What compels us to watch William and Kate

A month ago, I told a British friend that I might be coming to London on April 29. “You can’t get here on the 29th,” she told me. “That’s the day of the wedding.” I told her I wasn’t invited to a wedding.
Then I remembered. Ah yes, that wedding.
Not that my friend had any interest in the marriage of Catherine Middleton and Prince William of Wales, of course: She was just worried, she said, about traffic. But we started talking about the wedding anyway — and, as it turned out, we both had opinions. We agreed that Kate always manages to look happy on television, which is not easy. We also thought she has excellent, swishy hair. We felt that Prince William seems like an earnest young man, and thought it was too bad that he would have to wait so long to have a real job. We guessed that the bride’s dress would be quite modest, at least compared with the fluffy number chosen so long ago by the woman who would have been her mother-in-law.
My friend is not a royal watcher or a tabloid reader. Neither am I. Nevertheless, without actually trying, both of us had absorbed quite a lot of information about these two people, neither of whom we had ever met. We were familiar with Kate’s sister, Pippa. We had seen pictures of a see-through dress Kate once wore in a student fashion show. We knew that William has a degree in geography.
But we also discussed them in a tone different from one we would use if we were talking about, say, Madonna, or Tony Blair. Neither Kate nor William has ever run for office, and never will. They have never promised anything to anybody — not lower taxes, not better health care — and so there is no reason to find them disappointing. They’ve never written a pop song or appeared in a movie, so there isn’t much sense in complaining that they are overrated, past their prime or out of tune.
The only other kind of celebrity they might possibly be said to resemble are the stars of reality television. Like the girls who go and sit on desert islands, Kate has chosen to take part in a long-running and very public soap opera. Yet the resemblance is superficial. Graduates of “Survivor” can eventually fade back into obscurity if they so choose, but Kate has committed herself to this particular televised narrative for the rest of her life.
And it is not talent, ambition, intelligence or even wealth that has made William famous, but fate — an accident of birth. Kate will now share that fate, and that, I reckon, is exactly what makes her wedding so compelling to read about, write about and discuss. Unlike luck, which comes and goes, fate is permanent. Unlike fortune, which can be good and bad, fate is neither: It just is. You can feel sorry for Prince William, because he has to live his life in public. Or you can envy him, because he will be king of England. Take your pick — either way, the details are gripping.
Fate is also archaic. We read about it in Greek mythology or Shakespeare. In the modern, meritocratic world, we are used to people earning their power or their celebrity, one way or another. But Prince William is one of the few remaining people on Earth to have been born into real political authority. Even if he does nothing about it, he will someday become head of a relatively important state. And even if he wants to live a completely different life, he can’t. Were he to abdicate, like his great-great-uncle, that action would define him and haunt him until the end of his days. In this sense, he really is different from most of us. None of us knows exactly how our lives will turn out, but William has a better idea than most — and now Kate does, too.
Indeed, one of the things they both know for certain is that, round about this time next week, millions of people they’ve never met will be talking about the menu at their wedding supper, the guest list at their ceremony, where they are spending their honeymoon. And here’s what I like about them: It seems they’ve decided to enjoy themselves anyway. For that alone, I might raise a glass to the happy couple when I see them, after their wedding, on the evening news, even if I don’t think I’m actually going to sit through the whole ceremony.

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