Prince William: No ordinary boy

He was Diana's 'greatest hope'. And the cool prince we saw last week may also be the monarchy's
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The Independent Online

From the 24 years and the millions of photographs of the life of Prince William, three very different images stick in the memory.

The first showed his sheepish mother and beaming father standing outside St Mary's Hospital in London on 21 June 1982, holding the 7lb 10z heir to the throne. Crowds had waited through the night and thousands gathered outside Buckingham Palace to celebrate the arrival of William Arthur Philip Louis Windsor. One day old, he was already expected to revitalise the monarchy, and the country.

The most recent shows the student prince, his hair already thinning, bent over his books at St Andrews University, where he achieved a creditable 2:1 in Geography. "I really do want to be in control of my own life," he said in the corresponding interview. "I value all the normality I can get."

In between was the image of a schoolboy, following his mother's coffin with his head bowed. He must have wished, not for the first time, that he didn't have his mother's eyes. Shortly before she died, Diana, Princess of Wales, reportedly told friends: "All my hopes are on William, now." It is hard to imagine any royal having less access to normality than him.

In many ways, last week highlighted Prince William's battle for normality. On Friday, he graduated from Sandhurst Military Academy watched by his grandmother, the Queen, and his girlfriend, Kate Middleton. Kate was not born to celebrity like her partner, but had celebrity thrust upon her. She and her parents sat in the general stands. "That's how they wanted to be today, like everybody else," a Sandhurst spokesman said.

In 2004, William told the press: "The last thing I want to do is be mollycoddled or wrapped up in cotton wool because if I was to join the Army I'd want to go where my men went and I'd want to do what they did. I would not want to be kept back for being precious."

He has since accepted that it would be unfair to put his men at risk by his presence on the front line. He apparently took it better than his less pragmatic brother Harry, who glumly told officers: "If I am not allowed to join my unit in a war zone, I will hand in my uniform."

The differences in the princes' temperaments could not be more marked: William is the sensitive flower, Harry the royal playboy. But the pair are a team. Appearing together in May in an interview with the TV presenters Ant and Dec, they put on a show of filial affection that was remarkable for its boys-next-door, knockabout normality. "He won't admit to it but we both watch [reality TV shows], especially the American Pop Idol," said Harry, while Prince Charles chuntered on about Leonard Cohen.

Last week the brothers teamed up again to present their first ever, very own, grown-up PR coup. In an effort to distract mawkish attention from the 10th anniversary of their mother's death, William and Harry have planned a concert in her honour - not on the date she died, but on her birthday, 1 July. "The main purpose is to celebrate and to have fun and to remember her in a fun way," said William. "The idea is that we wanted to get artists that our mother really loved, and then artists that Harry and I both enjoy. We wanted to put our own stamp on it." Which is why Elton John, Duran Duran and the Royal Ballet will be appearing onstage alongside Joss Stone and Pharrell Williams.

Those who have met William remember two things about him: his shyness and his relentless efforts to be normal. Even on the Prince of Wales's official website, it proudly declaims that "Prince William is a keen sportsman and enjoys a wide variety of activities, mostly team sports". It sounds like a profile on a matchmaking website - as if Prince William needed one. In fact, he receives proposals from girls in the street. He also has old ladies asking him where to find underwear shops, he says. He tells them he doesn't know.

One commoner, who met the 14-year-old prince at a rugby match tea at Eton, talks about his amazing lack of confidence in public. "He was very shy. I sat next to him and said 'Hello', and he flinched." Another met him later, as part of his cautious inauguration into the media in 2004. "I was at a pub near Highgrove with a royal PR man, and then William turned up and got a round in. He was drinking pints of cider, and talking about Aston Villa. He's a proper football fan but he said he picked them for diplomatic reasons. He said: "It's kind of in the middle of the country, isn't it?" He offered to get me his father's amazing hayfever cure from America. He was a nice guy."

Certainly The Firm, as Diana used to call the family, has kept a close eye on the prince. Some have said he is the most protected royal in history. But since he left St Andrews, no official agreement has existed to protect his privacy, and he was heard to say at his graduation ceremony: "I'm going out into the big wide world."

This last week seems to have seen him meet the world with style. In a few days, he has shown off his likely bride in an official capacity. He has instructed the country in how to celebrate his mother's life. And, as the report into her death was announced, he has shown his maturity and leadership. "Prince William and Prince Harry have received a copy of the report from Lord Stevens personally," said a simple statement from Clarence House. "They trust that these conclusive findings will end the speculation surrounding their mother's death." All week, they seem to have been appealing for a line to be drawn.

Max Clifford, the celebrity PR adviser, recently said that Prince William's relationship with the press would be crucial in terms of the future of the monarchy. "If he is his mother's son, then his instincts and understanding could be the making of the royals. If he is influenced by his father then it could be the end," he said. "In many ways, the future of the monarchy is in his hands and the next five years will determine how that battle will go." It is quite a responsibility, but one that he is shaping up to take on.

As the Queen addressed Prince William and his fellow graduates at Sandhurst on Friday, she no doubt had a special message for her earnest young grandson. To the assembled company she said, "A great deal will be expected of you. You must be courageous yet selfless, leaders yet carers, confident yet considerate. And you must be all these things in some of the most challenging environments around the world so that men and women will willingly follow your lead into every possible situation with absolute trust in your judgement."

The Queen had carefully pointed out: "I am speaking to every individual one of you," but her final words could have been addressed personally to her grandson. "These are very special attributes, she concluded. "But those whom you will command, and your country too, will expect nothing less."

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