Rule Brittania!

October 22, 1994|By HAL PIPER

So Britain's Royal Family is exposed as silly and sinful, pretty much like the rest of us. Who cares?

The Baltimore Sun cared, once -- enough to make a royal watcher of its best writer. Russell Baker, now a New York Times columnist but then a Sun reporter, tells the story in ''The Good Times,'' the second volume of his autobiography.

At the young age of 27 Mr. Baker was posted to The Sun's London Bureau, where he spent several carefree months gallivanting around on the expense account until he suddenly realized why the editors had chosen him. The entire two-year assignment was contrived to get him into position to cover the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II.

Newspapers today can't hope to match television in the coverage of spectacle. Think of the wedding of Prince Charles and Lady Diana, or of the first moon landing, or of the war against Saddam Hussein -- events watched by a world community.

But in 1953 television was young; most homes did not have a TV set. The way to cover a royal coronation, newspapers believed, was to send a writer who could paint word pictures.

''Except for the coronation, I probably would never have got to London,'' Mr. Baker recalled. ''I had made a reputation in Baltimore for being a good color writer. It was a curse in some ways, because writing color meant getting stuck with the dreariness of covering parades, the annual arrival of the circus and the hubbub surrounding events like the Preakness. These stories soaked up a lot of adjectives because they never produced any news that could be told in lean, exciting verbs.''

Mr. Baker carried off the assignment with great style, rising at 4:30 a.m. to don a Fred Astaire rig of white tie, tails and top hat -- the rental of which, of course, went on the expense account. He walked past cheering crowds through a damp morning to Westminster Abbey, carrying a brown bag containing two sandwiches and several hunks of yellow cheese. A hip pocket held a half-pint flask of brandy -- ''to keep me awake during the long day.''

The story could have been written in advance, since it was an immense pageant, carefuly scripted. But Mr. Baker chose to cover the event as if it were fresh, unfolding news. Here are some excerpts from his notebook, most of which found their way into the story he wrote for Baltmore readers the next day.

''A glistening African woman in a dress of glistening gold jangled the dozen dainty gold bracelets adorning her pudgy arms.''

''Malayans with bands of orange and brown-speckled cloth bound tightly about their hips . . .''

''Yellow men and tan men, black men and pink men, men with cafe au lait skins and men with the red veined nose of country squiredom.''

''Men dressed as Nelson might have dressed when he was sporting in London . . . like courtiers who dallied with the Restoration beauties of Charles II's court . . . like officers in Cornwallis' army . . . ''

''. . . violins far away eerily unreal.''

Mr. Baker's story was a triumph. When, a day or so later, the British press quoted from American newspaper accounts of the coronation, it cited first the vivid Baltimore Sun report. With pardonable pride, Mr. Baker notes that he was working alone, while the big New York papers, the Times and Herald Tribune, had assigned 25 or 30 reporters to the story.

But Mr. Baker's notes show something else. As recently as 1953, the British sovereign represented an imperial history that disposed of the welfare of a quarter of the human race. Today her son, heir to some ceremonial role on an offshore island, asks for pity because he grew up in a dysfunctional family.

All right, then, let's pity him. Even if Pince Charles should have a coronation of his own some day, you can be sure that The Sun won't squander its best writer on the event.

Hal Piper edits The Sun's Opinion * Commentary page.

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