The Charms of Toronto for Prince Harry and Meghan Markle
When Prince Harry first started dating Meghan Markle, the Duchess-to-be was renting a house a few blocks from me, in Seaton Village, a sleepy little neighborhood in Toronto’s West End. One morning, on the way to the local Italian grocery store, I found the sidewalk blocked by large black sport-utility vehicles. The Prince was visiting. My instant reaction was annoyance. “Why don’t they move off my sidewalks?” I complained to an American friend. “That’s it?” my friend replied. “That’s your reaction to a royal romance in your neighborhood?” This week, I imagine that there are a great number of people wondering why one of the most prominent couples in the world would endure a grilling by the Queen and humiliation in the press to move to Canada. My reaction to those black S.U.V.s offers a clue: nobody here really cares what they do. The literary critic Northrop Frye once called Toronto a good place to mind your own business—a trait that must seem pretty attractive to Meghan and Harry right now.
The British press, in their relationship to the Royal Family, can be staggeringly cruel. With Meghan, their overt racism is glaring. But while the racism is new, the savagery isn’t. They go after everyone, exploiting whatever vulnerabilities they find. They called Fergie the “Duchess of Pork” because she struggled with her weight. They called Kate Middleton “Waity Katie” because she dated Prince William for a few years before they married. For the British, the royals rest at the pinnacle of a class structure that freezes and defines every member of society. The royals are permanent celebrities, untouchable—and therefore one may degrade them however one likes, because they will always be so far above everyone else.
The British press may be casually brutal in their treatment of the royals, but they do obey a key set of rules, which Meghan and Harry are about to abandon. The Royal Rota system, by which selected press members trade regular access to the royals in exchange for an agreement to respect their basic privacy, has been in place for generations. The cage works both ways. It keeps the royals in a state of servitude—a Sunday Times columnist famously described the arrangement as “we pay, you pose”—but it also limits the voraciousness of the press.
Which is partly why it is inconceivable that Harry and Meghan would move to New York or Los Angeles, at least in the short term. Who would want to live like Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie used to, prisoners of celebrity surviving invigilation without restraint, barely able to walk down the street? No couple could survive it. But Toronto? There’s a reason why the Rolling Stones always rehearse their tours here: it’s big enough to have city attractions, but its people will leave you in peace. Toronto is the ideal city to move to if you want to become less famous. It is not a particularly amenable place for people who think they’re special. There are Toronto celebrities, but ninety-nine per cent of them became celebrities elsewhere.
The only way that people would put up with the horror-show nonsense of royal scrutiny is if they believed in the vital importance of the monarchy. Who, at this point, would be willing to sacrifice their chance at happiness for that old bit of painted board? The British press are calling it a #Megxit, but who really left whom? Has England understood how much less attractive it has become as a country over the past few years? It wanted the foreigners to leave, remember? Who would want to endure it? For what?
Harry and Meghan seem pretty Canadian to me already—a multicultural family with a weirdly strong relationship to English institutions that they’re trying to overcome, a love of violent sports, and a profound desire to be left alone. I could see them fitting right in. (She’s already good friends with a Mulroney.) It’s almost imaginable that they could have a life here. I mean, no one would notice if Meghan wore bluejeans to a tennis match.
It’s conceivable—I’m not saying this would happen, but it is conceivable—that Meghan could walk her dog in the park, like I used to see her doing. She looked so happy then, just before she met Prince Charming. Her life has been like a Hallmark movie in reverse: she had a great life that made perfect sense, right until the wedding with the scion of one of the oldest families in Europe. Is it any wonder that she’s come to believe that her story can only have a happy ending if it goes backward? There’s a moral of a kind here, unknown to Hallmark: it is infinitely better to be a working actress in Toronto than a Duchess in Buckingham Palace.