Karen Heller: The prince and Pa. paupers

Posted: May 01, 2011

The developments of late are dreary. A proliferation of tornadoes, wars, deficits, birthers. The Philadelphia School District has become a lightning rod for catastrophes, many of leadership's making, the latest a massive budget gap even an eighth grader might have anticipated. Teachers are noted for planning ahead. Administration officials? Not so much.

Gov. Frackenstein proposes drilling on the six campuses of the State System of Higher Education that sit on the Marcellus Shale. Tom Corbett is serious. Instead of an ivory tower, a golden rig.

"We need to think differently, and we need to act differently," Corbett's spokesman said the governor said to a group of state college trustees. This is the way Harrisburg seems to issue announcements, even misguided ones.

Corbett is the man who proposed whacking the state education budget by $2 billion and reducing higher-education funding 50 percent. But now he's thinking differently! Why hold frat parties when various Penn State campuses can host frack parties with kegs of gas? What Ed Rendell, the Slots King, was to casinos, Corbett is to natural gas - well, except for extracting revenue from the gambit.

Perhaps the School District administration should think differently, too. Consider relocating somewhere atop the Marcellus Shale.

When things are going poorly, we yearn for distraction. Not long-form birth certificate distraction (which sounds like a portion of the SAT) but a lot of pomp, and spectacular hats.

This is how I found myself at the Merion Cricket Club Friday at the obscene hour of 5 a.m. to watch the marriage of Prince William and Catherine Middleton with the British Officers' Club of Philadelphia, founded in 1918. The club is known for its queen's birthday celebrations, commemoration of Guy Fawkes Day, and rousing curry parties.

A good half of the guests were Americans. Officers can join as long as they served closely with British forces, demonstrating the powerful grip of devout Anglophilia.

"This is the epitome of civilization compared to what I went through," said member Andre McCoy, a former U.S. Army captain who served in Iraq and Afghanistan. "And a lot less sand."

"I daresay we're probably the most active of all the ethnic clubs," David Leslie-Hughes told me. This was possibly the first time I had heard the British described as "ethnic," but I wasn't going to challenge Leslie-Hughes when he looked so smart in a morning coat in mint condition despite its being almost 100 years old.

"This is nothing," he said. "I have a Royal Welch Fusiliers uniform that's at least 150 years old."

Keeping up appearances, continuing tradition despite a world hooked on warp-speed change, was what had brought us there. America is an absurdly young country that tends to forget history, razing buildings and shedding customs before they become familiar. What do we know of pomp?

True, the royals can keep up with the times, and the wedding was evidence of some change. The Windsors have been racked by divorce more than most families, the queen's progeny three for four. Sir Elton attended, sitting front and center with his husband. The extended royal family was chauffeured to Westminster Abbey by VW "people carriers" - honestly, that's what they're called. How green! How economical! But the royal wedding, like many weddings, was mostly about defying modernity in a culture marked by rampant informality and a rabid embrace of the new.

"The mother's family not so long ago were coal miners," said club spokesman Julian Hutton, whose sister was once married to Princess Diana's brother, Charles Spencer. Hutton's niece and nephew were guests Friday at their cousin's wedding. "A good dose of sensible middle-class blood is just what the royal family certainly needs."

Yes, but the former Catherine Middleton, with her fetching looks, terrific posture, and incomparable smile, is now the Duchess of Cambridge, the Countess of Strathearn, and Baroness Carrickfergus. How can any Baroness Carrickfergus possibly remain sensible or middle class? The best moment of comic relief during the somber ceremony: the couple's vowing to take each other "for richer, for poorer" - like that's going to happen, even in Britain's worst of times.

The British Officers of Philadelphia stood for "God Save the Queen," sang a rousing rendition of "Jerusalem," and lifted champagne glasses to the couple, wishing "long life and good health." By the time breakfast had ended, and William had kissed his bride a bonus second time, the sun had risen over the Main Line. A spirited cricket match was in progress on Merion's lush green. Rush hour was in full throttle, choking the avenues, along with a thousand other nuisances of modern life.

Contact columnist Karen Heller at kheller@phillynews.com or 215-854-2586. Read her blog posts on Blinq and her work at www.philly.com/KarenHeller. Follow her at Twitter @kheller.


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