Hard on the heels of the 90th birthday of Nicholas Parsons (10 October) comes the 65th birthday of the Prince of Wales (14 November). Neither is due for retirement any day soon. Indeed, I suspect retirement would be the death of the long-serving host of Radio 4’s Just A Minute. The Duchess of Cornwall listens to his programme, I know. Perhaps her husband does too. Either way, Parsons is a perfect role model for Prince Charles. Nicholas is young at heart, unfailingly charming and wholly committed to the strange lot that fate has accorded him. He has been hosting Just A Minute for 46 years and not missed a single recording. He will be at it until he drops.
For his birthday I gave Nicholas a copy of my book The Seven Secrets of Happiness. There is credible research showing that happy people live seven to ten years longer than unhappy people and I would like to help extend my old friend’s life if I can. And what about a present for Prince Charles? What do you give to the man who has everything? I believe I have come up with the answer. What a grateful nation should give HRH for his 65th is a sabbatical. He has been the most conscientious, imaginative and effective Prince of Wales in history. He deserves a break. He is in the royal game for the long haul — which, given his parents’ longevity, could mean 30 more years in the spotlight. Now’s the time for a bit of downtime. A whole year off is probably unrealistic, but six months free of all public duties is achievable. I reckon his siblings and offspring would happily do a bit extra while Charles disappears from public view to pursue his passions in private.
One of Charles’s many strengths is that he does have passions and ‘cultivating a passion’ is one of the secrets of happiness. Margaret Thatcher, who, as we know, died in April aged 87, had only one passion in life: politics. When that passion was denied her and she ceased to be prime minister, she had few resources to fall back on. Without a sustaining passion, her life after politics was bleaker than it could have been. Now turn your mind to another 87-year-old lady of distinction, the Queen, and picture Her Majesty at Royal Ascot in June of this year. If you saw the photograph of the Queen at the moment when her horse, Estimate, won the Ascot Gold Cup, you will have seen a picture of happiness. Driven by duty, sustained by faith, Elizabeth II is happy because of her passion for horses.
The Queen, of course, has never considered a sabbatical for herself and is a firm believer in precedent. Even so, I hope she can be persuaded to allow Prince Charles to have one. Not resisting change is another of the secrets of happiness. Change is good for us. It’s the salt in life’s soup. During his six months off, Charles will be able to do things he has never done before. The Queen, year in, year out, does the same things again and again. Amazingly, in her 61 years as sovereign, travelling the United Kingdom, the Commonwealth and the world, the Queen has only ever made two unscheduled stops. Once was when adverse weather conditions forced her plane to land unexpectedly in Canada. (She did not leave the aircraft.) The other was in 1981, when the royal Rolls was caught in a snowdrift in Gloucestershire and Her Majesty took refuge in a roadside public house. I visited the Crossed Hands pub in Chipping Sodbury this week. I went in by the front door and had an egg sandwich and a coffee. The Queen got in via the fire escape and had chicken liver paté, Dover sole and a gin and tonic. Princess Anne and Jackie Stewart turned up, too, it seems — and also used the fire escape. There was a definite touch of Fawlty Towers about the episode. The assistant manager at the time was even called Manuel.
At the Crossed Hands in Chipping Sodbury you can stay the night in the little bedroom where the Queen took refuge in 1981. At the Cadogan Hotel in Sloane Street, London, you can book the room where Oscar Wilde was arrested in 1895. The other day, to mark Wilde’s 159th birthday and the publication of the Oxford Dictionary of Humorous Quotations, I hosted a party there. It was a happy gathering. My favourite moment was sighting Jim Davidson and Margaret Drabble in conversation, each, I suspect, wondering who the other was. Joanna Lumley (who does for the nation what Camilla does for Charles) read John Betjeman’s ‘The Arrest of Oscar Wilde at the Cadogan Hotel’, and in lyricists’ corner Leslie ‘Dr Dolittle’ Bricusse wished Tim Rice well with his new show, From Here to Eternity. Don Black, still working on the Andrew Lloyd Webber Stephen Ward musical, sent his apologies and a quotation — Oscar Levant’s description of every musical in the making: ‘a series of catastrophes followed by a party’.
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Gyles Brandreth is on tour in Looking for Happiness from 22 November.
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