A Birthday Celebration for Prince Charles Amid the Chaos of Brexit


Theresa May, the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, had a rough few days last week, when it was finally announced that, after two years of negotiation, a deal on the first stages of an agreement on the terms of Britain’s exit from the European Union had been reached. She endured an onslaught of dissent to its terms from both the Opposition and from her own party; accepted the more-in-sorrow-than-in-anger resignations from her cabinet, including from one member, the former Brexit secretary Dominic Raab, who had nominally been in charge of the negotiations; and survived the sarcastic observation of Fleet Street wits who noted that she had succeeded in the seemingly impossible task of bringing together a divided nation by uniting everyone against her.

As if that weren’t enough to be dealing with, May also had to show up at Clarence House, the London residence of the Prince of Wales, as part of a Parliamentary delegation—it also included Jeremy Corbyn, the leader of the Labour Party—to wish Prince Charles a happy seventieth birthday. Fresh from three hours of vigorous questioning at the dispatch box in the House of Commons, May hadn’t even had time to pop back to Downing Street to change her outfit before attending the gathering. There, she shook hands with the man who may one day rule the U.K., assuming the union survives the effects of her government’s solution to the Brexit conundrum, an outcome which is not altogether assured. One can only imagine the small talk.

May had already paid tribute to the Prince in the House of Commons, where, on Wednesday, she commended his commitment to public service, and remarked, with a sympathy doubtless bolstered by recent experience, that the more one looked at his life, “the more one sees a man who has spent seventy years defying expectations and refusing to be categorized.” During a week in which it was almost universally acknowledged that the Brexit deal was a fudged compromise that left Britain diminished in significance and in potency, it seemed appropriate enough to be celebrating the official onset of old age of a man who has spent his whole life waiting to start a job he seems never to have much wanted in the first place.

Tributes to the Prince’s endurance came from all quarters last week, including, at a birthday party held at Buckingham Palace, from the Queen herself. The monarch noted the privilege inherent in any mother living long enough to propose a toast to her son on his seventieth. “It is rather like—to use an analogy I am certain will find favor—planting a tree and being able to watch it grow,” she said. It was a remark that, perhaps, contained a sly allusion to the Prince’s own deathless admission, more than thirty years ago, that he talked to his plants. Equally possibly, though, it was, in its extreme banality, merely an expression of the absence of personality for which the Queen is so cherished, having maintained a visibly unruffled public appearance throughout her sixty-six years on the throne.

Abstaining from expressions of personality is not an option for Charles, whose pet causes—which include environmentalism and organic farming—have, perforce, hardened into a substitute vocation while he awaits the real one, that of kingship. Charles is the longest-serving heir to the British throne, and will be the oldest début King of England, if he succeeds his mother, who is now ninety-two, when she finally, implausibly, passes on. As such, he has carved out a special place in British life—a repository for pathos about opportunities missed and promise unfulfilled. Self-deprecation is a familiar mode for the Prince. Greeting a gathering of other seventy-year-olds summoned to Clarence House for further birthday festivities, he remarked that aging was “rather like indigestion—many happy returns are not quite the same thing as you get older.” In a documentary television program that aired last week on the occasion of his birthday, the Prince remarked that, if and when he becomes King, he would curb his well-established tendency of making public statements on issues that might be seen as political. “I’m not that stupid,” he told his interviewer, sounding rather more stung than might be thought strictly necessary from a man one step away from being head of state.

Until then, however, the Prince remains at liberty to say what he thinks about whatever he’s thinking about—as evidenced by the latest issue of Country Life magazine, a weekly publication for the county classes, for which Charles stood in as guest editor to mark his birthday. The Prince took the opportunity to make a case for cherishing and preserving the British landscape, for which, he noted in a letter to readers, he has felt a great concern since his teens, when he was “someone who noticed what was going on around me, as well as being fortunate to able to explore the fields of Sandringham, the uplands around Balmoral, and the ancient woodland of Windsor Great Park.” The magazine showcases Wilf Laidler, the Prince’s preferred stick dresser, who decorates the horny part of the royal walking sticks; and profiles John Lord, a flint knapper—one who breaks up flint rocks into smaller flint rocks—who was recently awarded the British Empire Medal for services to the flint industry. The magazine also featured the Prince’s preferred Savile Row tailors, Anderson & Sheppard, whose recently retired managing director, John Hitchcock, reveals that the Prince only wears clothes made from British fabric, and that his wardrobe contains items made for him thirty years ago. Back then, he celebrated his fortieth birthday by visiting inner-city Birmingham, partying with young beneficiaries of his personal charity, the Prince’s Trust—“He dances well for an old man,” one of them told the New York Times, crushingly—and delivering an extended and perplexing riff about his alleged tendency to speak to plants.

A more recent eccentricity of the Prince’s was revealed in an interview granted to Country Life by the Duke of Cambridge, the heir to the heir. “He’s completely infatuated by the red squirrels that live around the estate in Scotland—to the extent that he’s given them names and is allowing them into the house,” Prince William divulged. Charles, who is a patron of the Red Squirrel Survival Trust, confirmed the creatures’ elevated domestic status at the royal estate of Birkhall, in Aberdeenshire. “Sometimes when I leave my jackets on a chair with nuts in the pockets, I see them with their tails sticking out,” he wrote, the kind of news that must warm hearts at Anderson & Sheppard. A further article explained how the red squirrel, which is native to Britain, has been largely displaced by the much bigger gray squirrel, introduced from North America, in 1876, and described the efforts taken by one British landowner, Sir Ferrers Vyvyan, to reintroduce them to his estate in Cornwall. Support for squirrels, Sir Ferrers told the magazine, “is only the tip of a relevant and current discussion about what type of support the Government will give the landscape post-Brexit.”

The Prince, wisely, has refrained from weighing in about the British public’s decision to leave the E.U., but in his letter to readers he did offer an agricultural policy proposal of sorts. He suggested that, while the U.K. is too small a player to compete in the world’s commodity markets, the country might seek to establish itself as “the most environmentally friendly food producer with a unique ‘brand image’ as an island offering the highest standards of quality and natural goodness.” “Natural goodness” is not the first phrase that leaps to mind to characterize the U.K. at the moment: “man-made shambles” is more like it. But as another week of Brexit disarray begins, all in Britain—the sovereign-in-waiting, the Prime Minister, and the subjects they aspire to lead and try to govern—will be hoping to see more clearly just how the land lies.

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