The Sunday Times, Uncategorized

April 10th, 2005

My best best advice to Charles and Camilla – hire a jester

One of my secret ambitions has always been to become an agony aunt. To those who might suggest that my own life has not been a triumph of good judgment, I can only point to the archetype of the wounded healer. An aunt with a little agony of her own in her past is probably marginally more useful than one without.

Now, at this historic moment in the history of our royal family as the Prince of Wales and his new wife embark on their uncertain future, I feel they are much in need of bracing advice from someone who is neither nastily republican nor uncritically royalist. I can’t resist the temptation to offer some, particularly to Camilla.

I would not presume to offer any purely personal advice; after more than three decades of getting used to each other’s foibles they clearly don’t need any. But the advice they desperately need is about public relations. Despite the best efforts of courtiers, Sir Alan Fitztightlys, flunkies, and PR people, Prince Charles has been a PR nightmare since he left prep school.

I did in a small (and rather ridiculous) way try. When my uncle William Staveley was First Sea Lord in the 1980s, he was so taken aback by my diatribes against the princely prattishness — I was an exact contemporary of Prince Charles at Cambridge — that he challenged me to make an offer of my PR services, which he would convey to the prince’s people. Nothing came of it but a lot of princely procrastination.

What I wanted to tell him was how out of touch he appeared to his 1960s contemporaries and how disastrous it was for the monarchy.

As an increasingly reluctant royalist I still almost believe that Charles and Camilla could somehow turn the republican tide if they get things right now. It’s not impossible that they may become a popular king and queen and carry on having a high old time in private too.

My first suggestion as agony aunt is that Camilla should associate this marriage and herself with popular generosity. She should get Prince Charles to give, in her name, the gardens of Buckingham Palace to the public as a wedding present. Or she should get him to get the Queen to do it. That would be a sensational display of open-handedness. If it indirectly eclipsed the risible Diana fountain, so what? It would also be smart to give some treasures from the royal art collection to galleries across the country — just how many Leonardo drawings does one need? “Oh reason not the need” as poor King Lear said when his cruel daughters were trying to cut his pomp and ceremony. But Shakespeare was writing in the 17th century.

Even more importantly, Camilla should persuade Charles to have a black equerry or two. She should appoint a British Asian lady-in-waiting or two herself. To invite people of ethnic minorities into the top of the royal household would send a distinctly inclusive message. If, that is, anyone from an ethic minority could be found to take it on; some of Prince Charles’ most loyal helpers have been badly treated.

Camilla should also persuade Charles to say nothing more than the bare conventional minimum in public. Their public apologies for their sins in church should be their last. Never apologise, never explain, and never confess. Most of the woes of Windsor can be traced to Prince Charles’s semi-confessional interview — to tell a part of the truth is more dangerous than lying. Since royalty is such an untenable idea these days the less said about it the better. Royalty cannot bear too much explanation.

Camilla should also get Charles to stop being political and stop holding forth about contentious issues. The constitutional price of monarchy is a buttoned lip.

And no more family photographs, no more cynical happy family spin, no more vulgar family Christmas cards. There is surely nothing wrong with a classy Madonna and child reproduction from the royal collection.

It is unwise to try to change your man too much once you’ve married him, but Camilla is in an unusual situation. I think she owes it to the nation and to the house of Windsor to get Charles to change his clothes. Fancy dress for public ritual is one thing and perhaps Prince Philip is right when he says people like it. Side vents are quite another. Side vents like Prince Charles’s shriek snobbish old fart. So do his kilts and shooting and stalking kit.

There is nothing clever about archaic 19th-century garments in bogus tweed that get rainsoaked, cold and heavy when anyone can afford state-of-the-art, 21st-century light weatherproof clothing.

Clothes do matter, for a public figure. They send clear messages that people well understand. The Edwardian gent idiom is not the way forward for a people’s prince; it has been the Edwardian tendency, in manners and morals, that has got Prince Charles into most of his many troubles. Besides, British fashion for men — and I don’t mean Savile Row — and British designer casual clothes still lead the world.

I don’t think Camilla needs to worry what she wears; the less stylish she is the better, sadly, in the empty shoes of Lady Di, and Mrs Average everywhere will be secretly on her side.

Camilla’s main problem, however, will be how to stay sane, if only to keep the royal show on the road. It may not have escaped her attention that a lot of princesses in her position have gone mad. Celebrity is bad enough but the real problem is palace flunkies, many of them crazed with royal razzmatazz and fancy dress.

My experience of those who’ve suddenly moved into the butler-hiring classes is that they quickly come to feel butler-worthy. Having many servants is corrupting. Like great wealth it makes one take oneself more seriously than one otherwise would. Getting rather grand is all too easy and all too disastrous; for one thing it makes you take less grand people less seriously, especially as you have less and less to do with them and understand them less and less.

My advice to Camilla is to rescue Prince Charles from all this by firing as many flunkies and servants as possible; she should banish most courtiers and get Charles to live much less ceremoniously in private. Public ceremony needn’t entail private grandeur.

Even better, Camilla should follow the traditional expedient of hiring a court jester — a licensed fool with nothing to lose, who is free to tell the painful truth when nobody else dares, as it seems not even Camilla has dared to do. I’ve tried to think of candidates for this centrally important role — Sir Alan Sugar, Rory Bremner and Charles Kennedy.

So many otherwise rational people go soft in the head when confronted with a royal presence. I will never forget talking at a big opening party to the host, who was a pillar of the intellectual left. Suddenly his face took on an expression of astonishing deference and smarm because he was being approached by the Duchess of York. When closet republicans are mad about royal highness, how can princes stay sane?

Camilla must resist this ferociously; one can only hope she isn’t already addicted. The future of the royal family is in her hands, just as oddly enough it was once in Diana’s.