As the classic London taxi chauffeuring Tonga's new King sweeps through ornate gates and turns left towards the shabbiness of Nuku'alofa, a small boy squats nearby in the roadside dust and heat, hoping to sell tendrils of slimy octopus.

The boy is too busy fanning flies with a scrappy palm leaf to notice the shiny black cab or its passenger, His Majesty King George Tupou V, reclining on cream leather upholstery behind partially drawn curtains. It is the closest the boy is likely to get to the new monarch, renowned in Tonga as much for his distance from commoners as his eccentricities and odd behaviour.

The boy and the King are worlds apart, and not just in wealth and birthright. The pompous converted Anglophile who returned home after schooling in Europe speaking and dressing like a character from an Agatha Christie novel, was not the fine example of Tongan royalty his people hoped he would become.

That marked transformation alarms David Canning, former housemaster at King's College in Auckland, who remembers Crown Prince Tupouto'a as a charming 13-year-old arriving to board at Averill House in 1962.

Canning says Taufa'ahau, as he was known at school, "coasted" through his third and fourth form years, was moderately able, not sporty but pleasant and never put a foot wrong. Most clearly he remembers no trace of arrogance.

"He was a friend to a selected few, an enemy to no one and passed through the college with no possible cause to upset anyone."

Canning cannot equate the seemingly arrogant, plummy English aristocratic caricature he's seen and heard on TV lately with the gentle, well-spoken Tongan boy who was in his care in the early 60s.

"That was never the boy I was in charge of. He seems to have picked up some unnecessary airs and graces along the way."

But Canning and New Zealand had little time to mould or influence the young Taufa. After two years at King's, the Crown Prince was sent to Leys School in Cambridge, England, then university at Oxford - where he picked up a degree in international law - and on to the Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst.

Canning says the late King, while visiting his son in Auckland, sat in the housemaster's study and spoke of his expectations for his son.

"He had a grandiose idea about where his son was going and how to get him there."

The royal view was that King's College in New Zealand was not going to provide what was needed to prepare Crown Prince Tupouto'a to be king, a view that Canning disagrees with to this day.

The man who was once the quiet Taufa and is now a flamboyant King makes Canning feel slightly uneasy about his role in Tonga's future.

That unease is echoed in the run-down streets of Nuku'alofa and the surrounding villages. Tongans enjoy, if not a high standard of living, at least a high literacy rate. Even in a country where the press has been largely controlled, they could not help but read or hear about the strangeness of the man who would one day rule their nation.

While the Western world poked fun at the Crown Prince for wearing a monocle, dressing in pith helmets and speaking with a British plum the size of a coconut in his mouth, the Tongan people viewed him with the suspicion they would an alien arriving from space. But now he is King, preparing to bury his father, King Taufa'ahau Tupou V, and presiding over a nation of sombre people who are wearing the traditional mourning wear of black topped with ta'ovala, intricately-woven mats wrapped around to form a bulky skirt.

Though village women spent hundreds of hours making ta'ovala so men, women and children could dress correctly to pay their respects to the late King for a month after his death, Tupou IV scathingly dismissed "basket weaving or whatever it is that they do" in a television interview in which he talked about his skills as a businessman. That drove an even bigger wedge between the people and their new monarch.

His remoteness is signalled most aptly by his royal residence, a sprawling Medici-style mansion perched on top of the main island, Tongatapu's, only hill. The royal residence is said to have been funded with proceeds from the sale of Tongan passports to foreign nationals, mostly Chinese, for US$20,000 (NZ$30,000) apiece in the 1980s and 1990s.

Many doubt the King will leave his home, well outside Nuku'alofa, in favour of the royal palace in town where his late father lies in state.

The palace is an ageing colonial building made of New Zealand kauri, its red corrugated iron roof looking decidedly tatty with a turret tower leaning alarmingly towards the harbour.

The new King's mansion on the hill is too far away for the average Tongan to get a good look at, and most will never see the interior. "The Villa", as the royal residence is called locally, boasts marble floors, faux stone columns and trompe d'oeil paintings creating a fake opulence of wood walls and tasselled curtains.

Outside a terrace overlooks an Olympic-sized swimming pool where the new King is reputed to sail motorised boats. Inside, alone but surrounded by an entourage of staff, lives the new King, a man who has attracted more labels - military fetishist, cybervisonary, crazy genius, Machiavelli-like schemer, jet-setting bachelor and playboy - in his 58 years than the royal family would like. He is said to like playing with toy soldiers in imaginary war games, plays computer games and prefers ornate Western military dress to the traditional Tongan garb.

