The Prince and I: St Andrews with William — Politics and Bicycle Lessons
I went to college with Prince William – to be more specific, the future king of England went to college with me.
I had arrived at the University of St Andrews two years before William arrived – so I definitely can’t be accused of being one of the many girls my age around the world who (at least, according to the British press) had applied for entry to St Andrews with the dream of becoming a real princess.
In the year our paths crossed on campus, I never had a real conversation with young William, but I did bump into him a few times – not uncommon in the city. Scottish medieval town where university life is concentrated around three main streets.
Naturally, memories of that time have flooded back in recent weeks, since the death of his grandmother, Queen Elizabeth II, and the prince’s rise as heir apparent to his father, King Charles.
More than 20 years ago, as a young middle-class white Italian, I had never given much thought to the idea of a living monarchy. When I first heard that William Wales (yes, royals don’t have surnames, but to go to college William used his father’s designation) was moving to the small town where I lived, my first reaction was, well, empathy.
Picture of United Kingdom
William had very publicly lost his mother, Princess Diana, just four years before he started at St Andrews. And how different, I thought, going to college in this small Scottish town must be for someone like me and a guy like him? And frankly, on that front, I thought I had it better.
For me, the United Kingdom was a mirage, a land of endless opportunities that I would not have access to anywhere else: I was able to improve my English while studying for free and living alone at the age of 17, away from the chaos of my hometown, the city of Naples, in southern Italy.
It was 1998 when I applied for universities, the old-fashioned way – sitting in the British Council library in Naples and staring at printed brochures about these possible futures that lay ahead of me. St Andrews caught my eye because it was the farthest from my home town and because it was by the sea. I applied, and was accepted.
I arrived without fully understanding the standing of the institution.
I arrived there without fully understanding the standing of the institution, the third oldest in the English-speaking world, after Oxford and Cambridge, and currently ranked as the best in Britain. I had no idea of this small town on the east coast of Scotland, where its population almost doubles during the school year – with some 10,000 students filling the streets and its dozens of pubs.
Adjusting to life in Scotland
What attracted me was that EU students did not pay fees in Scotland. Also, the dorms were cheaper than the average student rent in any Italian city I would have probably moved to for college. And although I still wouldn’t have made it without the financial support of my parents, as soon as I landed in Scotland I realized that I could start doing odd jobs to be able to pay for my newly acquired taste for hot beers and impromptu bus rides to Edinburgh and London.
The UK seemed like a land full of freedom and opportunity: no one cared what I wore and how I combined my clothes, after high school in Naples I felt like a fashion test constant that I tried to challenge by dressing like a hippie.
I struggled so much with the language at first that I also let go of my syndrome of being top of the class, and it helped me to approach studies in a different way. My friends came from all over the world – although, with the exception of local Scottish students, most came from very privileged international backgrounds.
It took me a while to figure out what was behind the brilliant images that had formed in my head.
First there was the clear conflict between Scotland and England. Unlike us European students, English students were paying tuition fees and they were in St Andrews because they hadn’t made it to Oxford or Cambridge. They wore light pink shirts even for breakfast, and they all sounded the same – they called it Queen’s English, my Scottish friends called them yeahmimicking their classy way of saying yes.
Then there were class differences. My Scottish friend reminded me that these were children who didn’t need to work, their parents paid for everything, they had gone to private schools (confusingly called public schools in England) .
When I thought I was miles away from Naples, suddenly I realized that conversations often took place about the school people had attended and where their families came from – much like the oppressive conversations of little town I had at home about where my schoolmates came from, with uncles asking if my friends were from a Buona Family (good family).
Paparazzi and tabloid reporters began to appear
So when the university announced that Prince William had decided to enroll as an art history major in 2001, an environment of extreme privilege only worsened. There was also a 44% increase in applications, with a notable increase in young women from the United States.
The town was transformed almost instantly: rents went up, bunk beds were installed in individual dormitories, the Monsoon clothing store opened a shop on the high street, selling ballgowns and other out-of-the-ordinary clothing. prices for formal occasions. Paparazzi and tabloid reporters began to appear, some even moved into rented apartments in town.
