Happy Birthday. Please no speeches.

Prince Charles, famous for his ‘lunatic fringe’ interests and unorthodox views, turns 60

Prince Charles

If we hear little of Prince Charles as he approaches his 60th birthday this month, his advisers will have done their jobs well. Significant birthdates usually draw media coverage, and the future king has already come under criticism for holding two birthday parties—a private reception and a state function—in a time of economic recession. Then there is Charles’s reputation for controversy, his public outbursts, his tendency to make headlines with his tirades on a variety of issues. Labelled “the potty prince,” the “hapless heir,” he has a penchant for speaking his mind and voicing extreme views. Avoiding negative publicity usually means keeping him away from the public eye, says Richard Kay, a correspondent on royal issues for the Daily Mail.

In the past, this has not always been possible. Prince Charles believes he has a responsibility to lead, yet he is a man whose opinions have often diverged from public consensus. He has “a tendency to pursue ‘lunatic fringe’ interests in his off-duty hours, and to spurn the advice of those urging him down more orthodox channels,” says Anthony Holden in Charles: A Biography. Over the years, he has railed against things like modern Christianity, the Industrial Revolution, “child-centred education,” and modernity itself, says Kay. Former deputy private secretary Mark Bolland has said that Prince Charles sees it as his role to “influence opinion.” What this leads to is Charles giving advice to experts on subjects he knows nothing about, says Catherine Bennett, a columnist for the Observer newspaper.

When questioned about his public image, the prince himself seems a little bemused. In an interview with the Sunday Times in 1985, he said, “You know, as far as I can make out, I’m about to become a Buddhist monk, or live halfway up a mountain, or only eat grass.” He was joking, but the quote is revealing because many of these extreme interests actually dovetail with his own. The prince might joke about living as a Buddhist monk, yet he’s quite happy to retreat from time to time into a traditionalist order of Greek monks that forbids women. He might joke about eating only grass, yet he has been known to rail against modern agriculture.

Charles’s image as the “potty prince” stems partly from his wish to make a difference. In his own words, he likes to make subversive statements, and “to throw a proverbial royal brick through the inviting plate glass of pompous professional pride and jump feet first into the kind of spaghetti bolognese of red tape which clogs this country from one end to the other.”

He is perhaps best known for his tirade against modern architecture, which angered many in the profession’s establishment. One of his most quoted speeches compared the modernist style to the rubble left by the Luftwaffe; another lamented the “monstrous carbuncle on the face of a much loved and elegant friend.” The problem with professional bodies and institutions, he says, is their hostility toward anything “unorthodox or unconventional.” In response, he set up his own school, the Prince of Wales’s Institute of Architecture. Students would create an architecture “based on human feeling,” and discover “great truths . . . real meaning . . . and that most precious of commodities—hope.” They would learn about the rules of proportion based on “the order inherent in the universe.” The venture “was little short of a fiasco,” writes Penny Juror in her book Prince Charles: Victim or Villain. The school had four directors in six years, swallowed up vast sums of money, much of it from the sultan of Brunei and Arab sheiks. More importantly, it was not able to get accreditation from the Royal Institute of British Architects. By 1998, the school had lost most of its students, and had changed direction so greatly that its director had been replaced by a modernist who studied under Mies van der Rohe.

If the architecture school project were a one-off, it would have remained nothing more than an unfortunate anecdote in Charles’s career. However, far from being an isolated event, it established themes and concerns that have cropped up time and again in his time as crown prince, says Bennett. He has attacked progressive thinkers such as Copernicus and Descartes and the “scientific revolution” for causing us to lose our “integrated vision of the world.” He has criticized the British Medical Association for modern medicine’s obsession with cells and molecules at the expense of “traditional” holistic medicine. He has been a great promoter of alternative health, which has in fact become increasingly mainstream, but he has also championed “quack” cures that have proven unhelpful or even dangerous. Homeopathy is one of the treatments Prince Charles believes should be integrated with regular medicine, although a major review for the medical journal The Lancet indicated that this therapy works no better than a placebo. The treatment is based on the idea that “like cures like,” so that if you give the patient small amounts of toxins, the body will boost its healing powers to tackle the disease. However, according to Creighton University School of Medicine in Omaha, Neb., the toxins are distilled and diluted until the amount of curative/toxins remaining in some treatments is negligible.

