Was the Prince of Wales spooked by cling film? One evening, three years into his second marriage, when Camilla asked staff to leave cold-cuts out for dinner, did Charles recoil with a “shriek” at the unknown transparent matter covering the royal salad bowl? Had the heir to the throne, a polo player and noted outdoorsman, reached almost 60 without attending a picnic or village fête in which foodstuffs were protected with a product first marketed for domestic use in his mother’s coronation year? Was he really found by his wife “trembling” in buffet bafflement like the time-travelling medieval wizard Catweazle?
This is my problem with Rebel Prince: Tom Bower hates Charles so hard, thinks he is such a pampered, whinging odd-ball who will destroy the monarchy, that every titbit is processed through the outrage-o-tron until it pops out headline ready but credibility lite.
Now, I love royal gossip. I’m particularly partial to Petit Trianon let-them-eat-organic-oatcake Highgrove antics about Charles employing battalions of retired Indian servicemen to pick snails off his hostas at midnight. But while I can just about believe that when weekending at a friend’s house a van will trundle ahead of the royal personage carrying his favourite whisky and mineral water, personal loo-seat and orthopaedic bed (who doesn’t miss their own mattress?), or that his policeman carries a perfectly mixed Martini in a flask (how very 007), does HRH really always pack two paintings of the Scottish Highlands. Even when visiting the Scottish Highlands?
Royal stories are never dignified with princely rebuttals but such anecdotes do make you query everything else. If Kitty Kelley is a scalpel, Bower is a blunt instrument. He is so parti pris and uninterested in nuance or complexity that he announces: “On 1 May 1997, ‘spin’ won New Labour’s landslide victory”. Yes, “spin” was all wot won it: a national deception orchestrated by “the conjuror of those arts, Tony Blair”.
For all his boasts about interviewing 120 insiders, Bower leans on secondary sources, quoting at length authors with better access such as Jonathan Dimbleby, Penny Junor and Richard Kay. I wished alternately that the book was more serious – a political and constitutional inquiry into whether the post-Elizabethan monarchy will endure – or more readably trashy. Sometimes the material is dense, but lacks someone who can find the story, turn the undoubtedly vivid participants – especially the battling butlers, slimy, Charles piss-pot-holder Michael Fawcett and lachrymose, closeted Diana rock Paul Burrell – and render them as compelling characters. But too often, the chapters drag along, cluttered with extraneous but (presumably) hard-won data, like minutes of a meeting at C Windsor PLC.
Reading Rebel Prince, I long for Craig Brown’s divine Ma’am Darling, which builds a picture of the even more pampered Princess Margaret, through sly vignettes. The only character who leaps out of Bower’s pages is the Queen behaving true to beloved form: laying into Charles after two Martinis about how she’ll never accept the shameless Camilla, then eventually at their wedding posing with the couple for just 52 seconds before scuttling off to re-watch the Grand National.
Bower takes up Charles’s story just after Diana’s death in 1997 when the prince is struggling with guilt, while tortured that he cannot live openly with his mistress at court. Charles is brittle and bachelor-ish; solipsistic to the point of rudeness, inviting people to dinner and only showing up after the starter is eaten, then disappearing to his study when bored; he summons Londoners to Gloucestershire for the most fleeting meetings and is outraged when invoiced for their services. He regards himself open to unconventional ideas but is prickly when challenged. He sees himself as perpetually put-upon, yet works only three days a week, six months a year.
Bower most usefully gives a run-down of the Duchy of Cornwall’s opaque finances: fourth-biggest landowner in the country, no capital gains tax, income tax wholly voluntary, delivering Charles a personal budget of £11.4m plus his £4.1m from the state for public duties. Besides Highgrove there are his other five homes, including Clarence House, refurbished at a cost of £6m – much of this from the taxpayer – when he moved in after the Queen Mother’s death.
Yet mixing, as he must to finance his charities, with American squillionaires and Saudi sheikhs, Charles always feels poor. Or at least believes himself nobly frugal because he doesn’t own a yacht or eat lunch. How tawdry is this fundraising circuit: the hostesses instructed to source meat for dinner from the Duchy estate; Fawcett seating the richest person next to the prince, who beadily surveys donation slips to ensure no one is tight. Gifts are joyless geegaws, flogged off or tossed to underpaid staff or, in the case of an ugly tribal table, burned. Money is seldom cleanly earned but traded for proximity to royal flesh or a favour to be banked.
The best chapter concerns the events surrounding the trial of Diana’s butler, Burrell, for allegedly stealing her possessions after death. All those Ascot hats and taffeta frocks, “darling wombat” cards to William and dirty secrets, conserved in tissue paper and mahogany boxes: saintly relics with worldly worth. Burrell is prosecuted at the insistence of Diana’s sister, Sarah, but Charles is horrified since the butler knows – according to Bower – about the princess’s lovers and coke habit and could spill all in court.
The trial is stopped dramatically when the Queen suddenly recalls that Burrell had told her he had taken Diana’s effects for safe keeping. Since a monarch cannot be summoned to court, no one could challenge what Bower stops short of calling a regal lie.
Yet Bower is such an ardent monarchist that at his book launch he had guests toast “God save the Queen”.
Charles is a threat to the institution, the author believes, because of his insistence on being the perpetual minority report, the distaff view. What may begin as sound if unconventional ideas always tip over into cranky. He can’t stick with suggesting medicine should address both body and soul, but wants the NHS to spend millions on homeopathy. He can’t confine his architectural criticism to municipal concrete atrocities, but damns innovative modern buildings too. Bower gives Charles scant credit for pushing once left-field causes such as organic farming into the mainstream.
For Bower, the prince’s unsuitability is inherent: a failure of character and temperament. Charles, in his view, is selfish, lacking the stoicism required to appear interested in those he disdains. He neglects, for example, visiting countries of the Commonwealth – regardless of his prospective role as its head – because their climates are too hot for Camilla’s taste. He prefers brief stopovers enjoying the dynastic sycophancy and deep pockets of the Middle East.
Charles won’t put aside his own ego and idiotic over-thinking to deliver the bare monarchical minimum: to be a unifying focus. Nor is he much use, as a self-confessed adulterer, in enshrining Bagehot’s principle of “a family on the throne”. Reading Bower, one wonders why Charles wastes so much angst manoeuvring for Camilla to be queen. Why not settle for consort, rather than war against your mother, the court, the vagaries of public opinion.
Camilla, in Bower’s portrait, is admirable only in her tolerance of Charles, her gift for calming him with her affectionate teasing and – in Diana’s crude appraisal – her “big tits”. He portrays her as a bitch who hangs mean Di cartoons in her loo, a slattern in a filthy farm house, “the laziest woman in England” since she has never worked in a life devoted to parties, shagging and hunting, yet who handbrake turns into Lady Muck once married, moaning about taking scheduled flights instead of private jets.
“Is Charles a moderniser or an autocrat?” asks Bower. But he’s not much interested in the answer. Indeed, all he hopes for is as short an interregnum as possible between the stolid old queen and the modern everyman, King Wills. It must be hard to write a whole biography about a man you just find rather tiresome. It’s certainly hard to read.
Janice Turner writes for the Times.
Rebel Prince: the Power, Passion and Defiance of Prince Charles
William Collins, 384pp, £20
This article appears in the 04 Apr 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Delusions of empire