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2018 royal visit
Image credit: Peter Parks/AAP

I just found out I’m not everybody’s cup of tea. The visiting British royal couple were kind enough to point this out and they may do the same for you. To learn if you are likable, look in Their Highnesses’ direction. Then, look at your response. If it is indifferent, hostile, irritated, queasy or short of sentimental, you are probably not a cup of tea at all. Not without a lot of sugar, or stevia — a vile herb that tastes like saccharine, but healthier and worse.

Sweeten up with a sugar substitute. Become a sweet, sentimental creature fit to survive this sentimental time. This may be a useful and profitable lesson. It may result in you being liked by important people, or perhaps just people who admire important people. Either way, sentimentality is as it has been before: a refuge sought by many when times get uncertain and tough.

Christopher Caudwell was 30 when the Spanish fascists took the life he’d volunteered for freedom, but he left his texts behind. He writes of the Great Depression, an era not unlike our own. Underemployment and poverty produced by the “laissez-faire” protection of wealth by the state got folks acting weird, divided and cultish. Or, as Caudwell has it, liable “to the mass-hatreds of war and anti-semitism” and to “religion, hate, patriotism, fascism” to the “pathetic Royal Jubilee” and to “the sentimentality of films and novels”.

This feels familiar to me, a bitter cup of tea. It is certainly familiar to the British monarchy, which dissolves the minute people stop feeling sentimental about it. Sentimentality is familiar to most people who know a thing or two about getting into any part of the power business. It doesn’t appear familiar to the many people bang up for the most Deeply Moving whatever. There is no other way to explain the universally uncritical reception of Nanette, a decent enough one-woman show with few jokes but many dodgy “truths”, the one about jokes being the worst way to recover from trauma among these. Someone should tell a generation of Jewish stand-up comedians, or the Holocaust survivors who laughed at Mel Brooks dressed as Hitler.

The audience for this tragedy will not brook such statements, though. They will say that Nanette will change things. Don’t ask them what. Not ever. Caudwell has the answer, anyhow. He says they seek the “satisfaction of all the rich emotional capabilities and social tenderness” of which they have been deprived.

The ethno-nationalists do use sentimentality as their instrument, too. To some, the voice and face of Pauline Hanson are sure to suggest raw and real emotion and not, as they do to me, a put-on, or at best, like the woman who just realised her hairdresser has deceived her about age-appropriate colour for years. As for true fascists: get a load of Goebbels. Absolute power knows sentimental power absolutely.

The sentimental time is taught with by the Duchess of Sussex. She doesn’t do much and says less than even a typically quiet Her Highness. But the Buck House people don’t make too many mistakes and they have been very carefully constructing Meghan as an “activist” and a rebel and a breath of fresh air and proof that the British aren’t racist. She represents all those things the mother to the seventh heir to the throne can simply not be at all.

Still, Australian press lose their shit and say “Meghan baked banana bread” or “stepped off the plane in Dubbo wearing a pair of Gold Coast-designed, ethically sourced jeans” and rejoice that Australia “gets” to congratulate her first for getting up the duff.

None of these accounts are in the Woman’s Day. All of them are reported by the ABC, which has no obligation to use this sort of speech. Nor did the artistic director for the Melbourne Writers’ Festival, who told press nonetheless in the few interviews granted that now was not the time for anything but heart-bursting joy, or what have you.

And, I’m sorry. But what the sentimental shellfish is this? I have read the entire book just to double check it didn’t have ideas in it. It didn’t, but it does contain an open letter from a feminist mother to her son. “My darling boy,” it begins. “The first thing you need to know is that I love you. My love for you is a constantly evolving creature. It has made its home in my heart.”

The liberal elites and semi-elites are not just persuaded that their own sentimental feelings should be heeded uncritically, but that others need these sentimental displays as guidance. I’m sure that somewhere, there are some honest high-profile liberal ladies saying that this stuff is sickly sweet and stupid. But I’m also pretty sure they believe it is good for the little people.

It’s not good for the little people. It is not good to fancy Highnesses and it is unspeakable to think, as many seem to, that Meghan has made a single thing better for any woman of colour, or any divorcee. Or that she is an “activist”. She is a sentimentalist. She is pretty and she says sentimental things about the power of sentimental feelings. And bakes banana bread and wears sustainable jeans.

If you, like me, remain a bitter cup of tea, you have my sympathy. It must be nice to not feel, as we all are, profoundly alienated. It must feel nice to feel that your feelings matter so very much.

Peter Fray

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