At 21, Prince William might want a normal life, but he won't get the chance. After all, not many other students profess to like both Britney and country dancing. And then there's his family...
Sunday June 15, 2003
There are sirens screeching at Highbury Corner as Declan Toman, 21, hip-hop fan and soon-to-be-graduate of Liverpool University, arrives to have lunch with me. He winces. He has a hangover. A very bad hangover. He started on the lager and ended on... well, you name it, he imbibed it. As a result, he did not return to his parents' house in Muswell Hill, north London, until three o'clock this morning, and he was up again at seven because - oh horrors - he has just started a new job in IT at a local college. Hand on forehead, he lowers himself gingerly into his chair. The expression on his face, which is as pale as uncooked pastry, is two parts agony to one part bravado. Come on. You remember. What's the point of a hangover if you can't ham it up a bit?
The words... come... out.... very.... slowly. 'Yeah. Right. Hello.' I suggest he drink some Coca-Cola. He accedes. I suggest he might like to have something to eat. He looks uncertain. What am I having? A sandwich, I say. He decides to have the same, though he has an idea it might make him puke. 'Arrrr,' he says. 'I feel BAD.' Does he have a headache? 'Nah, I don't get headaches. I'd just like to, you know, be in bed.' All these early starts, you see, they're no good for him. After all, only a matter of weeks ago, he was doing well if he emerged from beneath his duvet in time for the afternoon edition of Neighbours. 'It's on at 1.45pm,' he tells me, earnest as a bishop. 'At university, you know you're doing all right if you're up for it. If you miss it, it's time to get an early night.'
Declan has agreed to meet me because I want to know (or at least remind myself) exactly how it feels to be 21. Assuming he can summon up the energy, I want him to tell me everything. Why? Because the future king of England will be 21 in a few days' time, don't you know, and while this birthday may no longer be quite so loaded with significance as it once was, it remains a cusp, for princes as for paupers. How could it be anything else? The degree is over, or nearly over. The debt (to the bank for paupers; to society for HRHs) is waiting to be paid. The parents are on your case. With a resonant thud, the rest of your life thunks down before you like a heavy scroll of white paper just waiting to be unfurled. In my humble opinion, this is a sound far more intimidating than anything Eminem might shout into a microphone.
Declan agrees, sort of. He finished his finals a few weeks ago - he read computer science - and is waiting to hear how he did. 'I've been feeling quite old,' he says. 'I'm at a turning point in my life, and I don't really know where it's taking me. I don't like the whole uncertainty thing. I've never had that before.' On the other hand, he isn't quite ready to get his act together; although he is °Í12,000 in the red, his lifestyle is still all over the place. 'Yeah, it's expensive. I spend about 100 quid a week on booze, and I smoke weed all the time.' Possibly as a consequence of the weed, he is always hungry. 'So then I spend a lot on food, too. In Liverpool, I ate millions of takeaways and pizzas. At least he [Prince William] doesn't have to worry about money. That must be nice.'
Declan's mother works at the University of North London and his father is a teacher at Holloway Prison. He describes his parents as 'ageing hippies, basically' - liberal, but highly irritating none the less (it is tempting - though wrong, I suspect - to imagine that William regards his father in a similar light, especially when he starts droning on about GM crops). 'I can't wait to get out,' he says. 'They're, um, perfectly harmless - I mean, they let me do what ever I want - but they're so annoying. They always want to know where I am, and I can't watch TV because they're always rattling their newspapers.'
Unlike William, whose place of higher education - St Andrews, where he is reading history of art - was chosen extremely carefully (good for security, full of the right kind of people), Declan, who attended state school, ended up at Liverpool almost by mistake. He picked up the Ucas book, let it fall open at random, and applied to six universities, all of which began with an 'L'. And unlike William, he did not 'wobble' in his first term and beg to be allowed home; he loved it from the start. 'It didn't feel like a big deal at all,' he says. Did he work hard? 'No, I'm lazy. The whole time I was there, I doubt I did more than five hours of work.' Did he get involved with all sorts of clubs and societies? 'No, I'm not one of those people who gets very interested in things.' So what exactly did he do for three years? 'I dunno. I think I spent most of it asleep.'
Poor Declan went without a swish party when he celebrated his own 21st this year. His mates gave him an inflatable basketball hoop and an ocean of alcohol. Still, I don't think it's jealousy that prompts him to tell me that he thinks William's bash - to be held at Windsor Castle with an 'Out of Africa' theme - sounds pretty naff. 'I wouldn't want MY parents there,' he says. He thinks William's clothes are dodgy, too. 'I've got a suit in a cupboard somewhere, but I don't own a pair of shoes. Would I wear a blazer? Never. How do I feel about Scottish dancing [in a recent interview, William revealed this to be one pastime he rather enjoys]? The same way I do about morris dancing.' On only one matter relating to William does Declan look even vaguely intrigued: women. 'Is a woman chosen for him or something?' he asks. It turns out that Declan is having trouble bagging himself a girlfriend right now.
