LONDON — From a distance, the marriage of Prince Charles to Camilla Parker Bowles on Saturday might look like a fairy tale: a prince (not quite a Prince Charming, but still...) is finally hitching up with his true love, after a rocky first marriage, a very public divorce, and the death of his first wife.
Yet here in Britain the wedding has been greeted by a shrug of the collective shoulder, suggesting a significant shift in the British public's relationship with the royals.
When Charles tied the knot with an unworldly Lady Diana Spencer on July 29, 1981, the British nation came to a standstill. Thirty million of us (that's half the population) watched the wedding on TV and decamped to street parties afterward. I was 7 at the time and remember tucking into ice cream and jelly on a makeshift table in the middle of my road in North London, beneath a huge portrait of a grinning Charles and a bashful Diana. There was a roaring trade in commemorative tea towels, mugs, plates, even ashtrays, as what some referred to as "Dianamania" swept England, Scotland, and Wales.
Fast-forward 24 years, and the second wedding of the heir to the British throne has left "millions of us utterly unmoved," according to the British Broadcasting Corporation. The BBC reports that a majority of Britons have shown "scant interest in the impending nuptials of our future head of state."
Last year, a survey by the Populus polling company found that 32 percent of Brits would be in favor of Charles and Camilla marrying, 29 percent would be opposed, and 38 percent simply did not care. More recently, of 11,386 people who voted in a BBC Online poll, 80 percent said they didn't care about the wedding and only 20 percent did care.
Britons' lack of interest is reflected in the dearth of wedding memorabilia this time around.
According to Steven Jackson of the Commemorative Collectors Society, there are about 20 lines of official merchandise for Charles and Camilla's wedding, compared with 1,600 for Charles and Diana's wedding, 700 for the queen's Silver Jubilee in 1977, and 600 for her Golden Jubilee in 2002.
On a website for "fans of the monarchy," one contributor complained: "A wedding to forget.... Where's the memorabilia to mark Charles' big day?"
Some of the memorabilia is of the quirky, anti-Camilla variety. There is a Charles and Camilla mug with a dotted line running between them and the words: "In case of divorce, break here."
Even the issuing of a Royal Mail stamp featuring a photo of Charles and Camilla has been embroiled in controversy. The photographer who took the shot claims she has not been paid by Prince Charles's office.
Why is there such indifference to the wedding of our future king and queen? Some claim it is a result of the hold that Diana still has over the population, arguing that many dislike Camilla for seeking to take her place. Yet this is a minority position limited to Diana fans - just as those who say we should celebrate Camilla as our future queen are a minority of old-world royalists.
Outside these two camps, there are few strong feelings. I did a straw poll of friends and found that half of them did not know the wedding was taking place this weekend and none has made any plans to celebrate it.
Simply put, many Brits no longer appear moved by the monarchy. We are increasingly critical of their lifestyles and cynical about their motives. The House of Windsor must bear some responsibility for this: Its botched efforts at reform, especially over the past 10 years, have left people asking, well, what's the point of the royals?
The Windsors have sought to strike a balance between their superior, imperial traditions and a more modern user-friendly image as an everyday family. In the 1960s, a groundbreaking TV documentary showed them relaxing and chatting at home. Since the death of Diana in 1997, they have speeded up this shift toward becoming a "People's Monarchy."
After Diana's death, The Sun, Britain's best-selling tabloid and previously one of the most royalist newspapers, accused the Windsors of being "an alien breed ... stuck in a timewarp."
The royals made great efforts to become more open - they employed spin doctors, published their financial accounts for the first time, and started showing emotion in public (at the end of 1997, the queen kissed her son, Prince Charles, in public for the first time.)
The trouble is that this emphasis on the "ordinariness" of the royals has sat increasingly uneasily with their more formal, imperial duties, leading to something of an identity crisis. This is expressed in Charles and Camilla's wedding - which will take place in a town hall rather than a grand cathedral, will not be televised, and will not be attended by the queen.
The end result looks like a half-royal, half-ordinary ceremony, a hybrid - and many of us, it seems, don't know what to make of it. In 1981, the pure pomp and regalia of Charles and Diana's wedding was an expression of what some saw as Britain's greatness and its strong sense of history and tradition.
Today, Charles and Camilla's wedding - and the doubt and controversy that surrounds it - seems to express the exhaustion of some of these traditions. Is it any wonder that we the people cannot work up much enthusiasm for it?
• Brendan O'Neill is deputy editor of the online magazine 'spiked.'