In June 2004, Prince Charles was strongly criticized for touting the benefits of a cancer treatment called Gerson therapy. The treatment rejects science-based medicine in favour of caffeine enemas, weekly vitamin injections, and 13 glasses of fruit and vegetable juice every day to “boost your body’s own immune system,” according to the Gerson Institute website. In an open letter to the Times of London in April 2008, Edzard Ernst, a professor of complementary medicine at the University of Exeter, strongly criticized two alternative health guides that the prince and his Foundation for Integrated Health had released. The problem wasn’t that alternative medicine didn’t have important uses, Ernst wrote, but that the guides embellished how these treatments could be used. They were full of “numerous misleading and inaccurate claims,” Ernst said. Chiropractic was recommended for digestive orders. Acupuncture was suggested for addiction and osteopathy as a treatment for asthma. “The majority of alternative therapies appear to be clinically ineffective,” he said, “and many are downright dangerous.”

The prince makes some of his outlandish claims partly because he is ill-served by his advisers, says Holden in a commentary in the Observer. Mollycoddled by yes-men, a “feel-good foam of fawning sycophancy,” Charles often lacks the benefit of useful criticism. Restless and discontent, “his butterfly mind notoriously launches project after project, then loses interest and leaves someone else to pick up the pieces,” Holden continues. Intemperate, Charles also tends to drop anyone who ventures to disagree, Holden writes. “So his real trouble is that he tends to think, with the eager assent of those around him, that he is always in the right.”

This issue has become particularly apparent with regards to his faith. A practising Anglican and the future head of the Anglican Church, Charles has nevertheless embraced many faiths. He has made speeches praising Islam, which have been well received in the Arab world. While some find his acceptance and openness admirable, he has come under fire for comparing modern Christianity unfavourably to Islam. In contrast to his own faith, he has said, Islam teaches us how to “learn with our hearts, as well as our heads,” understands the “sanctity of the world” and has a healthy respect for the “natural order.” Another religion of which the prince seems “enamoured,” according to the Guardian, is the Greek Orthodox faith practised on Mount Athos, a region of monasteries in northern Greece. While Charles hasn’t converted, he has made a number of retreats to this atavistic order. Women are forbidden from going anywhere near the autonomous semi-state, which even bans most female animals. Much of the peninsula lacks electricity; there is no radio, television or newspapers. For a prince who has denounced economic development for Third World countries, industrialized farming and many other elements of modernity, this bastion of traditionalism must seem attractive.

Charles regularly makes news with his eccentricities, such as his habit of talking to trees, or his close relationship with his one-time guru, the late Laurens van der Post, a South African-born writer and mystic who has been criticized for lying about some of the details of his life. It was Van der Post who taught the prince about the importance of distrusting pure thought, since modern life encourages us to “use thinking for purposes for which it was never designed.” As a result, said Van der Post, we are unaware of our “living experience before and beyond our transitory knowledge.” Perhaps most bizarre is the prince’s interest in parapsychology, which advocates drawing on divine powers to summon angels. The parapsychologist studies ghosts, telepathy and precognition. (Precognition is the alleged ability to predict the future, and was the basis for the sci-fi film Minority Report.) In Prince Charles’s view, this field has not been given enough credence and deserves more in-depth study. Concerned, he even wrote to the vice-chancellor of the University of Wales, urging him to consider a chair in the field.

Prince Charles has been able to voice these eccentric beliefs partly because of his unique constitutional position. He is one of a select few who can explore issues in “unfashionable ways and yet be heard,” writes Jonathan Dimbleby in The Prince of Wales. That may change, says Kay. It’s one thing to have a meddlesome crown prince, but an interfering monarch could pose constitutional challenges. Bombarding government ministers with advice could put them in a difficult position, he says. A statement about talking to trees or the importance of studying ghosts could garner public ridicule not just from media in Britain, but the press worldwide. His “potty” outbursts could then be seen as representing the thoughts of the nation. “We’ve all become accustomed to the outlandish things that he says,” Bennett says. “But you’ve got to wonder what will it be like when he’s king.”