Just when we need him, the aloof heir apparent has emerged as a man of the world and a wry critic of modernism run amok
Like many an American baby boomer, Prince Charles went through an extended adolescence. His was just more public than most. Kept from the throne, not knowing quite what to do with himself, he spent much of his 30s in a kind of suspended animation. He brooded. He shuttered himself in Scotland. He talked to his plants. There were times you wondered: Is this Prince Charles or Prince Hamlet?
Not anymore. Charles, 41, has come of age. Nice for him, of course, but notable for the rest of us too. If the '90s are to be a decade when we take responsibility for things like the cities, the schools and the biosphere, then the new Charles is the man of the hour. In fact, he's several men. There's Charles the archcritic of modern architecture, especially when it tries to throw its glass houses against the old stones of England's grand buildings. There's Charles the paladin of the poor, spurring business involvement in the inner city. Then there's Charles the environmentalist, plugging for conservation. And lately there is Charles the champion of the Queen's English, battling bad grammar and limp language.
And speaking of language, he's not just talk. He wrote and helped to prepare a BBC documentary (and later a prizewinning book) called A Vision of Britain, which laid out his prescription for small-scale architecture that respects tradition and fits in with its surroundings. Now he's working on another documentary—on the environment—that will try to pinpoint achievable solutions. And he has begun meeting with international business leaders to spread his message of responsibility. At his orders, recycling and organic food have been introduced at Kensington Palace in London and at Highgrove, the Waleses' country estate in Gloucestershire.
Even when he's a scold, Charles is tart, not sour. In 1987 he compared his nation's architectural establishment to the World War II German bombers that devastated London. "You have to give this much to the Luftwaffe," he announced drily to an audience of stunned architects. "When it knocked down our buildings, it didn't replace them with anything more offensive than rubble. We did that." In some of his sharper comments, the urge to speak up meets a gift for stand-up. "Is this really a reading room?" he asked the architect of a new library. "It looks more like an assembly hall for an academy for secret police."
The architectural and city planning establishments in Britain may not be laughing. To them he sounds petulant and snippish, a prince of wails who unfairly throws his royal weight around. After he fired his first shot against modern architecture in 1984, attacking a proposed addition to London's National Gallery as "a monstrous carbuncle on the face of a much-loved and elegant friend," the design was scrapped in favor of a more classical substitute. Developers who hope to get clearance for major projects have begun to seek his tacit approval for their increasingly conservative creations. Indeed, it's fair to ask whether Charles has ever met a large modern building he didn't dislike. But the British people, living in a nation that has suffered some of the most unsightly hulks of the postwar era, seem to love it. Polls show that they overwhelmingly endorse his stand.
Charles has also taken up the cause of good grammar and clear, powerful speech. Most recently he decried the contemporary vocabulary of the New English Bible, which has squashed the poetry of the King James Version into the language of a none too bright schoolboy delivering a book report. "The word of God is supposed to be a bit over our heads," the Prince lamented in a speech last year. "Elevated is what God is."
And elevated is what Charles, eventually, will be. Once he ascends the throne, it will be harder for him to use the palace as a pulpit. Having learned to exercise the powers at his disposal, but not yet having assumed the more confined role awaiting him, Charles may be entering the most effective years of his life. We may look back at him someday and say that this was his finest hour.
In that case, forget the comparison with Hamlet. If Charles is like a figure from Shakespeare, the more apt comparison may be with Henry V, the unready princeling who became a robust King. The Charles for the '90s is a man who, like Henry, has found his own path. And he's prepared to bring others along it.