The royal presence
During William’s freshman year, I was studying in Germany. William lived in St Salvator’s Hall, one of the most expensive student residences, where I spent my university years working as a waitress during lunch and dinner hours. The Scottish women I worked with in the dining room at Sallies (as it was called) told me that William seemed like a good lad – less arrogant than many others who were around.
It was in this same dining room that William met Kate Middleton – she had also taken a gap year before starting university, the two were studying art history and lived a few doors down each other in the student residence. It was apparently Kate who encouraged William not to leave St Andrews and to switch to studying geography in his second year.
By the time I returned for my senior year, I went back to work at Sallies, but William had moved into a private flat with Kate, who was dating someone else, and two other friends. (They didn’t start dating until their fourth and senior year and had their photo taken together at the 2005 graduation ceremony where they both wore the traditional red robes, in presence of Queen Elizabeth.)
It was never hard not to spot him. He was tall and usually followed by a column of girls – dreaming of becoming the next Queen of England – who had memorized his schedule and shared the prince’s location via text message. He also had two bodyguards around him at all times, who tried to be discreet but were easy to recognize after a while.
Even though he asked friends to call him Steve to avoid people hearing gossip about him, and even though the British media agreed not to publish paparazzi photos of William at university , princely gossip was constant in the city.
When I joined the women’s rugby team for a term at the end of 2002, all we heard in training were stories of other girls in my team who had spoken to her at Ma Bells, a classy bar I’ve never been to.
My way of knowing where he was was his parked bike, the only one in town that remained unlocked. One afternoon, after a “liquid lunch” of beers, I had to talk my tipsy Canadian and American friends out of trying to steal the bike.
While it started out as a sort of “borderline” experiment, I eventually realized that William – ultimately by his own choosing – was the singular global symbol of inherited power and wealth that is in direct conflict with my own ideas about the world.
“Supreme executive power derives from a mandate from the masses, not from some wacky water ceremony!” declares the anarcho-syndicalist peasant in the 1975 film Monty Python and the Holy Grail, a milestone in British comedy that turned is also found in my postgraduate studies, but not in the St Andrews brochures.
And so this week the world learned that a date in May had been chosen for the coronation of the new king, William’s father. My college memories and the Monty Python guys remind me again how absurd the idea of a monarchy was to me in 2002, and again in 2022.
I was told my accent wasn’t suitable for the broadcast.
Of course, in Naples, where I come from, there are still some rooting for the House of Bourbon, the dynasty of French origin, which ruled southern Italy until the 19th century. (My mother was called Maria Sofia in honor of Marie Sophie de Bayern, who was the last queen of the Two Sicilies.)
But as the daughter of a Troskyist, with parents who were on the streets in 1968, a functioning monarchy in the 21st century is a joke, at best, in direct opposition to the ideal of progress I brought with me. United Kingdom.
This only got stronger when I joined another UK institution, the BBC, in 2006 as a radio and television producer. A boyfriend of mine, from a half-Irish working class family in Manchester, had to force a fake posh accent to get in the media. I was told my accent was not suitable for broadcasting, but so were countless Scots, Irish and Northern English people before me.
Much of the UK’s wealth is inherited. According to the Institute for Fiscal Studies, inherited family wealth is the primary determinant of a person’s wealth later in life. A tiny minority of former pupils of expensive small schools and Oxbridge still make up a disproportionate share of the country’s top posts (65% of senior magistrates, 57% of members of the House of Lords, 52% of ministry diplomats of Foreign Affairs, 43% of the 100 most influential news editors and broadcasters, according to a study by the Sutton Trust and the Social Mobility Commission).
With the death of Queen Elizabeth and the passing of the crown to King Charles, I think back to my time in St Andrews and wonder if I was wrong to stop my friends from stealing William’s bike. It was nothing personal, and indeed I came away feeling like he and Kate were among the classiest of the upper class on campus. I happen to be against everything they stand for.
Long live William. Death to the monarchy!
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