The King is Dead

22 September 2022

The King is Dead

The Dukes of Redonda mourn.

By Neil Tidmarsh

Another monarch passed away only three days after the death of our own Queen Elizabeth II. Javier Marías died on Sunday 11 September, nine days short of his 71st birthday. During his lifetime he was acknowledged as Spain’s finest living novelist, a globally-renowned literary figure tipped for a Nobel prize. But he was also known as Xavier I, King of Redonda.

The origins and history of the kingdom of Redonda and its monarchs are shrouded in myth and legend, as such origins often are (our own Windsors, descendants of the pre-Conquest kings of the West Saxons, can trace their ancestry all the way back to the god Woden). Redonda is an uninhabited island in the West Indies, a rocky crag one mile long and a third of a mile wide lying between Nevis and Montserrat. In 1865 one Matthew Dowdy Shiell, a British trader from Montserrat, apparently claimed the island for himself as no country had officially claimed it as its own territory. He’s said to have requested the title of King of Redonda from Queen Victoria and the request was reputedly granted by the British Colonial Office in return for a vow of loyalty to the Empire.

His son, Matthew Phipps Shiell, left Montserrat in 1885 when he was twenty years old and settled in England where he became a successful and popular writer under the pen-name M P Shiel. He insisted that he’d been crowned as King Felipe I of the kingdom of Redonda in 1880, on his fifteenth birthday, by the bishop of Antigua. He gave peerages to many of his literary friends; Arthur Machen, Victor Gollancz, Arthur Ransome, Lawrence Durrell, Gerald Durrell, Dylan Thomas, Henry Miller, Dorothy L Sayers, J B Priestley and others were made Dukes of Redonda. On his death in 1947, the royal title passed to his friend, admirer, literary executor and heir, the editor and poet John Gawsworth, who became King Juan I.

John Gawsworth / King Juan I made the most of the title, holding court in the Alma pub in Westbourne Grove, Bayswater, throughout the 1960’s. He’s said to have kept the dead king’s ashes in a biscuit tin on his mantelpiece, “putting a pinch in the stew for special guests”. Following M P Shiel’s example, he ennobled many of his friends; the actors Michael Denison, Dulcie Gray, Diana Dors, Dirk Bogarde, Mai Zetterling, Barry Humphreys, Vincent Price, Joan Greenwood and Robert Beatty all became peers of Redonda. He died in 1970 and left his royal title and the administration of his literary estate (and that of M P Shiel) to the independent publisher, author and environmentalist Jon Wynne-Tyson, who became King Juan II.

Wynne-Tyson/King Juan II actually visited Redonda, in 1979, but he abdicated in 1997, transferring the kingship (and the literary executorship of Gawsworth and Shiel) to the Spanish novelist Javier Marías, who became King Xavier I. Wynne-Tyson had been impressed by the sympathetic treatment given to Gawsworth and Redonda in Marías’s novel Todas las Almas (published in English as All Souls).

Marías/King Xavier I founded a small publishing house called Reino de Redonda (‘Kingdom of Redonda,’) in 2000; its first publication was La Mujer de Huguenin, a Spanish-language translation of a novel by M P Shiel.

He gave titles to the film-makers Pedro Almodovar (Duke of Tremula) and Francis Ford Coppola (Duke of Megalopolis), to writers including John Ashbery (Duke of Convexo), Arturo Perez-Reverte (Duke of Corso), William Boyd (Duke of Brazzaville), A S Byatt (Duchess of Morpho Eugenia), Orhan Pamuk (Duke of Colores), Jonathan Coe (Duke of Prunes), W G Sebald (Duke of Vertigo) and to many other eminent literary figures.

In 2001 he created the Premio Reino de Redonda, an annual literary prize to be judged by the nobility of Redonda. Winners themselves received a title as well as prize money. Among others, they include: J M Coetzee (Duke of Deshonra) in 2001; Alice Munro (Duchess of Ontario) in 2005; Ray Bradbury (Duke of Diente de Leon) in 2006; Umberto Eco (Duke of La Isla del Dia de Antes) in 2008; and Ian McEwan (Duke of the Black Dogs) in 2011. But the prize never received the attention which the quality of the winners and the eminence of the judges deserved, so it was discontinued after thirteen years.

But now, sadly, RIP Javier Marías, renowned translator of English literature into Spanish, widely-read columnist, Spain’s greatest contemporary novelist (his masterpiece, the trilogy Tu Rostro Mañana, has been described as a cross between Marcel Proust and John le Carré) and victim of Covid-19’s pneumonia. King Xavier I is dead. Long live the king!

But which king?  There have been plenty of pretenders to the throne over the years (one of the reasons why Wynne-Tyson/Juan II abdicated was that he was fed up with being pestered and challenged by rival claimants). More than one person – including friends, fellow writers and publicans – insisted that Gawsworth had promised them the title. There have been a number of self-appointed monarchs, some basing their claim on ESP and reincarnation. Rival groups, led by such pretenders as King Leo, King Bob the Bold, King Michael the Grey and a second King Juan II, have been meeting regularly for political negotiations at the Fitzroy tavern in London’s Fitzrovia for decades. Many of these rivals have passed away in recent years, but at least one of them – King Michael the Grey (Michael Howarth, a yachting writer) – is still standing. It’s not yet known whether Xavier I named his successor but no doubt this fascinating Game of Thrones will continue.

One last note: in 2007 a pub in Southampton – the Wellington Arms – declared itself to be an embassy of Redonda. It was an attempt to claim diplomatic immunity from the nationwide ban on smoking in work places which had just come into force. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office was quick to inform them that Her Majesty’s Government did recognise Redonda – but only as a dependent territory of the sovereign island country Antigua and Barbuda. So it was not entitled to an embassy of its own.

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