The best abdication joke yet?

For those of Malcolm’s generation and of republican sympathies, there is still some mileage in the doings of 1936.

For a start, it made Éamon de Valera able to machinate his new Constitution. Now, why should the phrase Kinder, Küche, Kirche leap to Malcolm’s mind with that reference?

Malcolm, a child of the war years, obviously has no direct memory of the Abdication crisis. Even so, when, back in 1978, Thames TV put out a mini-series of Edward & Mrs Simpson, it somehow made the addicted girls of the Fifth Form promote Malcolm to the main authority on next week’s exciting episode. This had two results:

  • The painful query to Malcolm: “Do you remember it, Sir?” and
  • Curiously-truncated essays written in answer to a CSE examination-paper question on the Addication Crisis, when only the first four of the seven episodes had so far been broadcast.

Confusion thrice confounded

Malcolm admits he has never quite reconciled his opinion of Prince Edward, the alleged sympathiser with the Hunger Marchers, with the Duke of Windsor, alleged Nazi fellow-traveller.

Then there was the story about the Northern Irish school inspection (this anecdote needs to be related with a strong Ulster accent to work).

The Inspector was putting the class through a Biblical general knowledge test, which had been more than successful until the question: “Who was Samson?”

The hand went up at the back of the class. The Inspector’s finger picked out its owner. The girl’s voice piped up: “Please, sor: Missus Sampson’s tryin’ to steal our King!”.


Thanks to the marvellous London Open House programme, late this afternoon Malcolm found himself confronted with a novelty, something never previously encountered: a full-length portrait of King Edward VIII in full ceremonial fig: Garter robes, uniform of Admiral-of-the-Fleet, and all flags flying (see black-and-white reproduction of the VistaVision and Technicolor original above).

This needs some detailed explication, so …

… here beginneth a Malcolm aside.

At Temple Stairs, on the Victoria Embankment, just where the City of London fades into Westminster, is moored HQS Wellington. It has been a Thames-side fixture as far back as Malcolm’s recollection; but he had never quite worked out its significance.

It is, in fact, the floating Livery Hall of the Master Mariners’ Company. Today, it was open for visits.

Edward, Prince of Wales, had been titular Master of the Company when it was chartered in 1930. The Wellington has two oils of this period: one is the then-Prince of Wales receiving the charter: in Malcolm’s opinion a long way from Sir John Lavery’s best; the other is this formal portrait.

So here comes the joke

The guide was a former Captain of the Merchant Marine. In him, Malcolm recognised an anecdotalist of merit.

He pungently described the approved method of turning a Shell oil-tanker in the narrows of a Venezuelan river: ram it into the river-bank, use the engines full-bore to swing the stern, and hope it didn’t bring too much of the jungle wild-life on board, around the ears of the unfortunate bow-watch.

He narrated the Wellington‘s early career, before the Second World War. It had been the flag-carrier for the British Empire around the minor islands of the Pacific. This involved impressing the natives (hence the grand quarter-deck, well suited for receptions).

It also involved the delivery and collection of Foreign Office radio-operators to such isolated communities. There they would stay for a couple of years, routinely Morse-coding to London that another day had passed without any major calamity. Invariably these were young men, lonely, unloved and a long way from Mummy, and so tended to seek comfort and form local associations in the course of the posting.

Apparently, the Wellington in its rounds would be routinely delayed as bo’s’uns and such-like heavies had to be dispatched ashore to locate and drag back time-served officials, who perversely preferred a tropical paradise and the perks that went with it to a dingy basement in the Foreign Office.

Now the guide stood before this grand royal portrait, and offered the view of a seaman.

Giving up being King for the woman he loved might be understandable. Even forgivable.

But no seaman could comprehend why anyone could sensibly forgo the rank of Admiral-of-the-Fleet to become Third Mate of an American tramp.

[Footnote: Malcolm realises that not everyone would appreciate that Bessie Wallis Warfield was married, first, to Earl Winfield Spencer (an American naval flier): they divorced in 1927. She then married Ernest Simpson, and began an affair with Edward, Prince of Wales. The Simpsons divorced in October 1936. The Abdication came in December 1936; and Edward married Wallis Warfield Spencer Simpson in June 1937.]

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