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Prince Charles at 50
Prince Charles has often given the impression that he was born old. Now, aged 50 this 14 November, with real senior citizenship not that far away, Charles should take to it easily, wearing his maturity like an old familiar coat ,a bit buffeted by time, but fitting perfectly nonetheless.

It was obvious that a premature aging process was already under way as the serious-faced little boy grew into the gawky, diffident youth and became the young man who, despite the sporty Action Man image cultivated by the press, often resembled a misplaced professor in swimming trunks.The ivory tower rather than the royal palace seemed to be Charles' natural habitat, and one which was the antithesis of the dash and daring expected of a young man with splendid prospects, like the heir to the world's most prestigious throne. Charles was too deep a thinker to be truly young and carefree, too troubled by the problems of the world, and too fond of the solitude which later led him to bury himself far from civilisation in a Scots croft where he could pretend, for a while, to be an ordinary countryman.

Charles' basic trouble when younger and unattached was that he never gave the press the princely persona they preferred. The media wanted a harum- scarum type revelling in the high life, and squiring glamorous women he could never marry since the dignity of his royal blood prevented it. The suspicion that Charles might , just might, step over the line has long made this scenario good speculative newspaper copy.

This, though, was not Charles' template. The sensation-seeking elements of the press knew it, and made him suffer for it., frequently flaying him for being 'too serious' and thinking more about organic farming, the environment, architecture, painting, music, mystic religions or any of his other interests than the latest bit of skirt that might come his way. However, happily, as Charles is already discovering, turning 50 opens up a haven from this kind of harassment. It is all right for a man of that age to be serious-minded and concern himself with more weighty matters. Intellectually, Charles has at long last come home.

Even so, the path he trod to reach this oasis was far from easy. The way there was strewn with obstacles, doubts and pressures. Press pursuit was only the worst of them. The public, too, had its expectations and often acted like a ventriloquist manipulating the works to make the puppet say what they wanted to hear. They were listening out for a dashing "prince charming", someone who could exude glamour in public while being both a "man's man" and attractive to women and a thrusting leader type as well. The last was particularly important to Charles' father, Prince Philip and it was not surprising that he tried hard to make his son son and heir much like himself. However, efforts to toughen the diffident, inward-looking Charles by sending him to punishing schools like Gordonstoun in Scotland simply sent him further back into his shell. Only recently has it been revealed that Charles looked on term-time was torture , and Gordonstoun a place of terror which tried to wring his natural character out of him. It did not succeed. Charles emerged much the same thoughtful, emotional, self-doubting character he was when he went in.

It is significant that the three periods in Charles' life after Gordonstoun when he seemed most at peace with himself were those which put him at a certain distance, and enabled him to play roles prearranged by longstanding tradition, rather than being forced to plough the furrow prepared for him by press, public and paternal demand.

First, there was university, where Charles spent three years in the academic environment which was so much to his taste, and still is. University enabled Charles to be himself - the earnest student seeking knowledge in a calm, semi-monastic atmosphere. The years Charles spent in the Royal Navy were, likewise, much more in tune with his own instincts. There was the discipline, the routine, the camaraderie, the excitement of new technology, and all of it sited where neither press nor public could look over his shoulder and have their uninvited say about what he should or should not doing. The public's right to nose intruded rather more on Charles' sporting activities and his attachment to the somewhat dangerous polo brought charges that a man in his position was irresponsibly risking his neck. Nevertheless, both this and the other sports in which Charles indulged, such as wind-surfing. yachting, mountain walking or skiing lived by set rules of skill and safety which Charles had to follow along with everyone else. Joining in a ready- made or team activity where all men have to be equal is probably the nearest a prince can get to ordinary, everyday conditions.

The opportunities, however, were relatively few, and it was in the freelancing aspects of his life that Charles met his greatest stumbling blocks.He chose to criticise the latest style in architecture and was slapped down for undue interference by an outraged profession. He commented on the problems of poverty and homelessness and riled politicians who thought he was entering the political arena forbidden to royals. He interested himself in mystic religions and was accused of renaging on his future role as Supreme Head of the Church of England.

The most powerful intrusions, however, concerned his private life. Any girl glimpsed in his company or even in the same group as Charles was ripe for the media's "She's the one" speculations, which gave precious little chance to any relationship which might have developed if left to flower in its own good time.

What was rarely, if ever taken into account was the great difficulty Protestant British princes, and especially the heir to the throne, encounter in locating suitable brides. The rules of royal marriage in Britain constitute a veritable straitjacket. The prime requirement is that no British royal can marry or be a Catholic and this is precisely what the great majority of royal princesses were in Charles' eligible bachelor days . This was doubtless a major reason why Charles declared quite early on that he wanted to marry "someone British" who was more likely to know the royal ropes.. This was also why Charles' own bride-hunting took place more or less exclusively on home ground, but even this proved stony going for quite a time.

