William shies from the royal spotlight's full glare

It's party time in Royalsville. High summer means high season for the House of Windsor, as June passes in a blur of society, designer finery, and bugle-blowing beefeaters. Ascot races, garden parties, rowing regattas, hats and horses, and all those arcane royal traditions with obscure titles like the Trooping of the Colour and the Most Noble Order of the Garter.

But amid the pomp and pageantry, the massive walls of Windsor Castle will reverberate Saturday night to the sounds of R&B and garage, as the young aristocracy lets down its hair at the event of summer events. The theme is Out of Africa, the guest list highly exclusive, the occasion: Prince William's 21st birthday.

Prince William, 21? It seems only a moment ago that the kingdom was basking in the news that blushing Princess Diana and her diffident prince, the royal heir, Charles, were expecting. In the 1980s, the Windsors could do little wrong, with royal weddings, cherubic progeny, and popularity ratings well above 70 percent. Several divorces later (not to mention several hundred salacious tabloid headlines and regular gaffes by Prince Philip) barely 2 in 5 Britons believe the country would be worse off without the Windsors.

The royal family knows its tarnished image can be revived only by the younger generation. Prince William bears a heavy burden of responsibility. The only problem is, he can't be bothered. Like most bright 21-year-olds, William's more interested in getting his university degree - he studies art history at St. Andrews in Scotland - and having a good time doing it.

In a rare interview with the Press Association recently, he spoke of how refreshing it was to lead a secluded life after the media frenzy that plagued him following his mother's death in 1997.

The picture that emerged was of an earnest country boy with all the strengths and weaknesses of youth: vigor, uncertainty, sensitivity, suspicion, diligence - though liable to sleep through the alarm.

"People here just treat me like everyone else - it's really nice," he said. "I'm able to lead a near-normal life.... The media have been very good, considering, I'm sure, how tantalizing it is having me up here. And the people of St. Andrews and the students themselves have been so supportive. So, basically, I feel very comfortable."

Insiders say the prince is well aware of his responsibilities, but is loath to give up his protected status just yet.

Apart from a few official visits to Wales with his father on Thursday, William is resisting the pull into full-time royal service. He will receive no new titles or accolades on his birthday, preferring to be called just plain "William" (or "WoW" - William of Wales - to the young ladies). Commemorative stamps and coins are being issued for the royal birthday, but nothing else ceremonial is planned.

The question is: How much longer can William delay the inevitable? His university course finishes in two years, at which point he'll have to make some decisions.

"He's aware of his responsibilities, but wants to put them off for as long as possible," says Ingrid Seward, a royal biographer whose portrait of the royal princes, "William and Harry," is released in the US this week. "Any kid of that age wouldn't want the responsibilities."

And the gravest responsibility of all is having to behave immaculately under the media microscope. With the exception of the queen, who generally avoids the photo lens's lurid intrusions, no other royals have succeeded in maintaining their majesty in the face of extreme, some would even say excessive, public scrutiny.

Small wonder that William wants to avoid this as long as possible. Recently, he was given a foretaste of the kind of intrusion he can expect: he was verbally betrothed to the daughter of a Kenyan conservationist (false) and was said to have prompted a road-rage incident by driving his VW Golf recklessly on a country estate (exaggerated).

His options are limited. Most male royals enter the armed forces - but unlike younger brother, Harry, William has no such aspirations. With few careers open to him, save that of full-time royal, William may prolong his studies across the Atlantic, as his mother always wanted. "He might well go to America - a lot of royal princes end up at Harvard," says Ms. Seward. "He could do business studies - it would be very handy to understand how the economy works."

Very handy indeed, as he will one day be one of Britain's biggest landlords.

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