Watching Panorama on Monday evening, I saw that awful smile and thinning scalp again. It belonged to the Prince of Wales, as he moved in ornamented agony from futile photo-opportunity to meaningless gesture. And as surely as the Incas sacrificed chosen maidens to mark their covenant with their gods and to ask for renewal, so this shy, awkward, vain man was being sacrificed, inch by inch, to cement ours. If you stood back and looked at it with an observer's eye, it was a pitiful sight.
We are torturing this goodish, nice-ish, kindish, middlebrow man. Edgar Allan Poe's greatest fear, expressed in at least three of his stories, was that of catalepsy: falling asleep so soundly that your slumber is mistaken for death, and you awake locked in your coffin, or bricked up in your mausoleum. So it is with Charles, waiting indefinitely for the great task of his life, his fingers scrabbling at the mortar. He has waited 20 years too long already, and probably has 10 more to endure. At an age when most of us have already retired, he may - finally - totter on to the throne and become the millennium's first British king. And it won't have been worth it.
The sort of sympathy I felt for Charles, watching him bumble around Highgrove and his various farms, is the kind that leads to infuriation. His awkwardness and vulnerability bring out the bully in me, and I am torn between the desire to comfort him and the urge to give him one right in the kisser. It would be less painful, somehow, if he were content - like his brother Andrew - to be a dull, jovial, unbothered sort of a chap. But the aspiration, the pretension to being an intellectual and a man of action, is embarrassing. For, at 50, Charles cannot really come out to play until his mother lets him.
But, like the man with BO, even his best friends won't tell him the truth about himself. He is either vilely excoriated in the tabloid press, or deferred to absurdly by most of those he encounters every day. One particularly dreadful scene in Panorama depicted the Prince "relaxing" with some locals in a hostelry on one of his estates. Every word that he uttered was greeted with appreciative giggles from his late-middle-aged audience, giggles that escalated into whinnies and guffaws the moment the Prince said anything mildly comic. He was cocooned from himself by this sycophancy. Similarly his serious comments - no matter how banal - are doubtless treated as being lapidary by people around him.
This debilitating obsequiousness, this disabling suspension of critical faculties, is shared by one half of the journalistic caste. The week has been disfigured by reports from otherwise distinguished reporters, going on about the Prince "appearing relaxed", or "seeming at home", or any of 101 other ways they have of regurgitating bland Palace assurances. He is semi-divine, interpreted by astrologers.
This bunch are the ornamenters; the other half, of course, wield the clubs. They taunt the Prince about the woman he clearly and deeply loves - advising him to live in sin and then damning him for it. When he tries to play their game and defend himself, he is a vile liar. Day in, day out, thud, thud, they bring their newspapers down upon his balding head. The more the astrologers proclaim his divinity, the harder the clubmen strike.
My contention is that they - and we - are acting immorally towards the Prince. People may be punished for what they do only when they are acting out of free will. Charles never asked to be a member of the Royal Family. Elton John wanted to be a rock star, Tony Blair wanted to be Prime Minister, I wanted to work on The Independent, but no one said to poor, young, gawky, 21-year-old Charles that he could skip all that silly Investiture business at Caernarfon Castle if he wanted to.
The whole of his life, from 1948 until now, the Prince of Wales has suffered greater constraint than almost any of us. He has had "duties", but no rights. Born to succeed, he has been more trapped than any estate urchin being brought up by a dysfunctional mother in the middle of dystopia.
And it is no use trying to mitigate the harshness of his lot by pointing to his "privileges". Most of us in the West, these days, do not go hungry or homeless. And we exercise choice; we are free. When we say that we love this or that person, we are not told that it is our duty to unlove them because they have knocked about a bit. Yet, as Penny Junor says in her book, Charles: Victim or Villain?, published this week, "The system required the Prince to find a wife and produce an heir, but not just any wife - a wife who was a member of the Church of England, who was pure, with no past experience of men, who was well bred and who... " Well, you get the idea.
Charles, then, cannot marry Camilla (repeat that sentence and see how ludicrous it is!) because he is head of the Church of England. Even the kings of Assyria, who (like our royals today) doubled up as high priests of Ashur, were better off. At least Ashur sanctioned polygamy. Rather, the Prince of Wales is in the position of those Polynesian chiefs who are not allowed to touch menstruating women or corpses for fear of their mana - or hereditary power - being lost. It is taboo, so they must be sequestered, lest the Gods send sickness and death to the whole tribe. Camilla is taboo; he must live alone.
Once we have had our sacrificial way with Prince Charles, and his freezing corpse is left on Mount Silibugga, we will then turn on Prince William, who looks like adding beauty to the other qualities of the offering. William, too, has never had a choice, so is it really essential that we torture him in the same way that we have tortured his father?
Junor quotes a recent exchange said to have taken place between Charles and Tony Blair, when the latter was bemoaning the lot of the modern politician. "How much worse, therefore, if you happen to be born into a public position in these intolerable circumstances?" replied the Prince.
This must stop. We should end the hereditary monarchy with the present Queen, or we should scale it down dramatically, and allow the new, cycling monarchs much the same freedom to marry and to choose and to be private that we demand for ourselves. Anything else is barbarism. Windsors have human rights too. Free the Highgrove One!Reuse content