Prince William, AKA Wills, Wombat, Drop Dead Gorgeous (his mother's nicknames for him), but definitely not - so far - His Royal Highness. Writing about Our Future King is not easy. We knew so much about Diana - a little too much, perhaps - and each year we discover more about Charles, most of it unwelcome. Yet William remains an enigma - a boy unknowable and unreachable, protected by a legion of sassy aides and, more crucially, a press eager to make amends for the hateful intrusion his mother had to endure (the newspapers have agreed not to write about William's activities until he is no longer in full-time education). Occasionally, we are fed the odd titbit. Usually, though, these morsels have all the interest of cold porridge.
Our future king was born on 21 June 1982 at St Mary's hospital, Paddington. His father wanted to call him Arthur, his mother William; Mummy won. Emerging from the hospital, Diana looked in love (with her baby); Charles looked, well, shell-shocked, though happy, too. From the beginning, however, both parents were committed to giving their son as 'normal' a childhood as possible. On Diana's part, that meant joining the queue and paying for things at Marks & Spencer in Kensington High Street just like everyone else; it meant trips on the log flume at Thorpe Park and to see exciting movies whose prohibitive certificates she chose to ignore. On Charles's part, it meant sending him, not to horrible old Gordonstoun where he had such a miserable time himself, but to Eton, an altogether more civilised establishment.
On 31 August 1997, William's childhood came to an end when his father walked into his bedroom and told him that his mother was dead. What followed is still hard to believe. First, to the sound of clapping, William was required to inspect the rotting flowers mourners had left outside Kensington Palace. Then, the funeral itself: walking behind the cortege, sitting in the Abbey as his uncle Charles, full of high-minded ideals that soon sailed swiftly down the river, slagged off all that his father stood for. How did he endure these things? We will never know. What effect will they have on his future? Only time will tell.
Since then, for all that he is the spitting image of his mother, the consensus is that William has been ruthlessly 'Windsorised'. Thanks to his looks and youth, he is the creaking family firm's greatest asset, a sexy new product that will one day zoom off the shelves. Nevertheless, when it comes to a birthright like his, the lip must still be stiff as card, the sense of responsibility (or, depending on your politics, entitle ment) as deep and cool as a well. Listen to Britney if you will, William; drink cider and snog girls. But on no account forget to wear a tie in public.
Of the student William, we know little - though my hunch is that he could not be more different from young Declan if he tried, never mind that they both relish their 'laziness'. The prince plays water polo, golf and rugby and is purported to support Aston Villa. He also likeshunting and shooting, activities which his mother, always sensitive to public opinion, despised. He is teaching himself Swahili, and is interested in Renaissance art and Picasso in his blue period. He is a rubbish cook, although that does not stop him getting carried away when he visits Tesco. On his turntable? R'n'B, played loud. Oh, yes, and he has a cottage at Balmoral, an apartment at St James's Palace, a car, and, in his (Herm®®s?) wallet, a shiny Coutts gold card.
Does he drink and smoke and have a lot of sex? Yes, I was told by those who claim to know. But these activities must go on within a circle of trusted friends, away from the social climbers that William is reputed to be able to spot a mile off. Sure, it can't be a bad life. Then again, neither can it be as much fun as it should be. While researching this piece, the saddest story I was told was that, at the end of every party, William, accompanied by two Special Branch heavies, goes around taking films out of all his friends' cameras. 'Sorry, guys,' he says. 'You know the score.' It isn't the depressing implication that there's always someone who just might go to the papers that troubles me; it's the stark realisation that William can never allow himself to get so wasted that he forgets to perform this task.
Does he really want to be king? Or does he, like Declan and just about any other 21-year-old in the land, simply want to avoid any kind of responsibility for as long as possible? Those who have met him say he was once reluctant, but is now accepting. 'Of course he wants to be king,' says Piers Morgan, editor of the Daily Mirror . 'He likes a laugh, he's a fun guy, but he has a keen sense of his place in life. I don't buy into the idea that he doesn't want it. He's a normal lad when it comes to booze and birds, but he thinks the old mystique of the monarchy is not a bad thing. I don't detect any angst about that.' Morgan pulls his mobile out of his pocket. It doubles as a camera and, on its tiny screen, I can see a picture of William surrounded by several grinning newspaper editors. Morgan took this photograph the other day, when William came to thank these men and women for leaving him alone.
'When his mother died, I think he really blamed the media,' says Morgan. 'For a few years, it was, in his eyes, war. It took a long time to talk him round, and Mark Boland [Prince Charles's former press secretary] was a key figure in changing that. He helped him to divorce the paparazzi from the papers. I said to William the other day: "Are you really grateful, or is this just a sham?" He laughed. He said: "No, I really am." He appreciates that the paparazzi don't bother him because there's no market for the pictures. He knows the market's there the minute we press the button.' And when will the button be pressed? 'The rules of engagement change when he leaves university. But he'll only sell papers when there is a girlfriend.'