Gossip about his lifestyle is rife. Depending on who you talk to, the new King doesn't like women any more and therefore will not marry and produce an heir; or he visits the secret love of his life and their two children in the United States but can never marry her; or he hosts parties for the Tongan beauty contestants and enjoys the charms of the winners. While the playboy label has followed him for years, these days the King looks anything but. Balding, stooped and walking with the aid of a stick, he looks old. People who see him close up say he does not look well, and point to his younger brother who died early from a heart condition.

Supporters say he is well-read, is fluent in several languages, is a high-tech geek, plays the piano, likes horseriding, film-making, photography and is a good cook.

King George has made a documentary on Mongolian tribes and during the filming wore riding breeches, aviator goggles and a Russian fur hat.

He eats white meat and is known for his Villa parties where friends gather over plenty of drinks and a barbecue.

Local cafe owner Paul Johansson regularly caters for the King and the royal family. Johansson, a Tongan who has lived in Auckland and still visits regularly, provides a blackboard menu to rival any Ponsonby cafe. He's done breakfast, lunch, dinner and afternoon teas for the King and his late father, and his cafe is a favourite haunt for lesser royals.

The new King has no heir, though does have an adult illegitimate daughter, Ilima Lei Tohi, and three grandchildren. When Ilima married policeman Tulutulu Kalaniuvalu, the late King and other royalty attended the wedding - a rare honour - but neither she nor her children have any claim to the throne.

More worrying for the average Tongan than the lack of an heir are King Tupou's business interests.

For years most of them turned a blind eye to the extreme wealth of Tupou and his equally ambitious sister, Princess Pilolevu Tuiti, accepting that they had business interests in an airline, a brewery, the internet, telecommunications, banking and electricity. But when the cost of electricity went up, public protests began.

Critics say the King surrounds himself with a bunch of people including the Ramnilal brothers, Joseph and Soane, half-Indian, half-Tongan men whom locals call "the Indian princes".

The Ramnilal brothers are shareholders, with the King, in the controversial Shoreline monopoly which controls electricity supply and prices in Tonga.

Tongans are angry that their power bills are going up while the King reputedly collects a director's fee of T$700,000 a year, and the Ramnilals T$600,000 each.

It was in Joseph Ramnilal's Nuku'alofa hotel, the Pacific Royale Hotel, that the then Crown Prince organised mystery murder evenings as a new business venture in 1997.

New Zealand journalist Peter Calder witnessed one such evening, presided over by the Crown Prince wearing a white linen suit and Great Gadsby-style shoes. The Crown Prince wrote a mystery murder storyline that was so complicated - a tale of war with clues that required a good knowledge of ballistics, security organisations, the Bavarian dialect, Cyrillic alphabet and post-war Germany and Japan - that it left both the guests and the actors confused. He used the royal "we" when referring to himself and, after refusing an interview, explained: "One is what one is. One doesn't see much point in talking about it."

The Tongan population rarely sees the new King, either in person or on television. Despite these eccentricities, the King is still capable of surprises. Last week he announced he would divest himself of Shoreline and other business interests. Prime Minister Dr Feleti Sevele told the Herald on Sunday that Shoreline would be put up for tender, despite observers who questioned if the King's business interests would merely end up in the hands of other royals, or foreign investors. Whatever the outcome, it was a well-timed tactic which went some way to silencing the new King's critics.

The leader of the pro-democracy movement, Akilisi Pohiva, has fought for changes to Tonga's archaic constitution to break the stranglehold royalty and the nobles have over Parliament since the 1970s. He has been in jail twice and in court between 30 and 40 times. In one year he had to pay T$96,000 in fines, including one for defamation against the Crown Prince when he alleged a misuse of aid money.

Pohiva wants to see the new King's powers reduced to a ceremonial role similar to the British system. He says the people want a King who is "a real Tongan, not just biological".

The King's attitude and lifestyle is foreign to Tongans, he says.

"He lives in a fantasy world. He is out of touch."

Freelance journalist Mateni Tapueluelu, who has also been in jail and in court over articles he has written, says the new King is a "modern boy" who wants to modernise Tonga without letting go of his traditional power. "He comes across as arrogant. He portrays himself as a British aristocrat and yet his policy is 'look east towards China'."

Tapueluelu said many Tongans did not understand the intricacies of politics or business but they understood morals, Christian beliefs and the importance of family.

"He is not married and he is surrounded by a bunch of cowboys."

Up on the hill, the new King George has an unenviable task ahead - to gain the confidence of his people, improve the coffers of an impoverished nation and to juggle the balance between an old culture based on royalty, nobility and the land and a new push for democracy.