ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.
The British are polishing their silverware and unfurling their flags. The royal wedding is now just a week away. It'll be a big day in London, but what about the rest of the country?
NPR's Philip Reeves is traveling across the British countryside finding out what people really feel about their monarchy and its latest love match. Here's the first of his reports.
(Soundbite of music)
PHILIP REEVES: It's noon and springtime in the heart of England. Irene Bunn is gliding across the dance floor as she always does at this hour on this weekday. Bunn's been coming to tea dances in this ballroom since George VI was on the throne and Britain was fighting Hitler and Hitler was bombing this town.
Bunn's in her 80s now. She's keenly looking forward to the wedding of George's great grandson William and a commoner called Kate, though she's not exactly sure why.
Ms. IRENE BUNN: Probably the war, because there were things we didn't see in the war like we see now, all this glitter and beautiful clothes.
REEVES: This is city hall in Sheffield in the county of Yorkshire. These are hard times in this gritty, once-mighty steel and coal city. Britain's struggling with some of the biggest spending cuts since Bunn first began fox-trotting. Some of its people think the government should save its money for public services and not spend it on the royal wedding. Bunn disagrees.
Ms. BUNN: No, no, no, no, no. You can't spend everything on things like that. We've got to have a lift, be lifted. And this wedding will lift everybody up. Beautiful.
REEVES: Bunn will be glued to her TV on wedding day and so will many, many more. She'll lap up every new detail about William and Kate, a couple about whom most Britains still don't seem to know very much, even though the British press has the royal couple under the microscope as never before. It's peppering its readers with all sorts of tittle tattle. Some true, some invented.
We've read about how Kate, the commoner, was bullied at school, about her fanatical pre-wedding dieting. Even about the underwear she'll likely be wearing on wedding day.
(Soundbite of talking)
REEVES: Some people don't seem to be paying too much attention, though. Which Yorkshire city is Kate descended from?
Unidentified Man #1: York. I'm trying to remember the Yorkshire city.
Unidentified Man #2: The worst thing is, it's been in the papers all week.
Unidentified Man #1: Could be York as well.
Unidentified Man #3: It's Hartlepool.
Unidentified Man #1: I'll go York.
REEVES: The answer is Leeds.
Unidentified Man #2: Leeds?
REEVES: It's pub quiz night in Sheffield's Banner Hotel. Tom Daniels, Greg Shore and Nick Smith are veterans of this popular British pastime. They can probably tell you the capital of Belarus or list members of OPEC. But they're a bit shakey on the royal couple. That's the weird thing about the British. Some people are into this wedding big-time. Some are not.
Mr. JEREMY PAXMAN (British TV Presenter; Author, "The Royals"): And there will be crabby people who will say, well, it's just a pointless wedding.
REEVES: Jeremy Paxman is a prominent British TV presenter and author of a book called "The Royals." He's famous here for being a very crabby character himself, yet not about this wedding.
Mr. PAXMAN: Of course it's a pointless wedding. That's the whole point.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. PAXMAN: There will be people who say, this legitimizes an illegitimate institution. But in a precise political theory sense, it is an illegitimate institution, or an indefensible institution, certainly. However, it works. And that's the greatest thing in its favor.
REEVES: Paxman doesn't agree with those who say the wedding's a waste of public money.
Mr. PAXMAN: Well, it's not a great deal of money if you think each cruise missile fired into Libya costs a million dollars. I mean, you know, by those terms it is not an expensive affair. If you were to make this slightly different argument, which is that isn't this all bread and circuses - a way of keeping the masses entertained when they should be concerned with much more serious affairs? Well, yes, of course. Of course, that's true. It is not important, but it's just a happy event. What's wrong with that?
(Soundbite of bar)
REEVES: It's a quiet night in Sheffield, yet this downtown bar is full of people. They're frowning as if deep in thought. Welcome to a group meeting of Skeptics in the Pub.
Mr. DAVID AARONOVITCH (Writer): What if the car carrying Diana had hit the underpass at a slightly different angle, everybody would've survived.
REEVES: David Aaronovitch, writer and journalist, is talking about some of the world's favorite conspiracy theories. Skeptics don't like conspiracy theories. Being a skeptic means, well, let Michael Heap explain.
Mr. MICHAEL HEAP (Clinical and Forensic Psychologist): Not being gullible and being able to look at the evidence and make an - and to decide for yourself.
REEVES: Heap says he's a clinical and forensic psychologist and a committed skeptic. He thinks most self-respecting skeptics aren't particularly interested in the royal wedding or in the British monarchy.
Mr. HEAP: Skeptics in general will be at least indifferent to it and possibly irritated by it. It's hereditary, which doesn't mean anything. It plays on people's emotions rather than their intellect and so on.
REEVES: Heap's going to miss the wedding.
Mr. HEAP: I'll be over in France enjoying myself sitting at a cafe with my wife having a nice French coffee. But I wouldn't watch it anyway over here.
REEVES: That means Heap's going to miss out on all that moving TV commentary about how this is a fairytale wedding. Aaronovitch also isn't buying into the fairytale.
Mr. AARONOVITCH: Are fairytales true? No. I mean, that's quite interesting in and of itself, a skeptic would certainly find this. The very terms that we use to describe the royal wedding in are actually impossible. We set a kind of notion of impossible happiness or impossible perfection. She must be totally beautiful. He must be totally handsome. They must be completely devoted. All these things that couples, generally speaking, aren't and cannot be. So, it absolutely is in that sense - it constitutes a national fantasy.
REEVES: Yet all the same, many British haven't forgotten what happened to Princess Diana and to Prince Andrew's erstwhile spouse Fergie. For all the fairytales, they know it's really tough becoming a royal. Can Kate Middleton take it?
Mr. AARONOVITCH: How on earth would anybody - that's the problem - anybody who answers that question to you is a fake and a fraud and a quack because they don't know. Unless they know her personally, how they can possibly tell you? We've had all these royal people - you're going to go around - all these royal experts, they are - Oh, I think Kate seems to have all the attributes which are necessary and psycho... you have no idea. It's all rubbish.
(Soundbite of music)
REEVES: Back at the tea dancing, Irene Bunn doesn't seem worried about all that stuff. She's just looking forward to the big day and to seeing Kate Middleton go down the aisle.
Ms. BUNN: I think she's lovely. She looks quite nice. And if he loves her and she loves him, and I'm sure the queen will love her.
REEVES: Philip Reeves, NPR News.
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