It's been hard for me to tear myself away from the news these past few weeks. I am fascinated by Lady Di's life and death and by the attention paid to it. I'm fascinated by the whole British royal family. So when the news avalanche began to slow somewhat, I went to the library.
There are many, many books on Charles and Diana and most of them are not very good, I fear. If you want a book that takes Diana's side, there's Andrew Morton's "Diana: Her True Story" (1992).
If you want a book that takes Charles' side, there's "The Prince of Wales: A Biography" by Jonathan Dimbleby (1994). I have to be honest: I read "The Prince of Wales" because the Andrew Morton book wasn't immediately available. But I'm glad I read Dimbleby's book because it reminded me that the popular press has done a hatchet job on both Charles and Diana - and descriptions of Charles' early life took me back to a time when I lived in England.
You might say that Prince Charles and I went to different schools together. Charles went to Gordonstoun, the austere boys' school in northeast Scotland from 1962 to 1967. Gordonstoun was based on the principles of educator Kurt Hahn, a refugee from Nazi Germany, who envisioned a school based on Plato's "Republic." This was hard to achieve, but most of the international schools that belonged to Hahn's conference later found an identity of sorts - they were all spartan boarding schools that emphasized the commitment to a "sound mind, sound body."
I didn't go to boarding school at Gordonstoun, but I did go to a Hahn school south of London called Box Hill School. Roy McComish, the headmaster at Box Hill School, had been a house master at Gordonstoun and wanted his school to be as much like it as possible. The great exception was this: Box Hill School was co-ed, so my sister and brother and I were enrolled together from 1963 to 1965. In an effort to promote the ideal, all Box Hill School students were required to get up in the mornings and run a short course before coming in and taking a cold shower.
There were 120 of us, international students age 8 to 18, living in an old Victorian mansion and as far as I was concerned it was a wonderful experience. Friendships were made at that school that endure to this day.
During the summer of 1964, my brother and I were taken on a trip to Scotland with the McComishes. One of our overnight stops was at Gordonstoun. I remember wandering around the empty school, wondering which desk belonged to the lonely prince. I was fairly certain we'd be good friends if we ever met. However, the students were away for the summer holiday and I never did meet Prince Charles.
Since I remember my years at Box Hill School with great fondness, I was shocked to find out from biographer Dimbleby that Prince Charles did not at all have the same pleasant experience at Gordonstoun. In fact, he hated it. He was hounded, bullied and teased unmercifully, even after two full years there, as this letter shows:
"It's such hell here especially at night. I don't get any sleep practically at all nowadays...The people in my dormitory are foul. Goodness they are horrid, I don't know how anyone could be so foul. They throw slippers all night long or hit me with pillows or rush across the room and hit me as hard as they can, then beetle back again as fast as they can, waking up everyone else in the dormitory at the same time. I still wish I could come home. It's such a hole this place!"
Things got better for Charles in time as he discovered music, art and drama, but his biographer recounts that when the prince left the school for the last time in 1967 it was without a twinge of regret.
I wonder if the insensitivity portrayed toward Charles by his family in those formative years wasn't very symbolic - they didn't seem to do anything to help him. Therefore, I am even more impressed with the life Charles made for himself after Gordonstoun. He attended Cambridge, began traveling widely on behalf of his mother the Queen, and served a tour in the Royal Navy. He began to take on the Establishment, too, as he matured, with speeches aimed at promoting holistic medicine, human-scale architecture and sustainable farming. He was vitally concerned with issues of immigration and diversity and problems faced by impoverished inner-city youth.
His decision to marry Diana Spencer may have been the worst in his life but how could he have known that at the time? His biographer says that Charles did everything he could to make the marriage work and didn't see Camilla Parker-Bowles again romantically until his marriage had irretrievably broken down.
The truth about Prince Charles is this: He's a wonderful, flawed human being, just like his late former wife. And I appreciated being able to get to know him a little better through the pages of Dimbleby's book.