The man who catalogues the Royal Family

Long before there was such a thing as “Big Data,” there was Tim O’Donovan, a retired insurance broker who has meticulously tabulated the British royal family’s engagements with pencil and paper every day for 40 years.

In a row of old-fashioned leather-bound ledgers, in a wisteria-fringed house in the village of Datchet, just west of London, he has amassed an extraordinary collection of raw data. The Autumn Dinner of the Fishmongers’ Company, convened in October by Princess Anne? It’s in there. The opening of the Pattern Weaving Shed in Peebles, Scotland? Of the Dumfries House Maze? Of a window at the Church of St. Martin in the Bull Ring? Noted.

Mr. O’Donovan, 87, is not part of the hurly-burly of royal commentary. Not only is he not active on social media, he claims never to have seen it. (“I am glad to say I don’t have anything to do with it,” he said, a bit starchily. “Everything I’ve heard about it is negative.”)

Every year, Mr. O’Donovan releases a comparative table listing the number of engagements attended by the highest-ranking royals, setting off a flurry of barbed commentary in the British news media. The feeding frenzy comes because Mr. O’Donovan, intentionally or not, has effectively invented a metric of how much the members of the royal family work.

He does it for fun, as his hobby:

Born into a family of avid collectors, he hungered in his 40s to undertake a statistical project; he had been impressed by a man who used public records to tabulate the waxing and waning popularity of baby names, publishing his findings once a year in a letter to the editor of The Times of London. He found his fodder in the Court Circular, an account of the royals’ engagements that appears in The Times of London. He decided to clip each one, paste it in a ledger and run the numbers, releasing his first results at the end of 1979.

Here is more from Ellen Barry (NYT).  Here is an article on digital hoarders.


I wonder if he memorized railroad timetables, spots planes and is a birdwatcher too. Quite a character.

I'm sure he was an avid stamp collector in his day.

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He is probably quite partial to a spot of plane spotting.

Living in Datchet, he probably doesn't have much choice.

I am surprised that the NYT didn't mention how this guys work was being put at risk by Brexit.

More seriously - I wonder how sustainable is this Royal family model? The Queen herself is a product of pre-war society where the ethos was on duty. Probably Charles will not be King long enough to make too much of a difference, but will the younger generation of Royals really be willing to sign up for 70 to 80 years of an empty job? It is sort of like the link yesterday of the person being paid to be an art exhibit in a railway station - who can say they are leading a fulfilling life in such an environment?

Probably Charles will not be King long enough to make too much of a difference

His father is 97, his mother is 92, one of his grandparents lived to be 86 and another 102. Most of his proximate relations who died at earlier ages were killed in accidents or killed-off by tobacco, which not much of a threat to Charles because he doesn't smoke.

I mean he will only be King at an advanced age - he is already 70 - so even if he became King tomorrow he will already be past any age where he might be looking for a real job or career. But his children might be more frustrated by a lifetime job of smiling and waving.

@ChrisA - you've been brainwashed my friend. Unless your work is a joke, there's more to life than a 'good job'. I retired in my 40s from a good job, at the peak of my earnings, and have not missed my job one bit. I was doing good work, getting paid, I did not mind too much the stress and deadlines and watching others get rich, as well as the contribution to society, but it was not something that was long-term sustainable, since I wanted to reproduce. There's a saying in law: "the law is a jealous mistress" and I've seen many good people married to their job, especially women, who never passed on their genes, sad (in my mind) but true. To a degree loving your work is to me a form of "Stockholm Syndrome". Unless, as I say, your job is a total joke, a sort of do-nothing, feel-good position. But if you're doing serious work it's stressful and cuts into your biological capacity IMO (the exception to this might be some people I saw in my field who married in college, before they entered the field, so they were set, and that's understandable).

@Ray - I go back and forth on this. I have more than enough money to retire but I don't because I fear I would miss the challenge and frankly the respect I get from working. My job is pretty stressful, but usually I have some pretty good achievements at the end of it which gives more life satisfaction than just goofing off all the time. But I recognise this is probably at one level pretty silly, as I have mentioned in comments elsewhere I believe Western Europeans were bred to like and value hard work, the people who had lazy genes didn't survive and have children in the West. So I am programmed to work. Absent a way to reprogram myself I had better just accept it and try to find the most interesting and rewarding work activities.

By the way, I didn't understand your comment on having children, most lawyers I know have children, sometimes many. And they didn't all marry childhood sweethearts.

