Thursday 28 June 2018


Needless to say, I did not expect my column from last month to be quite so prescient...

To be so spectacularly dramatically outgunned by reality has come as a great surprise to your humble scribe, unaccustomed as I am to events and happenings of any description. I'm therefore going to have to raise my lyrical game a notch to fully capture the tension of the current hour.

So, let us discuss the political and cultural legacy of Versailles, the orgiastic epicentre of royal power that orbited around the pernicious and mercurial moods of the Sun King. The small hamlet outside Paris became the prison of ambition and scandalous decadence for three entire generations of French nobles, a terrain created for the simple purpose of holding the political class of the nation - whether powerful, talented, mediocre or inept – to ransom, miles away from their family and estate strongholds and dependant upon the grace and favour bestowed by the Bourbon dynasty. One minute you were the lord of a large manor in the country, the next you found yourself applying His Majesty's cuff links for him as your first court act of the day. Your connections meant nothing when you found yourself competing for a place diagonal to the King at dinner.

Stranded in the sticks, members of the court sunk into a morass of drink, sex, debauchery, drugs, parties, gambling, witchcraft and war. Careers rose and fell on the unpredictable whims of the Louis', former favourites were exiled to nunneries and Spain, nations rose and fell, and the people gradually fell into poverty and despair. The nation sunk into debt, as even the victories of the state turned out to be ruinously expensive. And eventually it ended - suddenly, spectacularly, bloodily.

What can we learn from this? That there are limits to autocratic power; that ultimately the creditors take control; and that every party has to end sometime. But the original concept of Versailles – as corrupt, mismanaged, inhumane and disastrous a waste of human talent, effort and life as it turned out to be – did still have the seed of an idea of an ordered, balanced and enlightened utopia of human endeavour. Could Versailles have lasted longer if it was better run, more accountable, more democratic? Is there a way of having power and fun at that same time, and keeping them both?

Of course, we would need to have power – and fun – to find that out.

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