Tom Bower’s biography of Prince Charles, entitled “The Rebel Prince” deals with the most recent two decades of the Prince’s life. If what Bower says about the Prince being deeply concerned with the way the public see him is only half true, Prince Charles must be distressed by this deeply unflattering portrait.
The book bulges with facts and figures: who said what to whom, how much was spent on what, and who was appointed to run which foundation or which charity or which office. The whole operation over which the Prince of Wales presides is massive, and one’s head spins as one tries to take in, and fails to assimilate, all the details. There was an awful lot I did not know, for example, about the Prince’s involvement in Romania, and his championing of homeopathic remedies. His interest are certainly wide; the general public will find it hard to keep up – and indeed most will not be interested. Bower’s book fails to ignite as a shocking exposé except at odd moments, simply because it collapses under this weight of detail.
The book is also full of errors that someone employed by the publishers should have spotted. (If Mr Bower criticises the Prince, we can surely criticise the editorial standards of his publishers without giving offence.) No one ever calls Prince Charles “Your Majesty”. The lead character in Il Gattopardo is a prince not a king. The Queen is given the lower case throughout. Prince Charles is not interested in spiritualism, but spirituality. And so on.
This last is important. We are told a few things about the Prince’s religious beliefs, but the author is not sufficiently interested in this area to develop his theme. Perhaps he thought that the reader would not be interested either. We know the Prince wanted to be “defender of faith” not Defender of the Faith, though he seems to have rowed back from this recently. We are told that the Prince is a frequent visitor to the Arab world and feels an affinity to Islam – but what does that mean in practice? What does he find to admire in Islam? Is it, as Bower seems to hint, part of his hankering after a pre-industrial society, which he sees realised in the Islamic world? Bower does mention the Prince’s recent championing of persecuted Christians in the Middle East, but interprets this as resulting from disillusion with Islam rather than springing from any Christian commitment.
On page 322, describing a weekend party at Sandringham, Bower writes: “On Sunday female guests had been instructed to wear appropriate hats and gloves for the local Anglican church, St Mary the Virgin and St Mary Magdalen. The two who chose to go to mass at a nearby Catholic church felt Charles’s displeasure.” Why should the Prince object to Catholic guests going to Mass? One would like to know more about that. In fact it is quite hard to make sense of the Prince religiously, though some have tried. My guess is that he is a syncretist, one who collects from various sources and then blends the various strands together, after the manner of his mentor Sir Laurens van der Post. You can sample his wisdom here.
Does any of this matter? Prince Charles has been around my entire life, and so is familiar to me, and I have to confess I like him; and I suspect so do most people in Britain. He has the great advantage of not being predictable or boring. His religious position is not run of the mill, but, sadly, most people, and this includes his two sons, says Bower, simply do not share his interests. That is, in one way, a pity. If Prince Charles were to get us British talking about religion more, he would do us all a great service. He has already done us a great service by highlighting the persecution of Christians in the Middle East, a subject most would love to ignore. More interventions from him on religious matters would be welcome. But in the meantime, I am left wondering about those two guests who dared to go to Mass and risked his displeasure.