“Who was more influential, Churchill or the Duchess of Windsor?” says Stephanie, and roars with laughter.
We are at The Stafford in London, the starting point of a six-day barge cruise along the Thames. From here, the small group of eight guests will be driven to the Magna Carta, a 1930s barge that was once used to transport gravel but has now been converted into a boutique hotel for tourists. American tourists, mostly. They love this shit. I’m the only Brit here, and the only one, apparently, who has no idea who the Duchess of Windsor is.
For me, all this — talk of the royals over scones and clotted cream at a five star hotel — is foreign to my experience of London. It’s a surface impression, one that ignores the many other scenes and nuances that make up this city. Places that are alive and contemporary, not this out-of-date, stuffy, old idea of England that persists.
The Americans are loud and boisterous — two couples, all friends, with Southern drawls. Probably racist. Probably Trump supporters. Definitely conservative. Then there is another couple from Jacksonville, Florida. They are quieter. Probably boring. And finally, there’s Stephanie, the 45-year-old Chicagoan divorcee who brought me on this trip.
Stephanie is into time travel, UFOs and alternate histories.
Alternate Histories I
The Duchess of Windsor was the mistress of King Edward VIII. An abrasive American from Baltimore, she treated the king with irreverence, even cruelty. This was a novel experience for Edward, one that appealed to his deep insecurity and his boredom with the old traditions of the monarchy. He couldn’t get enough of her and in 1936, he insisted on marrying her, triggering a constitutional crisis.
As the monarch and the head of the Church of England, Edward had to be in communion with the institution. His choice of partner — a twice-divorced American woman — was deemed to be morally unsuitable by the Church, and politically and socially unstable by the royal family and the government. To marry…