I tell Morgan about nonchalant, chaotic Declan. The trouble with William, I say, is that he is presented as normal - as the great white hope for a tarnished and outmoded institution - when, mostly, he seems like a throw-back to another era altogether. To me, he looks prematurely old. In a culture in which, rightly or wrongly, youth is all and sameness is celebrated (why else are we so fixated on pictures of the famous pushing shopping trolleys?), this is not terribly helpful. But Morgan is having none of it. 'No,' he says. 'He's not freaky. We're lucky to have him. If the Queen stays, the biggest problem for the monarchy is apathy. The princes are the future. The palace needs to get them up front fast. When William smiles, it's like his mother. It all lights up. It's electrifying.'
Simon Astaire, a PR who represents Nancy Dell'Olio and Prince and Princess Michael of Kent, agrees. 'He comes across as a terrific human being, sensitive and cultured.' Does Astaire sense there might be trouble ahead in terms of William's profile? 'I don't, actually, but there will be things that have to be dealt with - girlfriends, mainly. It's very important that he's himself. The famous have to work on that every day, otherwise they become caricatures. But remember, he is very experienced when it comes to the media.' Astaire is right about this; William is on first-name terms with most editors in Fleet Street. He also knows that the birthday interview he gave to the Press Association was 'a bit boring'. He hopes to make the next one 'a little juicier'.
Elsewhere, however, there are those who are more inclined to my point of view. Anna-Louise Weatherley is the editor of J17, a magazine for teenage girls which this month features Wills in its '100 hottest boys of summer' (Wills is at number 38, just above Vernon Kay and below Tom Welling, star of Smallville). Resplendent in a Bananarama-style Eighties outfit, Weatherley tells me that a couple of years ago J17 's postbag was full of letters from girls about how much they fancied William. 'But as he's got older, he's become less interesting. He's like Diana, emotional, shy and smouldering. But when he's trying to be cool, I feel he misses it. That's where Charles comes out. You know, down with the kids, daddio, it's a tiny bit embarrassing. I don't think he's representative of British youth, however much they'd like him to be.'
'He's Young, but doesn't seem young,' says Peter York, style consultant and co-author of The Official Sloane Ranger Handbook . 'A consequence of being royal, I suppose. His clothes are completely Sloane, plus bits of new things, like wacky socks. I think I can confidently say we are never going to see him in drop-crotch jeans, or in anything that Craig David might wear. Not for him an Alice band or corn rows ®§ la Beckham.' He sighs: 'It's a pity there's no sign of Diana-style flakiness there.'
And there's the rub. If you think about it, William carries a double burden. On one shoulder sit the expectations of The Family; on the other, the expectations of a nation that still misses his mother and longs for him to act as surrogate (even now, six long years after her death, her picture on the cover of a tabloid can increase its sales significantly). Piers Morgan says he will not be surprised if William 'starts breaking out, doing what his mother did and visiting hospitals and all that'. But if he does, it could be dangerous. 'I think what's interesting is that, from Charles's point of view, he could easily turn into another Diana, simply by attracting all the headlines,' says a royal insider. 'Both of them will want to avoid this. Charles has a notoriously fragile ego, and William is devoted to him. Even so, surely deep within him there is some desire to keep his mother's legacy - her idea of a monarchy that "walks hand in hand with its people" - alive.'
Most people I spoke to about William were cautious, kind and deferential - to the point where I sometimes wondered if they feared being thrown in the Tower. But almost without exception, they were agreed on one matter: that, whatever happens, he must embark on some kind of career - 'get a life', as one put it. Granny believes in natural succession, so William is likely to be middle-aged before he gets a chance to do what his mother called 'the top job'. 'If he has any sense, he'll get a regular job,' says one source with close contacts at St James's Palace. 'He must, at all costs, avoid this nebulous meandering that, at times, has almost done for his father - a man who, even in middle age, is still required to justify his dilettante existence.' But he's going to join the Army, isn't he? 'A preposterous idea. So out of touch. No, he needs a real job, though it's hard to see what that might be, I know.'
Poor William. Palaces or no, being surrounded by all this stuff cannot be anything other than depressing. By all accounts, he has learnt to take advice, to listen to courtiers and press officers and his father, and no doubt he nods his head sagely as they offer their carefully drawn-up plans for his attention. But, inescapably for the moment, he is still at that blundering age when, as Martin Amis wrote in Experience , he must 'pretend to understand everything while understanding nothing at all'. Perhaps the last word, then, should go to one who is in the same boat on that score at least - my young friend Declan, who, bolstered by a cappuccino, is just about ready to go back to his desk.
Like most people his age, Declan is about as political as Penelope Pitstop - which is to say, not very. He's into anti-globalisation, but not the 'whole dreadlocks thing'. He was 'well against that war' but not enough to get himself down to London for the march. What, then, is his attitude to the monarchy? As William is perhaps finding out in the bars of St Andrews, most 21-year-olds devote the same brain space to the royals as they do to pension plans. Declan is no different. 'They're irrelevant,' he says, with a shrug. Does he want William to be king? 'I don't care. Royals are good for tourists, I guess. Otherwise, I don't see the point. But, you know, I'd definitely give him a fair go if I met him.' Whether hearing this is of any comfort to our future king, I don't know. But happy birthday anyway, William - from the both of us.
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