truth is, he still needs her terribly
The Queen Mother played a central role in Prince Charles's life. But who will take her place? asks Graham Turner
PRINCE CHARLES'S closest aides and friends were always deeply worried about what the impact of the Queen Mother's death might be on him. They were afraid that the traumatic blow of her passing might go well beyond the bounds of normal grief.
"I really fear for the Prince of Wales when she dies," one of his most ardent admirers told me, two years ago. "He will be genuinely devastated, there will be the most enormous depression. He still needs her terribly." Charles's aides agreed. The Prince, one told me, would be totally distraught. How prescient they were was painfully obvious from the Prince's grief-stricken face at the Queen Mother's funeral. Never has a man looked more riven. One's heart bled for him.
The tone of Charles's tribute last week was also that of a man who felt totally bereft. Yet his grandmother was, after all, 101 years old, and he might at least have expressed relief and even gratitude that she had died as gracefully as she had lived. It is only possible to begin to understand the depth of Charles's sense of personal loss by looking at the nature of his devotion to her, which sometimes bordered on the extravagant. "It was so lovely to see them together," one of the Queen Mother's ladies-in-waiting once told me. "He would arrive at a picnic at Balmoral and say to her, 'Oh, Your Majesty, I'm graciously honoured to see you!' and she would reply, 'Would it please Your Royal Highness to have a drink?' Then he would kiss her all the way up her arms! If the Queen Mother had asked him to swim the Channel, he would have done it."
The plain - and sad - truth is that the Queen Mother was the only member of the Royal Family to whom Prince Charles felt he could talk about his deepest feelings and problems. Given that his relationship with the Queen has been cool and somewhat distant for a long time, he felt that Granny was the mother he had never had. She, in her turn, felt that he was the son she had never had.
Since his relationship with his father, the Duke of Edinburgh, has been so poor that he has not felt able to talk about it even to his closest clerical confidants, and that there has been remarkably little real warmth or contact between him and his siblings, where else was he to turn but to the Queen Mother? For 50 years, he felt that she was his only real prop and stay within the Royal Family.
She was the only one who offered him the appreciation and encouragement which he has always craved. Her perpetual optimism and joie de vivre helped to dispel his inherent gloom. She always saw the doughnut, while he too often saw only the hole. His friends and aides always believed that she, even more than Camilla Parker Bowles, was indispensable to him - that the extent of his psychological dependence on her was both bottomless and, if truth be told, a touch unhealthy.
His genuine passion for Scotland, his strong dynastic sense and his passionate love of the countryside all, they say, came from her. Not only did Charles adore his grandmother, he was also constantly in touch with her. "He is absolutely besotted with her," one of his closest aides told me, when the Queen Mother was already 98. "He has doted on her from an early age and still does. If only the Queen had been like her, and he felt he could just pick up the phone and chat, as he does with the Queen Mother all the time. "Whether he's at St James's, Highgrove or with friends in the country, if the call comes through from her, he'll take it, even in a room full of people. "He'll never do that with other members of the Royal Family. But if it's her, he'll just go off into a corner with the mobile and have a giggle.
"If she's in residence at Clarence House, he's constantly popping across the yard to see her. In the morning, the Prince's butler will ring before 10 to tell us that he's gone across the way and so his car won't be leaving from St James's after all but from the Sovereign's entrance of Clarence House. And, if he doesn't go in the morning, he'll have a drink with her before supper. Princess Anne lives just next door, but he'd never think of doing that with her."
When things started to go wrong in Charles's marriage to Diana, the Queen Mother - unlike his parents - instinctively took his side. "She came to feel that Diana was a very silly girl and had a poor sense of duty, or devoir, as she often calls it," one of her ladies-in-waiting once told me.
And, of course, it was to the Queen Mother that Charles constantly turned for sympathy and help. "At the time of Diana's death," said another of the Queen Mother's ladies-in-waiting, "Charles was living on the edge of a nervous breakdown. Who do you go to at a moment like that - the friend who will always listen and sympathise, or the family who don't know how to talk to each other? Of course, he leant on the Queen Mother all the time. On the evening when they were taking Diana's body to Kensington Palace, he spent a long time alone with the Queen Mother at Clarence House."
But the Queen Mother's influence on Charles went far beyond lending him a sympathetic ear in his hours of need. Far more significant for the future of the monarchy, he took the Queen Mother's extravagant way of life as a model for his own.
"His attitudes are very much like hers," said a Palace insider. "He mirrors her view of life. His mantras are the same as hers. He makes exactly the same noises about the decline of standards, that things are not what they used to be, and so on. In family gatherings, they always stood very much together."
To senior courtiers, it has always seemed that Charles is intent on creating the kind of royal world of which his Granny would approve. "The Prince of Wales tries to emulate the Queen Mother in the grand style he has adopted," one of those who knows him well once told me. "The Queen and the rest of the Royal Family, many of whom are altogether more frugal, think he is far too grand, but his grandmother encouraged him to be like that, to indulge himself, to be really royal in the old style." Those who have been guests at his annual arts weekend at Sandringham, which they reckon costs £20,000 or more, have seen an extravagant manifestation of that style. To them, he always seemed to be trying to out-granny Granny. "To start with," one guest told me, "there must have been 20 or 30 servants when I went. Everybody had their own individual valet or maid and each evening, as we came down to dinner, our jaws dropped open at the splendour of the table, the silver, the decorations, the flowers, the statues and the lighting. It was different on each of the three nights - an unbelievable display, absolutely dazzling.
"He's got the same incredible instinct for style as the Queen Mother, but she never went over the top. He does. He knows that the Queen and Prince Philip would be horrified if they saw it, but that Granny would love it." All of this helps to explain why Prince Charles is so inordinately grief-stricken. His stand-in mother has gone. His principal prop has been removed. His model is no more.
The first question is, how long will it take him not merely to recover from his grief, but to find another prop to lean on, since the evidence suggests that he does need someone to offer him solace and encouragement? There is always Camilla Parker Bowles, who he knows is on his side and who has already proved that she is capable of soothing his doubts and mopping up his whinges. Charles will doubtless need her more than ever. Indeed, the departure of the Queen Mother may remove one of the impediments to their marriage, since she seemed unenthusiastic about the idea.
Charles is a man, like his father, with a strong sense of both duty and destiny, but it may well be that the only thing that will truly fill the aching void that the death of his grandmother has left behind is a sense that his mother, the Queen, genuinely approves of and admires him. "Forget about Diana and Camilla," one of his aides once told me. "The lack of approval from his parents is the be-all and end-all so far as he is concerned. It is all down to Mummy not saying 'well done' and really meaning it."
If the Queen and her eldest son could now, in the autumn of the Queen's life, become close and mutually supportive, the House of Windsor would be on altogether firmer foundations than if that failed to happen. Even in the depth of his own grief, Charles will, I am sure, be aware of the depth of his mother's sense of loss, and offer her the comfort and support that he longs for himself. And, if the Prince truly wishes to emulate his grandmother, she had - as he will know - one other characteristic that was obvious to all who knew her: a spine of steel. When all the tears have been shed and all the well-earned tributes paid, he will need to show that, along with her style, he has also inherited her steel.
Charles's prompt departure for Scotland with Camilla Parker Bowles suggests that he will be depending on her heavily in the dark days ahead.