Suspended in inaction: Prince Charles (1980) by Bryan Organ.
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From the archive: Christopher Hitchens on Prince Charles

First published 21 December 1979.

The British royal family is a rather uninspiring and dowdy crew of people; indeed its general dullness is part of the protective covering which has helped it to avoid being identified with the last quarter-century of national decline. The monarchy seems to most people a thing apart from civil society, which is probably why it is almost the last surviving specimen of its kind.

How much longer can this go on? In the case of the present Queen, the great thing has been continuity. She is the last of the imperial British monarchs. After all, as the New Statesman put it shortly before the Jubilee:

In 1952, the Tories had just got back to office, Churchill had made his famous address to Congress, Monty was at NATO HQ, Stalin ruled Russia, Chiang’s men were fighting a rearguard action against the Chinese Communists on the Burma frontier. Virtually the whole of Africa was still partitioned among the colonial powers, and the British authorities had just informed the UN that they did not see their way to abolishing flogging in the mandated territories.

How different, how very different . . . At this moment, it is the full-time job of a large number of courtiers to groom a successor to Elizabeth II; a successor more suited to the sleazy, corrupt, confined and corporate society we have become, or to “the exciting challenge of the last quarter of the 20th century”, as they would and do put it.

Anthony Holden was granted a fairly close look at the young king in the making, and My Lord Weidenfeld of Chelsea makes an ideal publisher for the result (Charles Prince of Wales, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 6.95). The lineaments of the new-style monarchy start to become apparent very early on:

Royal links with industry, for instance, are traditional . . . In his early thirties, Prince Charles has begun to extend those links into the virgin royal territory of the trade unions, as befits the times. In 1979 he attended the annual conference of the Iron and Steel Trades Federation, carefully selected as one of the few unions which had then submitted to the Callaghan Government’s pay policy.

Above politics, too, don’t you see. And a slight change of tempo from the boring harangues about “getting your finger out” from his wholly unacceptable father.

Selected sweetheart trade unions apart, the Prince is not lost for contacts in the board-room either. Holden tells us that:

Perhaps the most significant appointment [to join his staff] was that in 1978 of a 35-year-old diplomat, Oliver Everett, to be assistant private secretary. Everett’s birdlike appearance belies his athletic prowess, notably as a polo-player of even more accomplishment than his master [there’s glory for you]; more important, he has organised such initiatives as the Prince of Wales’s tour of British industry under the auspices of the National Economic Development Office.

In the same spirit of buccaneering enterprise, the Prince leases his rich oyster-beds on the River Helston in Cornwall to Mac Fisheries Ltd, who thereby subcontract and market about a million oysters a year. This decision shows his up-to-dateness in the matter of his Cornish dukedom.

Towards his Welsh subjects the Prince is hardly less go-ahead. We learn that:

Visiting Expo ’70 in Tokyo, he met the president of the Sony electronics conglomerate, and learned of their plans to build a plant somewhere in Western Europe. “Why not try Wales?” suggested its Prince . . . Two years later, Prince Charles was able to open the new Sony plant in Bridgend, Glamorgan . . .

Where they could certainly do with the work. At home, abroad, there is the same unsleeping salesmanship—the head of PR for Great Britain Incorporated.

Not that Prince Charles is indifferent to the greater issues. His personal library and reading habits are also scrutinised by Holden, who reveals that “E F Schumacher’s Small Is Beautiful is something of a bible, but he will fall asleep over a novel”. (This last, even though “anything by Alexander Solzhenitsyn” is considered absorbing.)

So it is hardly a surprise to discover that his religious convictions were first encouraged by the Rt Rev Robert Woods, when Dean of Windsor and Chaplain to the Queen. Now Bishop of Worcester, Woods is gratified to find the Prince “unassailed by doubts”. Not bad for a boy of more than thirty years of age. But of course, there are twentieth-century challenges out there just waiting to be met. “As the future head of the Anglican Church he is anxious to use his position to encourage rapprochement with Rome.” Well, he would, wouldn’t he? Anything else would look hidebound and, well, traditional.

