washingtonpost.com  > Opinion > Columnists > Eugene Robinson

Prince of Wails

By Eugene Robinson
Friday, April 8, 2005; Page A25

Imagine you're a 56-year-old man, famously unemployed. Your mother is a domineering executive consumed by her work, your father a dour martinet who inhabits a little surviving time bubble of the 19th century. Your first marriage was such a royal disaster it nearly brought down the venerable family firm. But you escaped with a divorce, and then your first wife tragically died, and finally you were free to marry your mistress, the true love of your life. But "Mummy" disapproved, and Mummy -- as she often reminds you -- is still the boss.

After seven long years, she finally consents. The big day approaches -- your day, for once, not your mother's or your glamorous first wife's, a day when the world's flashbulbs will pop only for you and your betrothed (whom your first wife had cruelly called "the Rottweiler" just because you were seeing her on the side, which was well within your rights, being a future king and all).

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Then the pope dies, and the perfidious Vatican schedules the funeral on your day. Bloody hell, didn't old Henry VIII take care of the Catholic problem? Have your staff look that up, but meanwhile there's nothing to do but soldier on, shaded by the dark cloud that follows your every step.

Does a more thoroughly and amusingly jinxed individual walk the face of this Earth than Charles Philip Arthur George, Prince of Wales?

I took my best shot at ignoring the wedding of Britain's Prince Charles and Camilla Parker Bowles, and I was doing fine until this last-minute misfortune. Just as the halls of Windsor Castle (the site of the newlyweds' reception) are said to be visited by the ghost of Henry VIII, maybe all of us onetime London correspondents are doomed to be haunted by this modern-day, dysfunctional royal brood.

Just when you think they're settling down into a dignified, gilded irrelevance, like most of the other European crowned heads, some compelling weirdness befalls the British royals -- usually a self-inflicted disaster, sometimes a deus ex machina coup that just couldn't happen to any other family.

Charles usually bears the brunt, as is his fate. Anyone who has ever been married knows that the eleventh-hour postponement of a wedding -- even if it's just for a day, and even if you're a prince with legions of courtiers at your beck and call -- guarantees endless hours of hectic misery.

At least it's a boon for dealers in memorabilia -- cups, saucers, mugs, coffee spoons and other tchotchkes, all inscribed "April 8" to commemorate a wedding moved to April 9. Sales had been slow, but now items with the wrong date are hot sellers on eBay.

That's hardly solace to Charles, though. It was already bad enough that Queen Elizabeth won't see her son actually get married, because the bride and groom opted for a civil ceremony. Given a choice between her role as head of the Church of England and her role as mother, Her Majesty always chooses God and country. It was bad enough, too, that the queen reportedly warned Charles to hold down the cost of the subsequent "blessing ceremony" and reception at Windsor Castle (which she will deign to attend).

It's just that Charles can't buy a break. The guy's at an age when most men are putting their retirement accounts in order, he still hasn't gotten his turn at being monarch and the queen has no plans to abdicate. Her blunt message, in effect: "Over my dead body." Now 78, she could easily last 20 more years, given that her own mother lived past 100. When the time finally comes, Charles may not assume the throne so much as dodder forth with the help of his geriatric nurses.

The British public -- his future "subjects" -- can't quite manage to love him, despite the fact that he unintentionally works so hard at the only useful job a hereditary monarchy can do in this day and age: provide Masterpiece Theatre melodrama and Benny Hill low comedy for the amusement of the masses. British commentators go on about how the royal family gives the United Kingdom continuity and embodies the nation and knits together the Commonwealth and blah blah blah, but the royals' real surviving function is to give people something to laugh and cry about.

Princess Diana, so much more modern than the rest, understood that the substance of royalty was long gone, that now it's all make-believe. So do her sons, William and Harry, I hope. Poor Charles still thinks it's real.

The writer will be available to answer questions at 2 p.m. today on www.washingtonpost.com. His e-mail address is eugenerobinson@washpost.com.


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