Terence Blacker: Prince Charles, our newest literary star

The PCC chairman has shown how hilariously dated the concept of discretion in public life has become
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The Independent Online

It is always rather moving when, after years of confusion, false starts and general blundering about, a pal discovers the career for which his position and aptitude make him ideally suited. Although Prince Charles is not technically a pal, in that friendship implies acquaintance, our educations once coincided and so, rather alarmingly, do some of our opinions.

Now that we are moving closer together professionally, I feel sure that it can only be a matter of time before I am invited to join Stephen Fry, Gyles Brandreth, Ben Elton and others in the unofficial kitchen cabinet which is said to keep the prince in touch with what young people are thinking these days.

Of course, the Prince of Wales has denied that he plans to become a writer. We all do that at the start of our careers. We say things like, "I can't believe that you've read that diary thing I wrote about handing over Hong Kong to the Chinese. It was basically written for my own amusement, and then I had a few copies printed for my close circle of friends. It was certainly not meant for public consumption. Um, did you like it by the way?"

I did. To judge by the extracts which appeared in the Mail on Sunday, it is a promising debut. The description of Chris Patten "cradling the Union Jack", flanked by the "wailing Patten daughters" reveals a flinty cruelty that is essential in the best comic writing. There is a nice tug of rage behind the description of a state occasion attended by President Jiang Zemin: "After my speech, the President detached himself from the group of appalling old waxworks who accompanied him and took his place at the lectern. He then gave a kind of 'propaganda' speech which was loudly cheered by the bused-in party of the faithful at the suitable moment in the text." The diary's subtitle, The Great Chinese Takeaway, suggests a snappy sense of marketing that will play well with Joe Punter at the station bookstore.

The launch of Prince Charles as a public diarist is doubly satisfying. He will not only soon be on the way to finding professional satisfaction to go with his marital contentment but in the process, he will have supplied an answer to one of the more pressing questions of modern public life: what the hell is the British monarchy actually for?

The various roles it has attempted over the past three decades were convincing for a brief period before quickly becoming embarrassing. There was the authority of the older Windsors, acting as if they still had political power. Then there was a heady period of gossip-column glamour. Worryingly, the latest image to be tried on by the Prince of Wales has been as an alternative thinker, a guru in a Savile Row suit.

None of this has worked. Collectively, the royal family was not interesting, witty, or charismatic enough to carry leading roles in a celebrity-fixated culture. The competition was simply too hot.

What they could do, and better than anyone else, was simply be present at the centre of things when the great, good, fascinating and privileged of the world gathered together. They were obliged to nod, smile goofily and say nothing of interest. It was the perfect set-up for the making of a diarist.

In the higher echelons of public life, it has long been known that if you keep a diary long enough it will eventually keep you, but until recently the idea that those who had enjoyed power should cash in as soon as their moment in the sun had passed was considered rather cheap. Now, none other than the Chairman of the Press Complaints Commission has proved how hilariously dated the concept of discretion in public life has become.

In an age of CCTV, the hidden camera and microphone, the pen scribbling beneath the table, life may not be a cabaret but it has the potential to be a great reality show. If not, as the cliché goes, a dress rehearsal, it does at least provide the raw material for what really matters - a later, mediated version of what happened. For some, it will be a documentary on TV; for the more bookish, a skirt-lifting diary.

There are problems here, of course. Reality can be distorted. If not only Christopher Meyer, but Blair, Straw, Bush, Rumsfeld and each of their advisers was noting down gaffes, bons mots and who had a bogey hanging from his nose, then they would have made an even worse fist of things than they did.

There is the question of confidentiality. At present, people tend to talk to Prince Charles - he has the sweet, vacantly receptive look of the simpleton Chancey Gardner in Jerzy Kosinski's Being There. It would be a shame if they saw him as just another media blabbermouth and became more wary.

Diaries are also ruinously revealing. Had he not confided his muckiest, most ungenerous thoughts to a journal, today's memories of John Fowles would be of the author of The Magus and The French Lieutenant's Woman rather than of an embittered old codger with distinctly unattractive views. The self-created narrator of a diary, be he snobbish, bigoted, randy or Pooterish, will live on long after the real person has been forgotten.

None of which should discourage the newest star in the literary firmament. Even a modest success as a diarist will represent a step forward into usefulness for the monarchy and, for the prince himself, a small liberation from the appalling old waxworks which belong to it.