Prince Charles at 70: What is the point of the longest-serving heir to the throne?
The Prince of Wales has always been the odd royal out. He spent his youth surfing on the margins of society, before floundering on the seas of a troubled marriage. Since then, he has taken up the only sensible function now left open to him – to offer opinions on everything under the sun. By Andy Martin
It wasn’t quite a royal wave. More like a royal glance. To be honest, I might have waved, or possibly saluted, or at least stood to attention. Not long ago, the Queen drove right past me in her Regal Roller on Lisson Grove. Lots of police outriders and suchlike. A chauffeur of course. But I saw her and she saw me. Then she took a right on Rossmore Road and she was gone. But she had bestowed upon me the royal gaze for a fleeting instant. So I know she’s real and, more importantly, so am I. There was a mutual confirmation of existence. Which was strangely reassuring.
Because otherwise you could be forgiven for assuming that the Great British royal family is a figment of the imagination of George RR Martin – the mind behind Game of Thrones – or possibly a series on Netflix. Like Coronation Street and EastEnders, royalty is a shared soap opera that glues the nation if not exactly together then at least to the screens or headlines about the latest birth, marriage, death, or better still, juicy scandal.
But where does Prince Charles fit into this great unreality show? The answer is that he doesn’t. Not really. He is, and always will be, the odd man out. And that may well be his saving grace. It is a little-known fact that the young Prince of Wales was once a surfer and a windsurfer. A fugitive from landlocked society. But even right out on the margins he was always marginal. More of a wannabe.
He definitely got wet a few times and was to be seen, all too briefly, walking on water. I know that for a while, back in the late 1970s, he was even president or patron of the British Surfing Association and held a reception for the British surfing team before they left to compete in South Africa. He made some remark about a lot of the surfers having abundant moustaches and were they for the purpose of keeping you warm in the water? Not exactly Oscar Wilde, but good try, your royal highness.
We know that the heir apparent was no fan of the cold showers at Gordonstoun. Maybe he even started surfing in Scotland. But it was at Cambridge that he attained the zenith of his theatrical career with brief appearances on stage as an eccentric prince of some kind. He was either in a dustbin or was wearing dustman’s kit. He always said his inspiration was the Goons (Spike Milligan, Peter Sellers, and Harry Secombe), and knew “The Ying Tong Song” off by heart, but even the most benevolent reviewers of the period would have to conclude that he was a Goon manqué.
It was while at university that the idea got about that he had several butlers constantly in attendance, one for the royal toothbrush, another for buttoning the royal waistcoat and what not. This still seems unlikely, given the limited accommodation, even at Trinity College. I saw him wandering the streets with his security guy way back when. No sign of Jeeves plural then anyhow. The flunkeys story probably got mythified out of all proportion. Clearly he has them. Actual stats hard or futile to ascertain.
Maybe he should have become a serious historian. He would almost have fitted in amid the aggressively non-conformist refuseniks of the Senior Common Room. But didn’t he get a lower second? I guess that ruled him out. Shame really.
He had his military period, like his old dad, but he never really took to life on the ocean wave, any more than to surfing. His career as Top Gun ended when he crashed a plane and had to be grounded for his own safety. But he still looked good in a uniform. So he thought he’d give marriage a shot. It was always going to be on the agenda at some stage. Future king has to think of passing on the baton at some point, always assuming someone has passed the baton on to him of course.
Diana: she looked the perfect fairytale bride. A match made for global television. The prince and the princess. Sometimes one regrets that life does not resemble a fairytale in almost any particular. Unless, that is, the phrase “living happily ever after” can be taken to include mutual indifference, rancour, animosity, affairs galore, escapades of all sorts, falsehoods and confessions. James Dean argued that it was necessary to live fast, die young and be a good-looking corpse. It’s more glamorous, more Hollywood. So it could be that Charles missed his shot there too.
Perhaps he was just not that cut out for marriage after all. Not everyone is. Perhaps no one. Why should he be more than another? He had a go at lover. Tried his hand at the difficult genre of the erotic utterance. Maybe he should have revised his Liaisons dangereuses beforehand.
The French are good at this sort of thing. I doubt they would have recommended the metaphor (preserved for all time in the “Camillagate tapes”) in which he dreamed of coming back as a sanitary towel of some kind. I can’t see that’s ever going to set anyone’s pulse racing. On a par with the gag about moustaches. He’s like the guy in Cyrano de Bergerac who needs Cyrano around to feed him good lines.
Having spent a certain amount of time floundering in his sea of troubles, far from the shores of public affection, Charles paddled back in with a degree of enlightenment and therefore took up the only sensible function now left open to him, a job with no known required qualifications, that of philosopher royal. His task was to offer opinions on everything under the sun.
He succeeded in demolishing – theoretically – most modern architecture, anything after about 1900, but especially tall buildings, of which there are quite a few these days. He had a good point of course. He often does. Glass carbuncles were never going to be that popular.