Even more indicative of the new-style bourgeois monarchy is the retinue of private secretaries as described here. The Hon Edward Adeane is a man much in tune with the times:

To work for the Prince, he gave up a lucrative practice as a libel barrister, with such disparate clients as Lady Falkender and the Tory Party, The Times and Playboy magazine.

Adeane went to Eton and Cambridge all right, but there is nothing fuddy-duddy about him. Any more than there is about the Hon John Baring, chairman of the merchant bank, who looks after the new and dynamic financing of the Duchy of Cornwall. Even the royal choice of friends has to be trimmed. The Nicholas Soames lot, for instance, are written off as “upper-class twits”. “The Prince these days,” says Holden, “favours more substantial figures such as his barrister friend Richard Beckett, who serves on . . . one of his trusts, and Hywell Jones, a socialist economist who shared his staircase at Cambridge.” A socialist, of course, among one’s friends would be de rigueur.

Sometimes the description of his efforts with his “circle” are downright laughable. Torn between his kinship with the well-born and his need to appear modern, Charles causes sentences like this to be written about him, and his chums the Tollemaches (Timothy and Alexandra):

Though heir to the Tollemache and Cobbold brewery fortune, the fifth Baron has recently felt obliged to open Helmingham’s gardens to the public.

There was none of that foolishness when Edward was waiting to become king.

Then of course there is showbiz, an essential means of communicating with the aspirations of modern youth etc, and one which previous princes have properly scorned. Not so our boy. His phrase for his better-favoured younger brother Andrew is “the one with the Robert Redford looks”. He likes The Goodies and Monty Python, and still affects to find The Goons funny. In touch, in touch, always in touch. It must be hell, but it must be done.

To the Left, the monarchy has often seemed an irrelevant issue—either a tedious anomaly to be mocked or an occasional target for criticism concerning luxurious expense. This philistinism is a big mistake. First, the Palace still retains considerable political reserve influence, through the Royal Prerogative and through other influences more informal. We learn from Holden of a lunch where “the Prince of Wales reckoned he got the better of the PM in one or two exchanges on the small print of Cabinet memoranda”. Oh he did, did he? The Prime Minister was James Callaghan, so it probably wasn’t difficult to win the argument. But the point is the access of the Royal Family to the secrets which the voters never know, and the resulting manoeuvrability which this confers on them.

Then there is the ideological element. If nothing else, Jubilee year demonstrated to many radicals that the monarchy still has a vast claim on the popular imagination. It is, of course, only to be expected that the very apex of our system should be an absurdity. But it is a great mistake to underestimate its subliminal effect on the country, and on the formation of opinion.

It is in this dimension—the ideological one—that the reshaping of the present Prince of Wales is taking place. His advisers know that the pomp and circumstance cannot be jettisoned. But they also know that it will not do on its own; that the next monarch will have to make his way in the world and that his subjects will have to be conditioned for it. Through every page in Holden’s book shines the fact that the Prince is short on intelligence, imagination or charm. Very well then, Prince of mediocrity.

The boy has been through every hoop that can be devised for him. He has piloted a plane and made a parachute jump. He has commanded a Royal Navy vessel though he has never (unlike his Uncle Dickie) heard a shot fired in anger.

Perhaps this is what we have come to—a king in the making who knows a few social democrats by their Christian names; a king who has more or less acceptable packages of opinion on everything from racial harmony to ecumenicism. A king fit to be on the board in his own right. A king in the image of Peter Jay; with relatives slightly better connected.

Read this and over a hundred other articles from the New Statesman archive in “The New Statesman Century”, our anthology of the best and boldest writing from the last hundred years.

Christopher Hitchens (1949-2011) was an author and journalist. He joined the New Statesman in 1973.

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How did I, obsessed with non-places, not know about the Trafford Centre?

My wife had booked us all in to a showing of the latest Bond film at the IMAX Cinema at the Trafford Centre. “Why the Trafford Centre?” I taxed her. She looked at me as if I were a complete ass, but refused to enlighten me. 

Last year I bought a copy of J G Ballard’s last novel, Kingdom Come, a dystopic tale of the near future in which bored suburbanites descend into anomic violence as they retreat inside a giant shopping mall. Predictably, I bought my copy at the Bluewater shopping mall in north Kent, on the outskirts of London. Bluewater held the title of Britain’s biggest shopping mall for a number of years and it is surpassing large: a huge circular corridor that has become a destination. I asked a police officer where the Waterstones was and discovered she was a good old-fashioned bobby-on-the-beat – her beat having been, for seven years, to walk slowly around and around . . . Bluewater.

