Why Suffolk? What food in particular? What happens when TRH goes next week to somewhere else, does the magic wand of TRH's presence lead to an improvement in those vendor's bottom line also? I don't think so. I agree with his sentiments but it's quite a lot easier to be green when you own half (or more) of Cornwall.

The brand value of TRH is practically nil unless it is tied specifically to something you can identify with them like rather dry and dull oat biscuits. Unlike his pronouncement made on his last visit to Blythburgh in 2001 to "make the pub the hub" and keep shopping local which was tremendously effective, I haven't heard of any speech or subsequent sound-bite derived from this visit. So Sir, what is your point? I am in fact, very keen to know.

A message to "support Suffolk food" is too vague a notion which is why I suspect the story got hijacked by something more newsworthy. Charles is preaching to an already converted (and dwindling) constituency.

In 2001 Charles urged people to buy locally and the visit this time was pitched as a follow up. Well, my experience is that some of the public already did and they still do so but most don't because the things they need and can afford are not sold locally in Suffolk. Local produce tends to be (and there are a few exceptions) aimed and priced at the luxury 'gourmet' market because that's where the margins are, meeting the wants of the demographic of the wealthy second-homeowners in Southwold who may buy a few of my eggs but get 99% of the rest of their shopping online. In any number of Suffolk towns, these consumers can support a delicatessen stocking expensive olive oils imported from Italy but don't buy enough locally caught fish to keep the fishmongers in business.

If Nelson Mandela ever came to Suffolk the crowds would likely be ten-thousand deep, for it is a very great honour for a such a man to devote any of his precious time to grace anyone with his presence. One participant said "I felt about as honoured and excited to meet Prince Charles as I did when I met Bet Lynch" and there lies the rub. Ms Lynch is of course a fictional character and so are TRH, being persons with status and advantage only conferred on them by virtue of practically nothing but marriage or accident of birth.

I'm sure a great number of people were pleased to see TRH and I know a few children were excited to present their posies but quite a few, including mine, when offered the choice, wanted to go to somewhere else. "Why?" they asked. I could only answer with what is expected of a loyal subject: "because he might be your king one day" but that was not sufficiently convincing.

That lack of credibility is unfortunately the problem for Charles. I am quite happy for Prince Charles to devote himself to something, to find some relevance he is so sensitive about, but I feel he can't have it both ways. Kingship is synonymous with luxury; king-size, 'fit for a king' and so on and HRH certainly enjoys plenty of luxury regardless of how much composting they do at Highgrove. Why isn't there solar panel on Buckingham Palace? I don't think anyone would object to the planning application and I reckon you could hide a pretty big wind turbine in the gardens as well. If they went for a vertical axis one, it might be quieter too.

Saving the planet is simply a matter of everyone consuming less and that, unfortunately for makers of luxury goods, is best achieved in the short term by going without such unnecessary extravagance. Status = consumption is the basic promise of most consumer advertising and wealth buys you the freedom to choose what you consume. The rural poor don't have such freedom. Those who are not brainwashed by advertising can overcome the stigma of second-hand goods and will buy recycled clothes from their neighbours because it is convenient and affordable and is far greener than bundling them up for Great Ormond Street (the local clothes charity) to ship them thousands of miles (more carbon) to Africa.

It seems that Clarence House can't get it right and I don't think they ever will while they continue to impose 19th Century ideas of duty, fealty and honour onto the 21st Century's media reality and ordinary people's priorities. Once upon a time kings and queens didn't have to go gallivanting around the country unless they wanted a free lunch and certainly didn't feel obliged to open hospitals and kiss babies and nobody actually expected them to. Perhaps we have come full circle, I think TRH wouldn't lose any public esteem if they stayed at home with their feet up for the sake of the planet.

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