@ChrisA - good for you. I've seen people working as partner until they were 90, carried out feet first. Most married lawyers I think married before they became partner (I could be wrong) and some of them had affairs while working, so it underscores what I said, that when you're working it's hard to have a good family life; how many people divorce due to their stressful job? Jeff Besos comes to mind (not a lawyer) by analogy. Lazy genes btw is progress. It was once said the reason technology is advanced is because of lazy people. Plato invented an alarm clock since he did not want to be bothered with having a servant wake him up. Good luck with being a Big Swinging Richard in Asia.

Yes, the Queen is of anorher era, several eras ago really. It is amusing to think of her new PMs arriving to meet her for the first time only to be reminded that her first PM was Winston Churchill.

As it is, however, she still has some difficult duties. Thus we learned in "The Crown" about how Prince Philip was a wild and crazy guy who liked to drive fast, so that recently even after he was officially retired he got into a car accident driving too fast. It took a couple of weeks for the Queen to manage to get him to finally turn in his driver's license. Some duties are harder than others.

The Nazis kept meticulous records, even of genocide. This also relates to the subject of Cowen's next blog post, and the need for the next wave of Nazis to obliterate the achievements of past generations. Wipe the slate clean and then keep meticulous records of the present. Recall the meticulous records of the crowd size maintained by Trump, and of his achievements in trade and disarmament negotiations.

the need for the next wave of Nazis to obliterate the achievements of past generations. Wipe the slate clean and then keep meticulous records of the present. Recall the meticulous records of the crowd size maintained by Trump,

The culture of the Democratic Party in our time manages to be simultaneously vicious and inane. (If you're like Scott Sumner, you'll offer another post in 72 hours denying you'd ever said anything like this).

'the need for the next wave of Nazis to obliterate the achievements of past generations'

The Nazis exalted the achievements of past generations, and one of the more interesting things you will notice if you hike around enough is just how many mid-30s WWI monuments exists. The swatiskas have been removed, and normally, a list of WWII dead has been added, but the clear purpose of exalting war and heroic sacrifice for the Fatherland, in a tradition that stretches back to the mythic ages described in such art as the Der Ring des Nibelungen, is impossible to overlook.

Unless, it seems, you are a German who is under 50, and who rarely seem to be aware of that particular Nazi style.

Such as this, the Kriegerdenkmal Gernsbach - Notice the eagle, and the blank circle underneath? - that is where the swatiska used to be.

Little to do with Nazis.

If you have even been in a small English village, you will see the long memorial list of names from WW1, usually with the list from WW2 appended.

I grew up in a small town in the US with a memorial like that, including what I was told was a French 75, on the courthouse square.

I'm guessing you are unfamiliar with the massive propaganda/memorials that the Nazis sponsored after they got into power. In major part to create a heroic cult that emphasized such Nazi goals as dying for the glory of the Vaterland. Or their role in fascism in general, .

I grew up near Washington, DC and am familiar with a number of memorials from different periods and wars. None of them have the glorification of power and war that marks what is currently seen in Germany - and these memorials have been cleaned up of their overt Nazi symbology.

From wikipedia (of course) - 'The Fascist movements in Italy and Germany in the 1920s and 1930s made extensive use of World War I memorials to communicate a political message. War memorials were a key part of the Italian Fascist government's programme, with memorials set up in the name of the fallen and the Fascist revolution. Local Fascist organisations made extensive use of the war memorials and associated ceremonies to promote loyalty both to Italy, and to the revolution. The government promoted the "cult of the fallen hero", stressing that the war dead had played a vital role in transforming Italy's position in Europe and transforming history. The Fascist leader Mussolini was less enthusiastic, however, about the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, which he felt was associated with the former regime; he discouraged its use, although remained sensitive to its symbolic importance to various parts of Italian society. Military fly-pasts were added to the Armistice ceremonies and the Tomb itself was moved in 1935, to make it easier to use the memorial in military parades.

The later German monuments constructed by the Nazi government were substantial, but communicated a limited range of symbolic messages, focusing on German heroism, conservative nationalism sentiments and masculinity. Use of mass graves symbolised the sense of German community. When Paul von Hindenburg died in 1935, the Tannenberg Memorial was then used as his mausoleum, commemorating elite military leadership during the war. The Nazi government attempted to have the Jewish names removed from the war memorials, but this proved impractical and instead a law was passed forbidding their addition to any future memorials. The government also removed more experimental earlier war memorials which were felt to communicate an inappropriate message about the war, such as the work of Ernst Barlach.'

However, this memorial scene in Ettlingen was not removed by the Nazis due to local resistance , and can still be seen - To be honest, you don't see war 'memorials' like this too often in the U.S. either.

The autism is strong with this one.

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