Everyone is watching The Crown, Season 4, on Netflix. Younger viewers might be shocked by Episode 5, where Michael Fagan breaks into Buckingham Palace TWICE, and even makes it into the Queen’s bedroom for a bedside chat with the nightgown-clad monarch.
Viewers in my age group (and above) may, however, recall the 1982 bacchanal and that this is not the first time the perilous moment has been interpreted, melded with fiction and enshrined in art.
How many remember The Mighty Sparrow’s 1983 calypso, “Philip My Dear”?
Seven-year-old me remembers my parents laughing and turning up the volume every time the song came on the radio. I heard it so much that I learned the lyrics without even trying, and after singing it one day on the way to school, my father parked the car, turned and asked me what the song meant. He had pleated brows and nervous eyes, like the question was some kind of test. I remember saying it was just about a burglar who resembled the Queen’s husband.
Daddy cracked a satisfied smile and said, “Okay, good,” and I felt proud that my summation was correct and that I had passed the test. Silly me!
As an adult, particularly since becoming a serious writer, I’ve looked back upon that moment and recognised it as a teaching moment. The calypso writer (credited as Sparrow on the sites I checked, but rumoured to be Winsford Devine) is Monet and “Philip My Dear” is a masterpiece of “Sexual Impressionism”, a term I coined in a 2016 essay to describe how literary writers address the mischievous aspects of writing about sex by using techniques similar to those of an Impressionist painter. For example:
1. The writer goes for overall effect, relying on and layering careful, deliberate word-choice, rather than a crude blow-by-blow (See what I did there?);
2. He employs subjectivity, having the Queen disclose feelings and details only she could know about the incident; having her voice undulate: at first, elevated and Queen-like, but then plunging into awkward common-ness. This heightens the sense that she is unhinged and conflicted about the incident, that there’s more in the mortar than the pestle (Oops, I did it again!).
To me, this is the great triumph of the writing: he gives us more than the sex, he gives us her poorly suppressed emotions. She liked it! And she’s embarrassed by that. And she’s afraid to admit to her husband how much she liked it!
3. He trusts the audience to make the right connections, based on their own familiarity with the sexual act. Which is why the song could have been played on the radio and sung by children, because 7-year-old me had no personal knowledge to colour the writer’s brush (double-pun intended) strokes.
Let’s take a look at the first verse and chorus.
Philip, my dear, last night I thought was you in here.
Immediately establishes the conceit of the entire song: intimate confession about a mistake/indiscretion.
Where did you go?
Working for good old England,
Missing out all the action.
My dear, do you know
Setting and characterisation: she is addressing a certain Philip who works for England…hint, hint.
There was a man in my bedroom wearing your shoe,
Great detail! The foot has always been a phallic symbol, and to wear a shoe, a man must slip his foot into a space that fits it well and snug.
Trying on the royal costume, dipping in the royal perfume
Excellent word choices. “Royal” deepens and confirms our understanding of “Philip” of “England”.
“Costumes” in the bedroom…not an uncommon preparatory step, I’m told (from purely anecdotal sources and not personal experience of any kind whatsoever, I swear).
“dipping” is loaded with connotations of entry, wetness, casual participation, body parts like fingers and other…members. Then paired with the notion of what the intruder is dipping into…a thing with a lovely smell…and we have a full sex scene!
I telling you true.
Lapse from formal tone into more colloquial, to mirror her cracking façade and the desperation of her appeal to be believed.
There was a man in my bedroom
Anxious for a rendezvous and I thought it was you.
“rendezvous” immediately connotes illicit love.
The confession of mistake in the opening line is repeated here for emphasis, and to prepare us for the chorus which is a physical comparison of the two men.
He big just like you but younger
He thick just like you but stronger
“big” and “thick” are innocent words in themselves, but not so in the context of a bedroom scene. They are compliments every man wants to receive. But the Queen giveth and she taketh away! She attempts to placate her husband’s ego by calling him “big” and “thick”, but seems unable to stop herself from straying into a comparison with the intruder who has other, finer qualities to commend him.
He lingay like you but harder
He laylay like you but badder
“lingay” is a Trinidad creole word which suggests length.
“laylay” is a creole word which suggests swizzling or turning vigorously.
The switch to creole does so much. It adds variety, breaking up the triteness of the “big, thick” line of adjectives. It also plunges us from high-formal tone into grassroots common-ness, suggesting that sex is the great equalizer, even the Queen must come down to earth.
A man in my bedroom
He came on the bed, doudou, and I took him for you.
“Dou dou” is a creole term of endearment. Her duplicity is shown by addressing Philip in that loving way, immediately before admitting for the first time that she didn’t just THINK it was him in the bed, she TOOK (in the Biblical sense) the man “for” (“in place of”) dear Philip. Note, too, Sparrow could’ve said the intruder “climbed” on the bed, but he “came on the bed” has a sexual resonance.
Bravo, Sparrow (or Winsford)! Take a bow! (Not in the Jamaican sense of the word, though.) Through sheer artistry, he managed to evade the censor’s knife, remain relevant to the times, and yet true to a main function of calypso, i.e. the skewering of the establishment. You see, long before Netflix came to the Caribbean, long before we had “The Crown” to titillate our brains with gossip and allege dysfunction within the monarchy, we had the calypsonian and the chantuelle. It was their job to wield language. To inform the people, to satirize and criticize the overseer, to vent the resentments of a powerless majority by making an inside-joke of Massa – and to do it all without breaking the rules.
In 2015, as part of the Queen’s birthday honours, The Mighty Sparrow was awarded an Order of the British Empire (OBE) for distinguished or notable contributions in the area of culture. He is now Dr Slinger Francisco ORTT CMT OBE.
Apparently, Elizabeth II holds no grudges.
Link to full lyrics: https://www.musixmatch.com/lyrics/Mighty-Sparrow/Phillip-My-Dear
Link to hear song: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ekhiZ_bZQNs