Tuesday, September 12, 2006

King Taufa'ahau Tupou IV of Tonga is dead. Long live the King.

As normal, I flicked past the obituary pages in the papers, noticing that the King of Tonga was getting more column inches than I expected. Head of State - yes. Head of a big influential state - No.

But John Walsh's Tales of the City column in the Independent revealed why journalists were keen to properly mark King Taufa'ahau Tupou IV's death.

He was "one of the most charmingly eccentric figures from global monarchic circles." And as we all know, eccentrics are to be championed and enjoyed - well that's what I'm hoping.

Some highlights:

  • Despite weighing in at just under 32 stone (444lb), he joined in the Tongan government national slimming initiative and shed a third of his bodyweight.
  • The Tonga airport was closed one day a week to allow him to ride his custom-built bicycle up and down the runways. A big-framed bike for the big-framed gentleman?.
  • All foreign dignitaries wanting an audience had to wear a striped morning coat and carry a silk hat. I wonder if that applied to women too?
  • He often wore his favourite leather jacket to state events - even though the heat was unbearable.
  • Having told one visiting Soviet naval captain that he'd like a "titchy guitar from Hawaii". The information was recorded on his KGB file, and every visiting Russian has brought one since. About a hundred at last count.
  • He supported a 1970s plan to introduce stick on postal stamps (ahead of its time, but in keeping with the UK today) shaped like the fruit depicted on them (tacky).

Tonga is feudal rather than fully democratic, with the king appointing the Cabinet. The King is quoted as saying:

"The Tongan monarchy has a tradition of liberalism. I like to think of myself as the head of a monarchical democracy. And, in Tonga, the government does not go out of office if it suffers parliamentary defeat. It goes home to sleep and starts again just the same on the next day."

Much like the UK's Labour government!

Wildly eccentric, the King has also led Tonga through a modern revolution. The village criers who announced the news in the absence of public radio and newspapers have been replaced with TV, internet and international direct dialling. The banana boats are no longer the only visitors - but international aircraft touch down (when he wasn't out burning off the calories).

Although Tonga is technically in the Northern Hemisphere, Taufa'ahau "decreed that, geography notwithstanding, the 180th meridian would be stretched sufficiently eastwards to embrace his kingdom and thus enable Tongan time to be 13 hours ahead of Greenwich instead of 11 hours behind it. It was always a satisfaction to the King that his people were the first in the world to greet the new day."

He wasn't totally without controversary. To present a balanced picture, I should mention the allegations that he sold Tongan passports to Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos, and kept the money in a US bank account.

But in all, a colourful character I wish I'd heard about sooner than his death.

This morning's papers are in giveaway mode again.

While the Guardian offers an A1 poster about Trees of Britain (tomorrow it'll be Amphibians & Reptiles - spot the play to the education market - an even stranger double sided poster fell out of the Independent. It has the middle third of the human skeleton on one side, and the Solar System on the other. Looks like the text was quickly altered to deal with Pluto being declassified as a major planet.

And the Financial Times reports that the former Crumlin Road Courthouse - vacant since 1998 - is to be developed as a 161-bed luxury hotel.

1 comment:

John Self said...

I brought the Guardian wild flowers wallchart home for my better half this week, on account of how it might go up nicely in her classroom. Today was spiders and other invertebrates, so I left it in the office - only to be told that that was the one she wanted, as it's part of their course... I can't do anything right!