In the letters that have come to be known as the “black spider memos” he offered his advice to any number of ministers about matters ranging from homeopathy to foreign affairs. Which, technically, he is entitled to do. The sad thing is that, so far as can be determined, no one took any notice of him. Or perhaps did the exact opposite.
He also offered his services as some kind of head guru, “Defender of [all] the faith[s]”, not just Christianity. He is still waiting for the call-back.
Inspired by his old mentor, Laurence van der Post, he became a farmer-ecologist-conservationist. To be honest, his produce in Waitrose is very good. The organic pears taste like pears of yore. Crunchy yet juicy. The “Duchy” business model is probably about as relevant as Disneyland to the state of agriculture as a whole, because the finances are all out of whack. After all, to some extent we're paying for the pears twice (and they weren’t cheap anyway) because we are supporting the royal family through taxes. In that sense, Prince Charles has given the idea of living off the land a whole new meaning.
The general consensus is that the Next-In-Line, like the tramps in Waiting for Godot, is hanging about waiting for salvation. Which would depend on the next generation moving out of the way. It’s not a good position to be in. It makes you think too much of those Snoopy cartoons where he is being a vulture in a tree, poised to swoop. It works in the cartoon though.
Even if Charles is hemmed in by senior members of his family on one side and the upcoming juniors threatening to overtake him, I still have doubts as to whether Charles is that impatient to be king. Charles, as a historian, has read his Walter Bagehot, the great theorist of the British constitution (which does not in fact exist).
He knows that the role of the monarch is to be the “decorative” or “dignified” part of the constitution. I still can’t see that happening. According to Bagehot, the monarch enjoys three rights, “the right to be consulted, the right to encourage, the right to warn.” Charles will still stick his oar in, in other words, but the reality is that he will be more constrained as king than as prince. The Prince of Wales – and there is no shortage of precedent here – can get away with just about anything and he’s still prince. The prince is virtually obliged to misbehave. The king, on the other hand, is required to be kingly. He doesn’t get to write so many letters, erotic or otherwise. He would effectively have even less power than he has now.
Is Charles up to the job? The job-that-is-not-a-job. Charles wants to be king but knows that he never quite can be, even if he is. What has proved to be endearing about Charles and strikes a universal note is that he is still looking for the thing he is really good at. He has had a go at just about everything and has succeeded brilliantly in the realm of failure. The philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre described a man as being someone who is not what he is and is what he is not. I’m still not sure what that means exactly but Prince Charles seems to exemplify this uncertain and paradoxical status to a high degree.
He once – briefly – had a go at Hamlet, on stage, with the Royal Shakespeare Company. He uttered probably the single most famous line in all tragedy: “To be or not to be, that is the question” – putting a crazy over-emphasis on the final word. And Charles himself is more of a question than an answer, an enigma inside an anomaly. King of infinite space or quintessence of dust?
He is not too sure. Who are you?” a child once asked him. “I wish I knew,” he replies, in a Jonathan Dimbleby documentary. A prince with a touch of imposter syndrome. He is, after all, only the “apparent” heir and fears that the real one may yet pop up and take his place. Charles makes me think of someone who is always a bit betwixt and between, a round peg in a square hole, neither one thing nor another, but still, all the same, continuing to give of his best and give it a decent shot anyway. He is, you have to say, a trier.
The black spider letters were once memorably described as being “as controversial as back copies of the Beano” (credit to Stephen Glover in the Mail). I have to admit, though, to a sneaking affection for the Beano. And, similarly, for those great old double-breasted suits of his, and his archaic way of speaking, all of that, in a spirit of nostalgia. Which suggests why he was never really going to make it as a surfer – he prefers to swim against the prevailing current.
The first Charles took that too far and ended up with his head on the block, but if you had to pinpoint a king who looks like some kind of plausible precursor, it would have to be King Canute, sticking his throne down in the sand and trying to hold back the tide. We know that he has passed on his board to Prince Harry, who once went surfing in Cornwall. Maybe he will take over as president of the British Surfing Association.
Terry Eagleton once said of the Prince of Wales that “he wants the kind of change radical enough to do away with polluters and modernist architects, but not radical enough to do away with himself”. But what he wants or doesn’t want is not really the point. If modern capitalism is all about “creative destruction”, then the feudal principle (and primogeniture) he embodies stands as a kind of counterweight or counterpoint to transience, a symbol of persistence or resistance (even if manifestly unfair and absurd). In the age of information and Donald Trump, he looks like someone who wouldn’t be well-equipped to tweet in the middle of the night. On the other hand, he could probably speak up for Gaia and communing with trees in a way that the average world leader might well shy away from.
The prince’s purpose flows from his inability to quite fit into time and space. Whether willingly or not, he has become the representative of all those (which is everyone, at one time or another) who feel rejected or excluded or left out in the cold or just waiting for a door to open that remains stubbornly closed. His charitable endeavours, on behalf of refugees and other fugitives from fate, reflect this role. Prince he may be, but he is already king of an immense and populous realm, the great and lonely kingdom of outsiders.