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The Day I almost “bottled” Prince Charles

September 13, 2013

It was something like May or June, 1983, the eve of the British General Election, which was to doom my country to another term of Tory rule – Thatcherism, mass unemployment, widening of the gap between haves and have nots, selling off of precious national assets and the general ugliness that placed such a blight on my own and everybody else’s youth, adulthood, career prospects etc ad infinitum.

Her party’s thumping victory that year owed a great deal to the “triumph” of liberating the Brit held Falkland Islands, very shortly after leaving them sufficiently undefended for the Argentinians to attempt to reclaim them. Luckily the Murdoch press, which had achieved such prominence in the culture through the exploitation of extremely young women on page 3 of its most popular organ, was there to make sure the gullible public bought the Tory version of events.

I was living in Oxford, having taken the courageous but, as it turned out, premature decision to flee one of the best jobs I’ve ever had – working in the shop at London’s National Gallery – and seize an opportunity offered by an overly trusting friend to share a little house on Osney Island, sign on and attempt to “reinvent myself” as an author.

The work I achieved in that idyllic setting – a few poems and the 84 page first draft of a novel (still uncompleted, alas; something else I blame the Tories for!) – paled in comparison with the incredible productivity of the talented artist I was sharing the house with. In her first year at the John Ruskin School of Art, one literally had to step over her latest works – necessarily committed to paper rather than canvas – as they occupied most of the available floor space, drying.

Consumed by envy, naturally, by this superior and harder working artist’s fruitfulness, I had put the kibosh on our relationship by “creating such a miserable atmosphere”, brooding over my comparative failure and the state of the nation. It hadn’t helped matters when she mistook herself as the subject of my poem “Ode to a Battery Hen” (one more burning issue of the day), which made reference to “the pale, colourless eggs you produce”.

Once she had found a more compatible partner I flung myself back upon the labour market in another doomed attempt to prove my worth, and found a job, working 12 hour shifts at the Oxford Wine Shop, right on the city’s High Street, where alchies could sustain themselves with cheap sherry, the adventurous could obtain Polish Pure Spirit, I fortified myself putting ever more spoonfuls of cheap instant coffee into my mug and my line manager entertained himself by catching flies for a sizeable spider he had “adopted” and christened Boris.

In that atmosphere, on that particular day, two items on Radio 4’a Today programme attracted my attention. Prince Charles was to receive an honorary degree just down the road from our Offie and he, in the mounting excitement as the General Election approached, had made a bet with Michael Foot, the much maligned Labour leader of that day – staking “a bottle of claret” on the election result.

Today I fully understand that such stories may be inaccurate or unintentionally distorted in some way. Back then, however, I of course felt it a patriotic duty to believe everything the BBC told us, and so was naturally incensed.

How amusing! I thought, that this royal personage, who was to be given a degree, just a couple of years after my personal effort had earned me a 2:2 BA Hons from a much more obscure place of learning – one that was worthy enough, in its way, but so little regarded that my academic career was unlikely to proceed any further – that a person born to rule over me thought it a laugh to stake a bottle of wine on the result of an election that seemed likely to condemn the people of our nation to further degradation and misery.

So, as lighter hearts than mine swelled at the impending opportunity to behold the next in line to their God appointed rule, I conceived a cunning and devilish plan that, had it gone as I intended, might have changed the course of British history!

Why don’t we present His Highness with a bottle of claret, I whispered to my boss, in case he loses his bet with Michael Foot? It could be a marvellous publicity stunt and photo opportunity that will promote our store, in the accepted entrepreneurial manner.

Secretly I was thinking, once I get close enough, I’ll bottle him, and create such shock, outrage and horror that the election will be cancelled and the British people forced to have a long hard think about what was happening to their nation, how such a violent gesture, in the era of riots and demos and overwhelming response to valid mass protests, when the PM could be quoted as saying “There is no such thing as society”, was only to be expected, that we must search for the common humanity we were on the brink of losing forever.

It was a hard sale, of course; bottles of claret did not grow on trees in England. But, for once, I summoned up my limited charms and persuaded my line manager and his boss too that my idea was a good one.

Hardly daring to believe that my scheme might succeed, I looked on as the soon to be historic bottle was selected from the shelf devoted to the middle price range and wrapped in the Royal Blue paper reserved for occasions when a “special presentation” was requested or required. My tummy tightened, my mouth dried, nervous energy threatened to undo me.

So I left the shop and entered Oxford High Street, squinting in the bright sunshine that many hours of shop work had made me unaccustomed to, tightly holding the bottle that, for all its obsequious packaging, might spark a great change in my own life and that of the whole nation.

There weren’t quite as many crowds or press in those days, before his marriage greatly inflated interest in and curiosity about the Prince and technological developments made recording his every move so much easier; but there were enough.

Depending on my obscurity as cover, I worked my way past the ordinary subjects and through the more academically or poshly dressed citizens, until, finally, I was close enough to my future King, the man who, that day, seemed to epitomise all the forces that would keep me and every unlucky “Brit” down, as he strode out of “The Schools” building where he’d just been honoured yet again, in apparent mockery of those who would never be judged worthy of even the minimal level of respect required to enable them to live as they chose, walking straight towards me, perhaps preparing to say whatever anodyne greeting he might judge fit for such a meaningless encounter.

Well, reader, you will know that I bottled, not His Majesty, but It, the opportunity to sacrifice myself for the greater good as I saw it. I had noticed the two more cheaply besuited but quietly formidable men on either side of him, of course. But when I tell the story of what I might have done that day I tend to explain away what was more likely cowardice, a return to common sense or even a genuine hatred of violence in any form, as “I was repelled by a wave of charisma”.

Sometimes I wonder what might have been, had I held to my evil intention. The government might have fallen as miraculously as I had briefly dreamed. The same despicable press and media might have rewarded my insanity with the level of attention that seems to be a requirement of literary or any other fame. Or I might have been taken away and quietly, thoroughly and above all obscurely disposed of. We shall never know and that’s probably for the best, for myself if not the country as a whole.

Today my bitterness and impetuous desire to make a difference may take more sensible form. I certainly feel and have felt no great resentment towards His Majesty, who has undoubtedly had his own frustrations and disappointments to deal with. One thing seems certain: both Prince Charles and I have yet to fulfil our full, true potential and should be given every resource and encouragement to do so, by the nation and, yes I will say it, the society which, for all the differences in our birth, circumstances and, it may be, way of looking at things we, and every one who strives to live on these shores for as long as they desire or are able to endure, share.


From → Critic, Writer

One Comment
  1. Ha! I almost know someone who almost changed history!


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