Prince Charles at 65: A long wait for top job

Britain's heir to the throne Prince Charles can draw his state pension from Thursday when he turns 65 - despite having yet to start the job he has eyed for a lifetime.

Queen Elizabeth II's eldest son has endured the longest wait in history by a British heir, and it hasn't been easy.

But as his 87-year-old mother cuts back on her workload, Charles is increasingly taking centre stage.

Fresh from a tour of India, he will take the queen's place Friday at the Commonwealth heads of government summit in Sri Lanka - an event the monarch, in power since 1952, has only ever missed once.

Twenty years ago Charles was battling calls to give up his right to be king in the wake of lurid revelations of his affair with Camilla Parker-Bowles and split from his glamorous first wife, Diana.

But Charles has slowly won back public acceptance and a majority of his subjects now believe he should become king.

Raising his sons William and Harry into popular young men, he has cultivated a more down-to-earth image while campaigning hard for charitable causes.

Crucially Britons have also come to forgive Camilla, who he married in 2005. Once bombarded with hate mail, she is now a constant presence at his side.

"It's been a long, long crawl back to try to win the public over again," Charles' biographer Penny Junor told AFP.

"But he's in a much better place, and it's showing. Since he's had Camilla as his wife, he's just a much happier man - and a happier man is a better operator."

'It's my duty to worry'

Charles will donate his pension to a charity for the elderly, in keeping with his reputation as a busy philanthropist.

"I feel more than anything else it's my duty to worry about everybody and their lives in this country, to try and find a way of improving things," he told Time magazine recently.

An outspoken environmental campaigner, Charles has publicly voiced opinions on numerous issues, from modernist architecture - which he loathes - to alternative medicine, which he supports to the chagrin of many doctors.

But his biographer expects him to bite his tongue more often when he takes to the throne.

"He absolutely must not put his nose into politics," Junor said.

Alas for Charles, his efforts to be known as Britain's "compassionate prince" have often come second to decades of headlines about his romantic life.

His wedding to Diana in 1981 was hailed as a real-life fairytale. But there was no happy ending.

Diana was bitterly jealous of her husband's relationship with the married Camilla, whom he had first met in the 1970s.

Diana also turned to other men - but when the couple separated in 1992, it was Charles and Camilla who were cast as the villains.

"There were three of us in this marriage. So it was a bit crowded," Diana said in a famous television interview.

- A 40-year apprenticeship -

Charles was not blessed with Diana's flair for public relations.

While she dazzled crowds worldwide, he had a reputation as a fuddy-duddy and a crank, earning the nickname "the loony prince" in the 1980s as he dabbled in mystic philosophy and admitted talking to his plants.

Heir from the age of three, he struggled to work out exactly what his job was.

After a lonely childhood at Buckingham Palace and a boarding school he hated, Charles studied at Cambridge and spent five years in the navy.

It took years to find his feet as a "professional worrier", and there were plenty of gaffes along the way.

But his Prince's Trust has helped thousands of disadvantaged youngsters find work, and his luxury organic food brand Duchy Originals - now run by a supermarket chain - has raised millions of pounds for charity.

He has also finally mastered light-hearted publicity stunts, such as a turn as a BBC weather presenter last year.

Charles is set to be the oldest-ever person to ascend the British throne - and with the queen still in apparently rude health, it could be some time yet.

But when most Britons his age will be settling into their retirement, Charles can be expected to take over more and more duties from his mother.

At least when his time finally comes, he will have a firm understanding of the job.

"Charles has had 40 years to go round the world, to meet world leaders," Junor told AFP.

"He's incredibly well-prepared."

- AFP

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