There's a very sad side to `good Will hunting'

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The Independent Culture
WHEN HISTORIANS consider the last year of the 20th century and search for an incident that somehow symbolises the accelerating decline into irrelevance of the British Royal Family, they will be spoilt for choice. The Duke of Edinburgh's dotty and mildly racist joke about Indian electricians will play its part, as will James Hewitt's grisly little erotic memoir of Diana, Princess of Wales, not to mention the repeated and ill-fated attempts by the Palace's marketing department to win the hearts of the unforgiving British public with regard to Camilla Parker Bowles.

But, in the end, they will probably agree that the clearest sign that the House of Windsor was nearing the end of a long run was contained in last weekend's photographs of Prince William as he rode out on the first day of the new hunting season with the Duke of Beaufort's foxhounds.

The problem is not with public perceptions of the prince's behaviour. Most people are rather tired of the hunting debate and are beginning to see that it is little more than a useful diversion for the Government from the many other more urgent political problems around. If William really is a hunting enthusiast, it would seem mean-spirited to disapprove. At his age I was doing the same sort of thing and, although my few days with the Duke of Beaufort's were perhaps rather tame compared to the unforgettable thrill of hunting with the Black and Tans or the Galway Blazers in Ireland, they were certainly enjoyable in their way.

But there was something awkward and poignant about the photos of the prince, in tweed coat and riding breeches, negotiating some microscopic obstacle on his horse. Clearly, his heart was not in it; his day in the saddle, one sensed, had nothing to do with the pleasure of riding across the countryside. It felt like a set-up, a political gesture. William was pleasing Daddy.

Royal teenagers do not seem to be allowed to experience adolescence in the normal way. Most sensible 17-year-olds today would do almost anything to avoid being seen in public behaving in a manner of which their fathers would approve. As they break out of childhood, they establish their independence by not pleasing adults. Once the world recognises them for who they are, rather than miniature versions of their parents, they can return to the human race.

Sadly, and disastrously, royal children seem to be denied this phase. From an early age, their upbringing and education are designed precisely to make them polite, fresh-faced, straight-backed junior royals, embodying the same dull values and snobberies as previous generations.

Given the tweed-and-cavalry-twill strait-jacket within which they are raised, it is hardly surprising that they invariably become such peculiar and unformed adults. We might think that Prince Charles, of all people, would understand this.

His own two-year sojourn at Trinity College, Cambridge, was widely portrayed as the first occasion when an heir to the throne was to be exposed to a variety of intellectual and social influences. In fact, as those of us who were in college with him will remember, Charles was utterly isolated, moving through Cambridge surrounded by a group of amiable Old Etonian beaglers. It is no great wonder that he grew up to be the sad figure he presents today - a good man who is emotionally repressed and hobbled by class-consciousness.

Surprisingly, it is Eddie Wessex, the film producer, who has shown the way forward for the Royal Family, by blundering his way out of the Royal Marines and into a sort of independence, becoming in the process the only Windsor who is relatively at ease with himself.

Maybe Eddie should take his nephew aside, and get him out of his hunting boots and into a few disreputable clubs before it is too late.