Sideburns

Mary Warnock

  • Charles, Prince of Wales by Anthony Holden
    Weidenfeld, 336 pp, £6.95, October 1980, ISBN 0 297 77662 2

In the ordinary way, it would count as a considerable triumph to spin out the biography of a man only 30 years old, and described as a late developer, to 21 chapters, 270 pages, excluding appendices. But of course the Prince of Wales is not ordinary; and much of Mr Holden’s book is not about the Prince but about the British Monarchy, its recent history and putative future. Prince Charles is certainly at the centre of the book; but the difficulties in the way of getting to know him (or any member of the Royal Family) are clearly described. All conversations must be guarded; most will be unspontaneous. Any potential friend will be viewed with suspicion. Is he safe? Will he talk to the press? It might seem that the task of a biographer, even one who travelled about with the Prince for two years, would be hopeless. How could one ever get close enough to the subject?

Yet this book succeeds. It is gripping, and has the air of truth. It is also unlike most writings about living royalty: its appeal is to a wide audience, but not an exclusively female one; and it does not set out to provide many revelations, although the element of revelation is not wholly lacking – which is as it should be. The ceremonial, and dangerous, Investiture at Caernarvon came immediately after the joint BBC/IBA film of the Royal Family at home. Anthony Holden suggests that, when watching the Investiture, people were more aware of the domestic than of the ceremonial aspect. He may have got it slightly wrong. It is the combination of the two which is fascinating: not the thought that the hero of the ceremony is just an ordinary person, but the thought that he is both – both human and god, both a hereditary monarch and the eldest of a family. Without the revelations of the television film, this paradox would have been missing. It is present in the book.

Anthony Holden is a highly professional journalist who can, as nearly as anyone, make bricks without straw. He is very much a journalist of the Seventies: that is to say, he seeks to inform without too obviously instructing. The manner is light, the stance detached, the overall effect a little ironic. Above all, he understands what it is that we want to know. He is able to tell us exactly what it is like.

Inquisitiveness used to be thought a vice, perhaps a peculiarly feminine vice. Now, at the end of the Seventies, we have discovered that it is not. Perhaps, belatedly, the lessons of Existentialism have been learned. In order to understand a total phenomenon (such as the British Monarchy, or life itself) you have to understand and interpret the details of it, the verité vécue. Moreover, just as in life or on television, you have a first, often powerful visual impression, so in Seventies journalism the first descriptive impact is all-important, and determines whether you will read on.

Here, in Chapter One, we are introduced to Prince Charles as he is now: ‘He lets his sideburns advance, wedge-shaped, across his cheeks. When talking to him it is hard to take your eyes off them.’ A trivial point, no doubt, but it is generally such trivia which engage the immediate attention in real life. In Chapter Two we are taken through his study in Buckingham Palace, and into his sitting-room. We know whether these rooms are tidy or untidy, noisy or quiet. We know whether his stereo is a good one, whether he has VCR equipment as well as a television set, and whether there are a lot of books. All the things which an inquisitive eye would fasten on are recorded, not avidly but lightly, as part of the scene.

But the observer’s spirit has its dangers. It may degenerate into an attitude that is too detached, too anthropological. It is not always desirable to look down from an Olympian height on the antics of the people you are describing. On the whole, Anthony Holden avoids this trap. Just occasionally he falls into it, suggesting that everyone he discusses is ‘one-dimensional’, boring or conventional to the point of absurdity.

It is, of course, in the nature of the case that Royalty and those surrounding them are conventional – or conservative. The photographs of Prince Charles as a little boy confirm this dramatically. It would be impossible to date them within 30 years. His velvet-collared coats from Hayfords’ look exactly like those his mother wore at the age of two. His pram and his nanny could belong to the Twenties, or anyway the Thirties, as well as to the Fifties. When one looks at these pictures, one can easily become quite confused about the generations (especially given the long age-span of the Royal Family). But conventionality does not entail dullness. In any case, dullness hardly comes into it, for an interest in royalty is kept alive by the frisson of snobbishness.

So far as the upper and upper-middle classes are concerned, ‘royal’ snobbery is accompanied, first, by a denial of any interest in the Royal Family, perhaps an expression of amazement that the press thinks it worthwhile to print stories about them. Then comes the concession that the Queen Mother, nevertheless, is marvellous. Next, comes the admission that Prince Charles is unique – quite unlike other members of the Royal Family because he plays (or, more accurately, did play) the cello. Then perhaps his father is let in. Finally, among those many who, at public functions, have encountered the Queen herself, there is the self-satisfied, would-be grudging admission that she too is marvellous: attractive, well-briefed, small and human. In all this, the popularity of Prince Charles is very high, and seems likely to remain so. Moreover, among women there is the Mastroiani syndrome – ‘This guy needs professional help. But first of all he needs me.’ There must be many women who feel about Prince Charles that, although his sex-life is confused and his position in that respect hopelessly restricted, if only they were to meet him, all would be well, at least for a bit.

Anthony Holden has a captive audience. But he treats them well. His journalistic talent shows especially in the description of the 1968 Investiture, among the mixed horrors and anxieties of Welsh-language fanatics and student demonstrators, and in the account of the Prince’s undergraduate life in Cambridge. The then Master of Trinity, Lord Butler, emerges, as one might have expected, as a clever, wise and attractive mentor. Prince Charles’s other great mentor was Lord Mountbatten. It is touching, and sad, to have all references to him in the present tense. Inevitably, his television auto-obituary is recalled: there he promised that if the Prince of Wales did not make a good king he would eat his heavenly hat. Anthony Holden gives us good reason to share this optimism. The Prince appears as a man whose sense of duty is as marked as his sense of history, the one deriving from the other. For a monarch, obligation could properly have no other source.