Pity the poor Princess? Not me

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The Independent Online
I SAW the Princess of Wales for the first time the other day. I didn't see much of her - she passed in a scissored flash of thin legs going in one direction, and a profile as angular as a knife coming back - because I was too busy watching how other people reacted.

The occasion was a relaunch-cum- press conference for a well-known and extremely deserving charity. A fair cross-section of the great and the good was in attendance that morning: there were eminent judges and barristers, top women from the professions, members of the House of Lords and the eminences roses of the media, ranged alongside showbiz personalities.

The invitation had urged us to arrive promptly and we did, awaiting Her arrival in an atmosphere of febrile best behaviour. Discreet classical music murmured from the Tannoy, exerting a calming influence in case anybody got over-excited and felt sick. Meanwhile, someone from the charity instructed us to stand and clap when She arrived. No instructions were needed. Minutes before Her entrance, grown-up and distinguished people were craning their necks in case She became visible.

What is it about Her that reduced everyone to communal jelly?

I am choosing my word carefully when I say that I think the answer is hysteria, both on our part and on Hers. I'll start with us. Anticipation had been whetted days, if not weeks, in advance. One would have to be exceedingly blase not to take a little extra trouble in deciding what to wear on the day. Not, I thought, my new salmon-pink jacket, nor even the lilac blue one; I chose an old but smart and newly pressed navy suit, slipping on the sleek flat shoes that are, to my mind, the greatest boon She has bestowed upon women in the last decade: She delivered us from high heels. Did I wash my hair? Yes, and so, it appeared, had everyone else. Indeed, most of them must have fitted in a dawn trip to the hairdresser.

The hysteria inside the room had become palpable by now. Suddenly, She shimmered into view. As She passed between our serried ranks, the sycophantic beams that wreathed every face were more dazzling than the photographers' flashlights. In the case of the little girl standing directly in front of me, this wide grin seemed forgivable - here, after all, was indisputably a Real Princess - but everyone was smiling diaphanously . . . imprinting Her face in all its living reality upon the memory. It's Her] She has come among us]

There is another aspect to this hysteria. The Princess of Wales is, when all is said and done, a womb on legs. The word 'hysteric' is derived from the Greek husterikos, which means 'of the womb'. Her function first and foremost is to procreate; to produce a legitimate heir by the sovereign's eldest son. Having performed that function, she remains a womb: but one that is now empty and unattended. This thought delivers a tremendous erotic charge, reinforced by the immense importance attached to Her appearance. Couturiers, cosmeticians and coiffeurs labour to present a vision of physical female perfection - yet not one designed to attract a man, for She is obliged by public adulation and ceaseless media attention to be as chaste as a nun. This contradiction between her flawless appearance and its biological futility is potent and intriguing, although, pace Andrew Morton, not one She finds easy to live with.

I am not among those people who see Her as a victim or an object of pity, however. When the conference was over I had to cross London by Tube. Has She any idea of the grime, the inconvenience, the crowds, the drunks, the beggars (with dogs, violins or infants), the insults, the obscenities or the delays one must deal with when travelling by London Underground? She has not. Has She ever tried to carry a heavy suitcase, let alone a push-chair and a couple of toddlers, up the escalators of a Tube station or the steps of a bus? She has not. Has She ever queued in the rain while the children whined with tiredness? She has not. Thousands of women, many as unhappily married as She, are forced to suffer these indignities every time they go out with their children in tow. Not Her.

I was shopping for a child's birthday present. I searched from one floor to another, misdirected; I looked in vain for an assistant who might know what size fits a very tall, very thin seven-year-old. Ordinary, everyday, tedious, time-consuming hazards of shopping: but not ones that She ever encounters, to say nothing of the far greater and, for most people, ever-present, exhausting, corroding problem of money.

I queued at a till to pay. During the five minutes it took to get to the head of the queue I studied the women in front of me. The older of the two seemed to be either the mother or mother-in-law of the younger, to whom she spoke in a staccato, laconic and apparently unkind mutter. That pregnant, cowed young wife was a much more subservient chattel, a womb on legs, than the Princess of Wales. I pity her, but not Her.

It must feel strange to have every eye directed like a laser beam towards you wherever you go; but the fact that She is cocooned from the smallest discomfort, delay, irritation or inconvenience surely goes a long way to compensate for that. It is bad luck that she has, evidently, fallen out of love with her husband. It was unrealistic of Her to expect the Crown Jewels, public adulation and romantic love.

Few marriages pass in an endless haze of romantic love, and a great many less privileged women than the Princess of Wales learn to adjust, for the sake of the children and the rest of the family, to a modified rapture. But not She. Which is the other reason my face was not fixed in a mask of adoration.

(Photograph omitted)