But I wasn’t fettered by Bluewater’s surly gravity, any more than I was galvanised by rampant consumerism. Novel purchased, I took a cab over the soaring Queen Elizabeth II Bridge to Essex, where I alighted at Bluewater’s twin establishment: the Lakeside shopping mall in West Thurrock. I headed for the Lakeside branch of Waterstones, where I . . . well, you guessed it: I returned my copy of Kingdom Come. This surreal little exercise was undertaken for the BBC Radio 4 documentary Malled: Sixty Years of Undercover Shopping, and I’ve detailed it here purely in order to illustrate this point: I have more than a passing interest in shopping malls.

This is why the events of a fortnight ago, when Family Self went up to Manchester for what is termed, I believe, a “city break”, seemed quite so bizarre. My wife had booked us all in to a showing of the latest Bond film at the IMAX Cinema at the Trafford Centre. “Why the Trafford Centre?” I taxed her. “It’s in Trafford, which is five miles from the city centre.” She looked at me as if I were a complete ass, but refused to enlighten me. My revelation came later, when we were wandering the rococo halls of the Trafford Centre, marvelling at the lashings of gold leaf applied to the serried columns as our soles slapped on the Italian marble flooring. My wife couldn’t believe that one such as I, obsessed by what the French philosopher Marc Augé has named “non-places”, didn’t know about the Trafford Centre.

But I didn’t – it was a 207,000-square-metre hole in my map of the world. I knew nothing of the bitter and protracted wrangling that attended its inception, as successive planning applications were rejected by ever higher authorities, until our Noble Lords had to step in to ensure future generations will be able to buy their schmutter at TK Maxx and then sip their lattes at Starbucks without having to brave the harsh Lancashire elements. Did I feel small as my savvier spouse led me through these storied halls? You bet your waddling, wobbling, standing-still-on-the-travelator bum I did. How could I not have known about the great central dome of the Trafford mall, which is bigger – and statelier – than that of St Paul’s? How could I have been unaware of the Orient, Europe’s largest food court, with its seating for 1,800 diners, served by a plethora of exciting outlets including Harry Ramsden’s, Carluccio’s and those piquant bun-pushers, McDonald’s?

Actually, the Orient completely bowled me over. The Trafford Centre’s imagineers point to the nearby Manchester Ship Canal as influencing this wholly novel and utterly weird space, which is formed by a sort of Möbius strip of 1930s ocean-liner design, being at once superstructure – railings, funnels, tables arranged to simulate the deckchairs on a sun deck – and interior. However, nothing like this ever cruised by Runcorn. Not that I object to this, any more than I objected to the cluttered corridor full of orientalism – noodle bars, sushi joints, all-you-can-eat Chinese barbecues – that debouched from it and led us back into the weirdly glistering main retail areas, with their ornamental griffins and neoclassical columns bodged up out of medium-density fibreboard.

The Trafford Centre’s imagineers also make great play of design features – such as the aforementioned griffins – that are meant to tie the humongous mall to its hinterland (these are the heraldic symbols of the de Traffords, who used to own hereabouts), and to the north-east’s proud industrial heritage. But this is all ornamental balls; the truth is that the Trafford Centre’s ambience is so sumptuously wacky, it could quite reasonably be twinned with Las Vegas.

While the rest of the family went in search of retail opportunities, I watched the Mancunians process. It occurred to me that if there were any influences at work here – besides the Baudrillardian ones of hyperreality and simulation that underpin so much of the contemporary built environment – it was the presence of a large British Asian community. The only people who didn’t look out of both place and time, wandering about among all the gilded pomp and crystalline circumstance, were women wearing saris, shalwar kameez and burqas. Tracksuit bottoms and hoodies just didn’t cut it – although, I concede, come the breakdown in civil society anticipated in Kingdom Come, this pseudo-sportswear will come into its own as the perfect pillaging outfit.

Next week: Lives of Others

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 26 November 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Terror vs the State