The royal touch, part I
How close can one come to the king’s skin? Not very, if the king in question is Charles III. (“There was never anything tactile about him,” said Princess Diana.) Not very close, either, if the royal in question was his mother. In 1954, Queen Elizabeth II returned home from a tour of the Commonwealth, having spent almost six months apart from the five-year-old Charles. Grandees lined the deck of the royal yacht Britannia to greet the queen. The young Charles tried to jump the queue to reach his mother. “No, not you dear,” she said, batting him away. When it was his turn, she shook his hand.
Things about which Charles has complained
The menace presented by British badgers
Illegal fishing of the Patagonian toothfish
Nicholas Witchell, the BBC’s long-suffering royal correspondent (“I can’t bear that man. He’s so awful. He really is.”)
Interest in his private life (this “national pastime…of prurient speculation”)
Fountain pens (“I can’t bear this bloody thing.”)
The birth of Prince Harry (“Oh God, it’s a boy…And he’s even got red hair.”)
Things about which Charles did not complain
The queen and Prince Philip chose to send the young Charles to the then infamously grim Gordonstoun school in Scotland – “to toughen him up”, said Prince Harry. The school’s outlook was an eccentric blend of ancient Greek ideals (namely a firm belief in steeping the pupils in culture) and aristocratic English ones (namely a firm belief in steeping them in mud). It had been founded with the aim of churning out Plato’s philosopher-kings: men strong in body and mind. The boys’ lockers, as Jonathan Dimbleby observes in his biography of Charles, offered a graphic demonstration of this hearty approach to life. A “Training Plan” was pinned inside each one. It divided daily life into upright columns and upright tasks, with entries to be made for “Teeth Brushed”, “Rope Climbed”, “Skipping”, “Press Ups” and (of course) “Cold Shower”.
“I don’t like it much here. I simply dread going to bed as I get hit all night long. I can’t stand being hit on the head by a pillow now”
There was no column for “Coping with Relentless Nocturnal Bullying”, but, for Charles, there ought to have been. He was, as one contemporary observed, bullied “maliciously, cruelly and without respite”, while at the school. “I don’t like it much here,” the young Charles wrote in a letter in 1963 when he was 14. “I simply dread going to bed as I get hit all night long. I can’t stand being hit on the head by a pillow now.” (There is pathos in that “now”, as if once he might have been capable of tolerating it.)
Later, Charles would tell Harry that he had been “persecuted” as a boy. “I remember him murmuring ominously: I nearly didn’t survive,” Harry says in “Spare”, his recently published memoir. What kept him going? His teddy bear, which he still hangs on to decades later. “Teddy went everywhere with Pa,” Harry writes. ‘It was a pitiful object, with broken arms and dangly threads, holes patched up here and there…Teddy expressed eloquently, better than Pa ever could, the essential loneliness of his childhood.” Charles never said a word to his teachers. Whether or not Gordonstoun did turn out philosopher-kings is moot. But it forced one future king to be – or at least to show himself to be – philosophical.
It wasn’t easy for a man titled His Royal Highness, Prince of Wales, Duke of Cornwall, Duke of Rothesay, Duke of Edinburgh, Earl of Chester, Earl of Carrick, Earl of Merioneth, Baron of Renfrew, Baron Greenwich, Lord of the Isles and Great Steward of Scotland to find someone on his level. One such person was his great-uncle, Louis Francis Albert Victor Nicholas Mountbatten, Admiral of the Fleet, Earl Mountbatten of Burma and the last viceroy of India.
Their relationship felt natural from the beginning, particularly since Mountbatten bought Charles such good presents. The austerity of Charles’s schools seems to have been matched, if not exceeded, by the austerity of his parents. Prince Philip once bought the boy an electric toothbrush as a birthday present, which, wrote the underwhelmed future king, was “like using an electric drill in one’s mouth”. It was reported by some newspapers that when the young Charles wished to attend a midnight feast at prep school he “had been obliged to sell some personal possessions to finance his contributions”.
That story is dubious, but it is beyond doubt that Mountbatten lavished his great-nephew with love, affection, letters and presents. He bought him a subscription to Eagle magazine (“I like Eagle very much,” the young Charles wrote back. “It’s got such exciting stories”); a bicycle (“I have had great fun on it and it goes very fast”); and a DYMO label printer (Charles wrote in thanks that he had heard of such things but had “never possibly believed that anyone would give me one. I sit playing with it all day”).
“Teddy went everywhere with Pa. It was a pitiful object, with broken arms and dangly threads, holes patched up here and there…Teddy expressed eloquently, better than Pa ever could, the essential loneliness of his childhood”
Mountbatten also gave advice, not all of which was followed: he told Philip and Elizabeth to have Charles’s ears “fixed” because, “You can’t possibly be king with ears like that.” And he wrote to Charles in a letter in 1974 that a young man should “sow his wild oats and have as many affairs as he can before settling down, but for a wife he should choose a suitable, attractive and sweet-charactered girl.”
