A night with Prince Andrew
Duncan Wheeler, Lecturer and Chair of Spanish Studies at the University of Leeds, recounts a weird and wild evening spent among royalty.
I can’t recall if he sweat on the sole occasion our paths crossed. Virtually all human beings in his position would have done so on a hot August night in Sotogrande, the enclave in Andalusia popular with millionaire Brits and polo players of all nationalities. Prince Andrew wore a suit as I inelegantly perspired in jeans and cheap shirt, a more appropriate combo for the season but not the setting. His Royal Highness amiably boasted of earning a summer break after working at the coalface, courting Chinese elites in Windsor Castle. My attempts at polite chit chat with a younger Russian accompanying him fell flat. She purported to be an authority on caviar. Either my amateur questions made no sense to an expert, or she was far less knowledgeable than she claimed to be. In either case, we were out of our comfort zone.
Truth be told, I had no idea what to expect from my first trip to an area of Spain worlds away from my regular haunts. I had rocked up at a wealthy friend’s beach house to spend a few days after a week at an indie music festival not in my wildest dreams anticipating an invitation to attend a dinner party at the house Prince Andrew had rented out for summer 2015 with his former wife, Sarah Ferguson, and their daughter. This evening engagement couldn’t, I figured, be any more unsettling than daytime encounters at the private beach club.
A seventy-year old British ex-pat married to a minor Spanish aristocrat whose business had seen better days cornered me to volunteer her experience and expertise for the book I was writing on Spain’s Transition to democracy. In between ranting against the dangers of Islamic terrorism brewing just across the Gibraltar straits, and referring to Latin American immigrant workers as “panchos”, she offered spurious details about murders purportedly committed by Santiago Carrillo, the former leader of the Spanish Communist party. She asked my thoughts on rumours that Emilio Botín, the director of the Santander Bank, had been assassinated on the orders of his daughter and successor after he discovered her Colombian lover laundering bank money. Me responding that, to the best of my knowledge, the seventy-nine-year old had died of natural causes exposed me as a nobody.
Funnily enough, her testimony didn’t figure amongst the sources cited in my book. Mildly more informative was a conversation with some polo players about an investor who found himself in negative equity after taking out a sizeable loan out to buy a prize winning horse, which promptly had a fatal heart attack during its debut march. Such daytime escapades brought to mind J.G. Ballard’s 1997 novel Cocaine Nights, set on Andalusia’s Costa del Sol, in which the comfortable life becomes a living death to an extent that narcotics, rape and murder become chosen leisure pursuits. The mood for my Mexican themed evening was much lighter, closer to Miguel de Cervantes than the dystopian Ballard.
It was as if a magic potion had transported me back to Barataria, the fictional island in which Don Quixote’s plebeian sidekick, Sancho Panza, is made to believe he is governor but is in fact providing entertainment for shallow aristocrats with a hereditary but not moral right to exercise authority. The food at Casa Ferguson-Windsor was nothing special, more Taco Bell than fine Mexican dining but the former Duchess of York went beyond the call of duty in welcoming a newcomer such as myself, happy to banter away about everything from bullfighting (she doesn’t approve, especially when it involves dwarf toreros, as it sometimes does in neighbouring San Roque) or appearing alongside the singer Meat Loaf in the ill-fated “It’s a royal knock out” television program back in the 1980s. Fergie, as the people’s duchess was popularly known, personally wrote name tags for all of the twenty or so guests at the table. There was a drink aplenty and, whilst not sober, I made sure to excuse myself volunteering to join any of the groups charged with providing the evening’s entertainment.
Not wanting to be outdone by a group of lads stripping down to their waists, the former Duchess of York produced an ostrich costume seemingly out of nowhere and donned it alongside a fake woollen vagina to dance to the Backstreet Boys. The fun and games didn’t end there. As news arrives that a member of the Goldsmith crew notorious for mixing their dates up was running late, lights were dimmed and we were instructed to climb under the table to give the illusion nobody was home. Locking eyes with an aristocratic pensioner crouched down next to me, I couldn’t help but wonder in what parallel universe this was all considered par for the course. I haven’t the faintest idea as to whether Andrew is guilty as charged, but he seems as disorientated by his forced encounter with the real world as I was by my excursion into his natural habitat, a place I enjoyed visiting but I’d hate to be imprisoned.