You say you want a revolution
Harmony: A New Way of Looking at Our WorldBy HRH the Prince of Wales, Tony Juniper and Ian Skelly,
Blue Door/Harper Collins, 329pp. £25
PRINCE CHARLES is never afraid of controversy, and he may have strayed over the perimeter fence again this week at a reception at the Irish Embassy in London in advance of the expected visit by his mother, Queen Elizabeth, next year. He said of Ireland and Britain, “We should never forget that our acquaintance has been long.” Long though it has been, some would say it has also been more than just an acquaintance. In this book he remains unafraid to tackle issues on the far side of the royal perimeter.
Its first sentence resounds like the disturbance of an alarm clock: “This is a call to revolution,” writes the heir to the British throne. The prince remains one of the principal characters in the long-running soap opera that is the British royal family, but now and again he rises above the sillier headlines with some new initiative. He does this now with Harmony, whose title might give a clue to his thoughts on existence and order. In advocating a return to living alongside the natural world, Charles declares it can no longer be “business as usual” for the planet. Aside from this, he is also shrewd enough to know that this lavishly produced publication, to be accompanied by a TV special, is timed perfectly for the Christmas trade.
In a previous book, A Vision of Britain, Prince Charles set out his preferences for the country he was born to rule, in particular his ambitions for the realm of architecture and urban planning. During the past year his unconstitutional intervention in a planning decision in London – he called on a landowner, the emir of Qatar, to drop his chosen architect in favour of one of the prince’s preferred, more traditional 329 practitioners – cast a spotlight on his behind-the-scenes-lobbying. He clearly knows how to pull rank to get his way.
His latest book has the telling subtitle A New Way of Looking at Our World, and he invites us to do this by recognising ancient and often metaphysical forms or symbols from archaeology, astronomy, religion and philosophy. This is not particularly new: it has been practised by sages and soothsayers down the centuries. From particular examples he draws together diverse threads, including the Fibonacci series of numbers, in an attempt to find corresponding patterns in a “sacred geometry”. He forgets that this is his personal, selective process, and where patterns emerge they may have more to do with coincidence than with anything else.
He then suggests that these similarities, if applied now, will bring an ease, which he describes as harmony, to the world around us. He cites, for example, “the golden mean”, whereby an artist uses proportions within a painting, such as the line of a horizon, as a method of creating satisfaction or, if ignored, a discomfort. He may not be a member of the Flat Earth Society, or a salesman for snake-oil remedies, but he could be another evangelist pushing some half-baked theories.
But not all are half-baked. In the face of widespread cynicism Prince Charles has, over 30 years and with some political courage, argued his points of view. He has inveighed against a wide range of topics: factory farming and deforestation, mass production and materialism, modernism in architecture and orthodox, unimaginative medicine. He has tried to draw public opinion back to an idyllic sun-dappled era before the Industrial Revolution and economic growth ruined the values he holds dear. He believes in looking outwards from the individual experience, from the smaller to the bigger, from growing one’s own vegetables to opposing the destruction of the rainforests.
In the fortunate position of being able to articulate his views and reach an audience, he has also to some extent been able to practise what he preaches. The organic garden at his Gloucestershire home, Highgrove, is world famous, and he now delivers produce through his Duchy Originals business. He also encourages other, small businesses, giving grants to young and often disadvantaged entrepreneurs. He has set up a foundation for the built environment and implemented some of its ideas in the village of Poundbury, in Dorset. He has encouraged the use of homeopathy and alternative therapies (if not snake oil). “Sustainability” was clearly a word in his vocabulary before it became trendy.
Leaving the speeches at embassies, responsibilities of state and marriages to one side, Harmony lifts his thinking to a more philosophical plane. The prince was influenced by the South African Laurens van der Post, who, it seems, brought to the young man a wide sense of spirituality. Now his influences seem to include Mahatma Gandhi and a theological mix of Egyptian mythology, Greek Orthodoxy and the New Age.
These journeys of the mind have opened him to uncommon influences, which in turn have influenced this book, in which he is assisted by two collaborators who have held positions in his charitable organisations in Britain. Tony Juniper was at one time executive director of Friends of the Earth, and the broadcaster Ian Skelly has had a wider role in philosophic discussion. Harmony bursts with examples of geography and history, attractively photographed or presented. Among them Irish readers may spot at least one error, which places the prehistoric site of Newgrange in Northern Ireland.
It is up to the reader what he or she may make of this provocative if sometimes rather dense book, which is less a personal manifesto than an explanation of his views over 30 years. Do the points that Prince Charles makes here offer vital answers to some of the troubling questions of our time or are they the well-intentioned ramblings of a mind that cannot find a focus? Does the man need a throne or at least a serious job? Either way, he has the opportunity to present readers with some ideas that may set them thinking, which may even trickle outwards and upwards to those who make the key decisions before our planet self-destructs.
With a royal visit in the offing, Charles ended his Embassy speech with the words “imagination, after all, is the mother of possibility”. His book amply demonstrates that he himself is not short of imagination.
Gerry Harrison is a biographer and film-maker