In August 1979, the IRA blew up Mountbatten’s fishing boat as he was taking his daughter and her twins on a family outing in the Atlantic waters near his holiday home in north-west Ireland. A deckhand and one of Mountbatten’s grandsons died instantly; Mountbatten himself shortly after. “I have lost someone infinitely special in my life,” Charles wrote in his diary that night. “In some extraordinary way he combined grandfather, great uncle, father, brother and friend…Life will never be the same now that he has gone.”
Love, part I
Charles is in a blue suit and a tie. Diana is in a blue pussycat bow, head down, eyes up, fringe over them. They are giving their first interview after their engagement, one which will cast a long shadow over their marriage. The script is now notorious. As with any good tragedy, the tension comes not because you don’t know how things will end but because you do.
Interviewer [offscreen]: Can you find the words to sum up how you feel today, both of you?
Charles: Difficult to find that sort of word isn’t it really…
Charles: Just delighted, and happy…And I’m amazed that she’s been brave enough to take me on.
Interviewer: And I suppose, “In love”?
Diana: Of course…
Charles: Whatever “in love” means…
Diana: [laughs] Yes.
Love, part II
The oddest thing about Charles’s statement was less his ambivalence than the fact that he’d made it before. This was not a romance plotted by Barbara Cartland. They had met a dozen times before their engagement. The first meeting was on a ploughed field: she was 16 years old, “fat, podgy, no make-up” and in Wellington boots; he was 30 with a Labrador and a gloomy air about him. Her first impression was “God, what a sad man.” There followed meetings at a friend’s house where “he was all over me,” Diana remembered. “I thought: ‘Well, this isn’t very cool.’”
It’s not easy for a man titled His Royal Highness, Prince of Wales, Duke of Cornwall, Duke of Rothesay, Duke of Edinburgh, Earl of Chester, Earl of Carrick, Earl of Merioneth, Baron of Renfrew, Baron Greenwich, Lord of the Isles and Great Steward of Scotland to find someone on his level
There were more meetings. At one, Diana told him that he had looked “so sad” at Lord Mountbatten’s funeral, whereupon, to her surprise, he pounced on her the “next minute”. But “the feeling was I wish Prince Charles would hurry up and get on with it,” as Diana later put it. It was evident that the queen was also “fed up” by her son’s failure to grasp the nettle. Charles returned from a skiing holiday and asked Diana to come over to Windsor. She thought, “Christ, what am I going to do?” At this point she was still calling him, “Sir”. Charles sat her down and told her that he had missed her. Then he said: “Will you marry me?” Diana laughed. “I remember thinking, ‘This is a joke.’”
Charles, who had always been acutely aware that royals are more or less gametes in gumboots, was indeed serious. He had always been serious about marriage. It was a “much more important business than falling in love”. The proposal was almost more awkward than the public announcement. After Diana realised that Charles was not joking she replied: “Yeah, OK.” Whereupon Charles said, “You do realise that one day you will be queen.” She said: “Yes.” Then she said: “I love you so much, I love you so much.” Charles said: “Whatever love means.” Diana later recalled, “I thought that was great!” She was 19.
Kings are richly served by the “Yale Book of Quotations”, from Shakespeare’s Richard III (“Now is the winter of our discontent”) to his Henry IV (“Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown”) to Martin Luther (“I have a dream”) to the current King Charles III, who appears in the dictionary a little before Chaucer and Chekhov.
It was reported by some newspapers that when the young Charles wished to attend a midnight feast at prep school he “had been obliged to sell some personal possessions to finance his contributions”
It is an unflattering juxtaposition. There are five quotations from Charles in the dictionary. They include his public inability to define love, two on architecture (including his condemnation of a mooted extension to the National Gallery as a “monstrous carbuncle”) and his musing on the conversations he conducts with his plants (“they respond, I find”). The fifth, and most famous one, does have a certain Wife of Bath bawdiness to it. It is: “Or, God forbid, a Tampax.”
The other woman
To understand the Tampax, it is necessary to understand Charles’s relationship with Camilla Parker-Bowles, once his mistress, now his queen. There was something gynaecological about their relationship from the beginning. On November 14th 1948, an obstetrician named Sir William Gilliatt had safely delivered Elizabeth II of her firstborn son, Charles, at Buckingham Palace. Sir William was in high demand in high society. The year before, on July 17th 1947, he had delivered another baby, this time a girl, named Camilla Rosemary Shand, whose married name was Parker-Bowles.
There were other intimate coincidences between the two. Camilla’s great-grandmother had been Alice Keppel, the favourite mistress of a former Prince of Wales, Edward VII, the great-great-grandfather of Charles. Being the mistress to the Prince of Wales was easier in those days. As Alice simply put it, her job was to “curtsy first and then leap into bed”.