It is likely that Charles, being Charles, was after an ideal - someone who could share his interests, yet also be self-sufficient and tolerant of his absences while he was attending to his own considerable duties, and carry out her own royal public life while he was at it. The press, however, was too impatient to wait for the formula to be fulfilled and the game of pick a princess became virtually a national sport. Had Charles been the sort of man who could flit from girlfriend to girlfriend without a thought, persistent speculation, however irksome it might be, would not have seriously bothered him. The trouble was, once again, that he was not made in the regulation mould. His impressionable, emotional nature meant that he fell in love all too easily. Diana's elder sister, now Lady Sarah McCorquedale, said as much in the days when he was going out with her and she was being touted as the latest prospect for Princess of Wales.

In this context, Charles risked disappointment over and over again. When he fell for Lady Davina Sheffield, for instance, he suffered the heartbreak of having to give her up when an ex-boyfriend came out of the woodwork and revealed that they had lived together. Camilla, too, fell foul of royal requirements not long after she first met Charles in 1973. Though he loved her then as he still does now, and knew from the start that Camilla was the woman who could satisfy him as a man, he was forced to recognise an important flaw. Camilla was not sufficiently pure, decorous or pliant enough to be a royal wife and a future Queen Consort of England. Charles never solved the puzzle, except eventually, by flouting public opinion and being grilled for taking Camilla as his mistress. While the press lathered the public into a froth of expectation over one or other of the royal dates, the real situation in which he found himself - eligible, but only to a few and most of them out of reach - brought out all Charles' tendency to agonise and dither.

The time for agonising was, however, finite. By 1980, when Charles turned 32, his family was starting to worry and, more importantly, his father was becoming impatient. And when the peppery Prince Philip became impatient, sparks flew. It would not be entirely true to say that 19-year old Lady Diana Spencer was simply the girl who happened to be around Charles at the right time, but her appearance in his life did coincide with one of Philip's campaigns to get his son to "bloody well make up his mind".

Charles made up his mind, or it was made up for him, and what happened next, the world knows only too well. However, what the world has not be told in anything like the same detail is how painfully Charles was affected by the failure of his marriage and the beating he took from a temperamental, demanding and ultimately vengeful young wife. Charles, however, was simply not up to the difficult task of taming the rampant Diana. He was too sensitive a man to be openly aggressive, and too kind a man to deliberately hurt others. He was, besides, taken aback by Diana's behaviour, having been brought up in a family reared on discipline, duty and the all-concealing and unruffled public front.

Charles' shortcomings in the marital battle of wills meant that Diana's insecurities, the result of a broken home and her parents' savagely-fought divorce, were permitted to run riot. Her craving for love which led her to hog public attention and upstage her husband over and over again, went unanswered. In fact, Charles relinquished centre stage and even apologised to the eager crowds when they got him instead of Diana on royal walkabouts.

Confronted, as he saw it, with a problem he was helpless to solve, Charles looked on Camilla as a haven to which he regularly fled. This is one very cogent reason why he adamantly refused to give her up, no matter how much public flak was aimed at him. Another escape route led to Scotland and the beauty and calm of Balmoral, which Charles knew Diana hated. And more than once, he remained behind at Highgrove House, the Wales' country home in Gloucestershire, long after Diana had returned to London.

Naturally, whichever course Charles chose - flight or concealment - was not going to solve the problem. If anything, the problem was exacerbated as press and public weighed on Diana's side and putting the prince in the pillory became a national - and international - pastime. Charles found himself denigrated as a man, a father, a prince, a royal and above all as the heir to a throne which, popular opinion at one time concluded, he was not worthy to inherit. Just how deeply Charles was hurt by all this has never been fully revealed, and quite probably never will be. But the hurt was still there behind Charles' impeccable public mask. Every line said so in the grey face he sported during the years he spent in Diana's orbit.

Their divorce in 1996 relieved some of the pressure, but Diana's untimely death only a year later seemed set to put Charles back on the rack. Doubtless to his relief, this has not happened. Once the worst of the shock and grief ebbed, the British public, wakening from the trance the Diana story had for so long exerted over them, started to shift back towards a better appreciation of their next reigning monarch.

It is unlikely that dyed-in-the-wool Diana supporters will ever forgive him, but Charles' ratings in the polls have markedly improved and his reputation as a king worthy of his future throne has been restored.Even Camilla has gained modest acceptance in these more reasonable post-Diana days.

The British public has also come to realise what they should never have forgotten, that glamour, showbiz pizzazz and a ritzy lifestyle are not what the British monarchy is about. One of the most cogent arguments made by Diana's critics was that she took royalty much too far into these trivial and impermanent realms. The fact that Charles typified the fuddy-duddy, boring old ways of the royal past greatly told against him in the Diana years. Now the heady Diana days are gone and the Fergie scandals are over, the public mood seems to be settling back into what it was before these two disastrous wives diverted the royal train: the Royal Family as dignified, dutiful, a bit dull, not the least fashionable, but solid and dependable.

Charles can only benefit from this new perspective. It allows him to be shown for what he always was: a loving and attentive father, an intelligent king- in-waiting who knows his exalted but limited place in the constitutional scheme of things and a man whose sensitive, responsive nature means he will always have the good of his future subjects sincerely at heart.

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