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Half-century wears on Britain's queen

By SUSAN TAYLOR MARTIN, Times Senior Correspondent

© St. Petersburg Times, published January 13, 2002

My mother-in-law has a theory as to why the eyesight starts to fade with age.

My mother-in-law has a theory as to why the eyesight starts to fade with age.

"That way," she says, "You can't see how awful you look."

A weakening of vision could explain why Britain's Queen Elizabeth has said nothing about her official new portrait -- a painting that, to put it bluntly, makes her look like a moldy old dish rag. But perhaps we should not be too surprised by the queen's silence, given her legendary reserve. After all, it's hard to spend 50 years on the throne without developing a tough hide.

Still, as the queen enters her Jubilee year, she could be forgiven for looking -- and sounding -- a bit sour about life.

At 75, the queen is in the unenviable position of still being upstaged by her own mother, perhaps the world's only 101-year-old who plays the ponies, enjoys a fine martini and looks good in hats the size of monster-truck tires.

Then there are the kids, a rather middling bunch of middle-agers. Anne, 51, is the hardest-working of the four, tirelessly tramping around to hospital ribbon-cuttings and hundreds of other civic functions. And what kind of recognition does she get? An award for wearing the same hairstyle for 30 years.

At 53, Anne's brother, Prince Charles, is still trying to find himself. Is he a painter? A town planner? An architectural critic? A polo player?

The one constant in Charles' life has been Camilla Parker Bowles, whom he wooed before he wed Diana Spencer and who has become his constant companion since his ex-wife's death. The British public is finally warming to the idea of a Charles-Camilla marriage, although the queen is said to have remarked that "she does look rather used."

Then there's Andrew, 41, whose main claim to fame these days is that he once was married to Weight Watchers' spokeswoman Sarah Ferguson. (Fergie, you may recall, was banished from the royal family after a topless romp with a rich Texan.)

After resigning from the Royal Navy last July, Andrew became a roving ambassador for Britain. He promptly embarrassed his countrymen by partying with supermodels on what was supposed to be a somber visit to New York after the World Trade Center attack.

And finally we come to Edward, the queen's youngest child and reportedly her favorite. Edward and older brother Charles have barely spoken since last fall when Edward's film company began stalking Charles' son, William, at St. Andrews University. (All other British media had agreed to leave Prince William alone as he started his freshman year.)

Edward has since decided to give up filmmaking. And his wife, the Countess of Wessex, hasn't fared much better professionally. Her P.R. firm lost much of its business last year after she and a partner were caught in an undercover sting as they hinted they could use their royal connections to help an Arab "sheik" who turned out to be a tabloid reporter.

"Time to bin your kin, ma'am," shouted the headline on a recent story about the public perception of the royal family. While polls show most Britons admire the queen, they generally consider the other royals a bunch of hangerson.

According to a new account of her life in London's Daily Telegraph, the queen herself is dismayed that she didn't do a better job of raising her brood. Insiders attribute that to her own rigid upbringing and the fact that she assumed the throne, with all its weighty responsibilities, when she was only 26.

Still, "if the queen had taken half as much trouble about the rearing of her children as she has about the breeding of her horses, the royal family wouldn't be in such a mess now," one of her former private secretaries told the Telegraph.

It has never been a secret that the queen, an accomplished horsewoman and dog trainer, would rather be around four-legged than two-legged creatures. Examples of human suffering rarely seem to stir her: When an aide's dog died, however, she fired off a handwritten letter of condolence.

"Her majesty prefers animals to human beings," says Sir John Miler, another royal courtier, "For one thing, they don't talk so much."

But this is not to say the queen is totally lacking in warmth or even sensuality. Gough Whitlam, then prime minister of Australia, abandoned his antimonarchist leanings after the queen began seductively stroking a huge sheepskin rug he had brought as a gift on an official 1973 state visit.

"Well," Whitlam exclaimed, "If the queen's like that, she's all right by me!"

According to insiders, years of operating in the largely male world of politics have made the queen uncomfortable to the point of rudeness around other women.

"We were invited to Windsor for a fun evening," a former courtier told the Telegraph.

"After dinner, the queen said, "Now, we can either play charades or watch a film.' So my wife said, a film might be enjoyable. "Oh, well,' said the queen, "we're playing charades.' Why ask the question if you've already made up your mind? There's kind of a disregard of women and their opinions."

The anniversary of the queen's ascension to the throne is Feb. 6, but most of the Jubilee events will be in June, when Britain's weather is (hopefully) warmer. In the best stiff-upper-lip tradition of British nobility, the queen's dysfunctional clan will come together to honor her -- but don't be surprised if there are a few more wrinkles and worry lines if she ever again sits for a portrait.

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