A young man should “sow his wild oats and have as many affairs as he can before settling down, but for a wife he should choose a suitable, attractive and sweet-charactered girl”
The two babies that Sir William had delivered would meet in 1972. And, by all accounts, were as taken with each other as their ancestors had been. “She was in love with him and would have married him at the drop of a hat,” wrote Penny Junor, a Royal biographer. “Alas, he never asked her. He dithered and hedged his bets, and could not resist the charms of other women, until Camilla gave up on him. It was only when she was irretrievably gone that the prince realised what he had lost.” They rekindled their affair in 1986.
Transcript of phone call between Prince Charles and Camilla Parker-Bowles on December 18th 1989
Charles: What about me? The trouble is, I need you several times a week, all the time.
Camilla: Mmm. So do I. I need you all the week, all the time.
Charles: Oh God, I’ll just live inside your trousers or something. It would be much easier.
Camilla (laughing): What are you going to turn into? A pair of knickers? (Both are laughing) Oh, you’re going to come back as a pair of knickers.
Charles: Or, God forbid, a Tampax, just my luck. (He laughs)
Camilla: You are a complete idiot. (She laughs) Oh, what a wonderful idea.
Charles: My luck to be chucked down the lavatory and go on and on forever swirling round on the top, never going down.
The conversation then moves on and, with Chekhovian understatement, ends with a discussion of which combination of motorways offers the quickest way to Wiltshire.
The royal touch, part II
Access to the royal skin has always been carefully controlled. It is generally rationed but, at times, also offered liberally. Kings from Edward the Confessor onwards would touch the scrofulous sores of their subjects, healing them with the “royal touch”. Charles II used to get through 600 people in a single session.
Today, royals are measured less in consumptives cured than in their willingness to hug. Diana deployed hugging to show she was a caring and modern royal. She hugged her children (“I hug my children to death”) and she hugged the sick (“I had always wanted to hug people in hospital beds”).
No one has ever suggested that Charles is a hugger. Not even on the night in August 1997 that Diana died in a car crash in Paris. “He sat down on the edge of the bed,” Harry writes in “Spare”. “He put a hand on my knee. ‘Darling boy, Mummy’s been in a car crash,’” he told him. “They tried, darling boy. I’m afraid she didn’t make it.” Harry doesn’t remember what he said in response. But what he does recall “with startling clarity is that I didn’t cry. Not one tear.” And, of course, that “Pa didn’t hug me.”
The gardens of Highgrove, the private home of Charles III and Queen Camilla, offer many delights for those who visit them at a cost of £30 for a garden tour or £85 for champagne tea and tour. There is the Wildflower Meadow (“one of the most picturesque gardens at Highgrove”), the Thyme Walk and the Arboretum, filled with magnolias, a “particular favourite” of the king.
They also contain the less celebrated Highgrove sewage-filtration system. “Believe it or not,” Charles announced in a speech in Madrid, sewage sludge “is a subject which has long fascinated me”. The man who capitalises the word “Nature”, began organic farming long before most people had heard of it and wears his clothes till they are patched at the pocket, has strong views on recycling. Including that of human faeces.
Highgrove therefore has a “specially built reed-bed sewage system, much loved by dragonflies at its treatment end” that recycles all the household’s waste. Those who come as Charles’s private guests are likely to be given a special tour of what he calls his “sewage garden”. The sewage garden is not part of the private champagne tea tour, which costs a cool £790.
The facilities in Balmoral are Victorian, in the most literal sense possible: the house was bought for Queen Victoria and has been little improved since. It has a rustic charm, for those who appreciate such things. The water in the toilets is, for example, always brownish, which “often alarmed weekend guests”. Charles, Prince Harry explains, will reassure them that there is nothing wrong with it. On the contrary, it has been filtered and sweetened by highland peat. To have a bath in this water is one of life’s “finest pleasures”.
“Believe it or not,” Charles announced in a speech in Madrid, sewage sludge “is a subject which has long fascinated me”
There are 50 bedrooms in Balmoral, so it is easy to get lost. And behind some of these doors, as on a magician’s stage, or in a riddle, surprising things lurk. Including the king. For the man who was once the “world’s most eligible bachelor” is older these days and, like Balmoral, also a little creaky. He has been prescribed exercises by his physio to cope with the neck and back pain inflicted by old polo injuries. Open the wrong door and you might therefore find Charles doing headstands in his boxers or “hanging from a bar like a skilled acrobat”. As Harry explains, “If you set one little finger on the knob you’d hear him begging from the other side: No! No! Don’t open! Please God don’t open!” ■
Catherine Nixey is a Britain correspondent for The Economist
ILLUSTRATIONS MARTIN ROWSON