LONDON -- No matter how often you have seen it done or heard about it, it is always good for a little reflexive wince when you come across (you can't avoid doing so: it is the stuff that makes the headlines) the details paid to the lives of British royalty. It is sobering to bear in mind that there is in effect a contract between the royal family and the British people, unwritten -- like the British constitution -- which says: In return for many perquisites, the family may be studied under a microscope on Page One of the tabloid press.
Thus we read that Prince Andrew's new castle has hidden television cameras -- designed not for the Daily Mail or for the Sun, but for security. But we learn he was mad enough to break one in two when he came upon it. And elsewhere we learn (''Margaret's man of the bedchamber'') that it is a duty of the equerry to Princess Margaret to test the suitability of any mattress on which she proposes to sleep (''former Scots Guards major Lord Napier was given the royal command to ascertain the springiness of the bed on which the Princess reposed this weekend while on official duties in Scotland''). And then you note the Court Circular. ''The Prince of Wales, Colonel-in-Chief, the Parachute Regiment, will attend a service of thanksgiving in St. Paul's Cathedral on June 22 on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the Raising of Airborne Forces.'' And you conclude (a) the royals are entitled to every penny they receive; and (b) thank heaven we are a republic.
On the political front, it is fair to say that Thatcherism is making a little comeback. ''Kinnock dreams for future will cost/20 billion pounds/says professor./Britain would face higher inflation and double the number of jobless under a Labour government, a top professor has warned ... '' This item in the Daily Mail, for a generation the flagship of the British popular press. And demurely in the quality Telegraph, ''First profit in 14 years/as shipyard is privatised./Belfast's shipbuilder Harland and Wolff has made a profit for the first time in 14 years in the nine months since privatisation ... ''
The Big Gloom of the day is the failure of the British to win a soccer match in the World Cup competition in Italy -- the delinquent player has the big 40-point headline in the back cover: ''I Cocked It Up!'' And inside there is massive criticism of the hosts. Under the headline ''20 Reasons Why the Italians are Pasta Joke!'' one learns (Reason 10), ''No wonder Italian voters are always bamboozled. They have 23 political parties to chose from.'' And Reasons 11 and 19, "The country's most famous MP is a porn queen. ... Italy has 100 TV channels and no censors. Some telly bosses even wanted to screen prostitutes at work!''
Ah yes, sex. ''Engaged? It's a good excuse/to have sex, say teen-agers. ... Almost half of all British girls have sex before their 16th birthday, a leading child psychologist said yesterday.'' This is so, advises Dr. Penelope Leach, of only 22 percent of British boys -- because they mature older. A cause to worry, perhaps, but not like ...
Crime! ''Bring back the death penalty -- /that is the overwhelming verdict from YOU,/the people of Britain.'' Two men who were saved from the gallows at the last moment, back when the British were hanging people, are quoted as saying they would never have committed their offenses had they thought they would actually hang.
Royalty, sex, politics, insularity, capital punishment -- and?
Elegance. The editor of the Times discusses new style rules for his paper. ''Breaking rules is a feature of a living language, but a newspaper must be consistent in its pursuit of clarity and brevity. ... Minor changes will be made to titles, with Mr., Mrs., Miss and Ms. not being required when the full name is first given, but used for subsequent mentions. The only exceptions are for convicted criminals, the long dead and artists, sportsmen and those whose fame transcends rules (the Reagan years). The title Ms. will be used where requested, and in stories from the United States it will be used unless otherwise requested, in accordance with current usage.''
Europe has a big surprise coming if it thinks it can change any of this in 1992.