WHAT benefit does royal patronage bring a charity today in an age of all-day television fund raising marathons fronted by media celebrities and corporate sponsorship by faceless multinationals? How many potential donors look at the list of names on the top of a charity's notepaper, or read the detail in a newspaper picture caption when they spy a particularly stunning photograph of one of the young royals to find out which event they were attending?
Its easy to be cynical and dismiss the role of the monarch's family, but a swift glance at the top 30 charities in the UK will confirm that the vast majority have a royal patron. (CAFOD, one of the exceptions in this exclusive club, might like to take note).
To take the example of the Princess Royal and her link with Save the Children Fund, not only has her patronage boosted the charity's bank balance substantially but her many trips to the third world have brought the real issues of the disadvantaged and marginalised majority of the world's population to a wider audience, who as a result have contributed to the coffers of the many aid agencies around.
And it cannot be denied that however egalitarian we imagine ourselves as a society -in this context John Major's classless epitaph rings rather hollow since it is usually only those already up the ladder who imagine that such social engineering is a vital issue for the non-climbers — the endorsement of a royal does add a certain something to a product, a seal of approval, of legitimacy.
While marketeers will not put a figure on how many extra jars of jam they sell because the labels carry the words "by appointment to Her Majesty the Queen", they are nonetheless adament that they will not be removing the coat of arms. Ginny Knox, marketing controller at Robertson's Foods, purveyors of preserves to royalty by appointment, tells me that the insignia not only denotes quality in the home market, but provides a vital boost to overseas sales.
SUCH musings on the role of royal patrons result from the news that the Princess of Wales, at the top of any list of the nation's favourite scions of the Windsor clan, has agreed to lend her support to ASPIRE, the Association for Spinal Research, Rehabilitation and Reintegration, to which I have referred before in this column.
The charity, based at the Royal National Orthopaedic Hospital at Stanmore in Middlesex, works to integrate the able-bodied and the disabled, and the showpiece of such a pioneering approach, the 1:2 million Mike Heaffey Sports and Rehabilitation Centre, was opened by our future queen last July.
As well as research projects aimed at breaking down the barriers disability can create in individuals' lives and plans to provide specialised assistance in its field of expertise to Poland. ASPIRE is also building the Pope John Paul II Memorial Garden next to its centre of operations thanks to contributions from the Catholic Herald's readers among others. Planting of the garden, designed by Anthea Gibson, one of London's leading landscape architects, will start in the autumn, it is hoped, and by spring of next year there will be a peaceful, tranquil space for patients at the spinal unit which is attached to the ASPIRE centre where they can spend time with family and friends or simply reflecting and thinking through the changes that their injuries will mean in their lives.
A plan of the garden was presented to Pope John Paul in Rome 18 months ago, you may recall, by a delegation of wheelchair-bound Catholics whose trip was funded again by Herald readers.
The Princess's decision to give ASPIRE her personal endorsement is particularly significant when one considers that as a charity it is only eight years old, and that it works in a field — spinal injury — not normally considered as newsworthy, or "sexy" to use the marketing jargon, as, say, sick children or animals, that great British obsession. (The photograph that most moved the public from the battlefields of the Gulf was not the carnage of Iraqi conscript soldiers but of a cormorant covered in oil although the latter of course was, to be fair, a symbol of the environmental as opposed to the human destruction of the war.)
ONE of the most important contributions that the Princess will make with her attachment to ASPIRE's work is to give a public example of the sort of integration that the charity aims for. At the opening of the Mike Heaffey Centre last July what impressed guests — who included Bishop Philip Harvey his Anglican counterpart Bishop Thomas Butler of Willesden and local rabbi Michael Leigh was Princess Diana's ability to relate to the many disabled past and current patients of the London Spinal Unit present as people, not as people in wheelchairs.
It may sound like a rather fine distinction to make. But one of the most alienating features of life as a disabled person can be able-bodied people's inability to react naturally to the fact you arc in a wheelchair. They don't know whether to look at the chair, look you in the eye, or just look embarrassed. The Princess of Wales suffered no such inhibitions.
Although I have grown up with disability — my mother has for some years been in a wheelchair because of MS and considered myself well adjusted to look beyond wheelchairs, I recently discovered that there was much more to learn. 1 went along to one of the courses that ASPIRE runs at the Mike Heaffey Centre, an integrated movement class led by two dancers Adam Benjamin and Celeste Dandeker who sustained a spinal injury when performing with the London Contemporary Dance Company several years ago.
Students, not to give the participants too grand a title, were both able-bodied and disabled and explored the interreaction between their bodies how one could take the weight of another, support another, help and encourage the movement of another. And in the process the wheelchair was demythologised, relegated to the position of simply a support to the body in the same way that we wear shoes on our feet to support the rest of our body. It was an extraordinary and enlightening experience.
Those interested in ASPIRE's activities should contact the charity at the RNOH, Brockley Hill, Stanmore, Middlesex HA7 4LP (081 954 0701).
Priests and People
FROM a current interest to a former employer. 1 used to work for the Tablet many moons ago and thereby feel a certain affection for both that publication and its stable mate Priests and People — in my time known by the archaic title The Clergy Review with its overtones of priests hogging the spotlight with their party turns. This month's edition is the first under the editorship of David Sanders, a Dominican from Cambridge whom 1 ran into last year in the somewhat unlikely and uncharacteristically exotic location of Brazil when my tour with CAFOD coincided with his sabbatical studies.
There is no reference to his observations from that period in his initial outing at this historic title — though our own Fr John Medcalf who has spent most of his working life as a priest in Latin America, first in Peru and then in Nicaragua, contributes a piece on enlivening the parish based around his experiences. However, the theme of April's Priests and People, "Evangelisation and the Parish", clearly identifies an area of pastoral work where the Latin Americans with their verve, enthusiasm and penchant for putting the message of the liturgy into practical effect in the community around them have much to teach us.
FINALLY a birthday greeting to Douglas Hyde who is, I'm reliably informed, 80 on Monday. Douglas is a great admirer of the "church of the people" in Latin America as he recalled in our centenary edition of March 1988.
His long association with the Catholic Herald began with headlines in the national newspapers and on the BBC World Service on March 19, 1948 when he announced his resignation as news editor of the Daily Worker and from the communist party after 20 years and his conversion to Catholicism. He later spoke of his rejection of Stalin's "monstrous deformation of Marxism".
Through the influence of Belloc and Chesterton he grew close to the Catholic church and wrote for many years in the Herald, combining a lifelong concern for a just and equal society that had inspired his early communism, and his respect for the post-war Catholic church, especially in its work in the third world.