why so wild about harry?

With Catcher in the Rye, JD Salinger wrote the definitive novel of adolescence; At 17 made Janis Ian its songstress. Yesterday, it was the turn of the News of the World to define the perils of growing up.

The subject (of course) was Prince Harry; the problem, the drugs and drink to which he has been exposed. All prim and proper for the day, the paper revealed it was "every caring parent’s nightmare" and congratulated the "strength and realism" of Prince Charles for confronting his son’s brush with cannabis.

Whether the father’s cure - exposing his son to a detox clinic for recovered heroin addicts - proves effective remains to be seen. The relationship between hard and soft drugs has never been satisfactorily proven, nor the efficacy of "tough love" cures for off-the-rails schoolboys.

However, if the episode tends to demonstrate anything, it is the relationship between a fractured home and social life and the tendency for youngsters to express themselves in drugs and alcohol.

By any normal measure, the Windsor family might be recognised by sociologists as dysfunctional. For while many children have to grow up enduring their parents’ loveless and failing marriages, few have to experience the pain of watching their parents’ relationship dissolve on national television.

And, while most children have difficulty coming to terms with the idea of their mother and father having sex with each other, let alone anyone else, the Windsor boys had to face up to the intimate details of their parents’ affairs being splashed across the front pages of the press.

Living life in a bubble, surrounded by policemen and minders and themselves kept from the public gaze, has inevitably had an impact. In his book Diana’s Boys Christopher Andersen, a contributing editor of Time magazine, reports that on more than one tearful occasion William insisted he did not want to be King.

Diana would tell friends: "William is waiting patiently for the monarchy to be abolished."

Shortly before her death, the Princess of Wales talked about the pain of losing her royal title, and how her son tried to comfort her, telling her that she was "very lucky to be able to give up the HRH". Until yesterday, there was a school of thought among royal watchers that Prince Harry had dealt with his unusual family circumstances rather better than his brother. The brief fashion for this theory appears to have passed.

Glossy magazines have tended to drool over the social life of the royal princes. William, we’re told, chooses to hang out in trendy Soho bars such as China White or Met Bar where he rubs shoulders (in the words of one seasoned royal watcher) with "horrible yahs with gold credit cards".

In Harry’s case, signs he was attracted to this dubious high life have come early. Even in the scant media coverage of his life to date, he has established his reputation as boy about town, photographed last year on top of a four-wheel drive with the obligatory "stunning blonde", one Emma Lippiatt.

A Christmas shopping trip last month caused another flurry of interest, after he left Selfridges with a leather thong, variously described as "skimpy", "feathered" and "maribou-trimmed", and probably all three. And around Highgrove, at least according to royal biographer Penny Junor: "It’s well known that he drinks a lot and gets very out of order."

But then pots of money and no responsibility encourage the kinds of performance familiar to Royal watchers since George III was king and the Prince Regent just a lad. Friends as well as family influence a teenager’s outlook and Harry’s difficulties at the Rattlebone Inn are nothing new, even for rich kids of his generation. Last summer, Nicholas Knatchbull, one of Prince Charles’s godchildren and William’s mentor at Eton, received treatment at a drug rehabilitation clinic.

Tom Parker Bowles - another godchild, and the son of Charles’ consort - was exposed as a cocaine user two years ago. This "sucker with a pretty face" (according to his friends) found himself the victim of another sting and confessed his habit to a comely female reporter of the royals’ favourite Sunday paper, none other than the News of the World.

Punished by the same regime that carted Harry off to spend time talking to junkies, Parker Bowles was reportedly banned from seeing William for months, and ordered to quit drugs if he wished to remain part of his circle.

Tom’s cousin Emma Parker Bowles admitted last year that she had been treated for drink and drug addiction at the same clinic where the princes’ ubiquitous friend and "society" girl Tara Palmer-Tomkinson sought refuge in 1999.

Lord Freddie Windsor adopted a more traditional route to infamy, via alcohol. Awarded by the Mirror the doubtful privilege of vainest royal of 2000, he was pictured passed out at the London premiere of Madonna’s film The Next Best Thing after sampling lavish hospitality.

Tongue-pierced Zara Phillips problems have been of a different nature. Earlier this month the 19-year-old was seen screaming, punching and swearing at her boyfriend, the jockey Richard Johnson, during the late-night row. He had apparently accused her of an affair with another rider, Warren Marston, and the row was felt unlikely to ease the sometimes stormy relationship which exists between Princess Anne and her daughter.

But if some of Harry’s circle are unlikely to keep him on the straight and narrow, he also has to contend with the domestic circumstances which have been maintained since his mother’s death.

Last summer his brother was absent in South America and his father is often away. According to News of the World royal editor Clive Goodman, the prince became "a latchkey kid, who has fallen under the influence of some pretty disreputable characters". Possibly. But whether an existence within the bosom of the family would have benefited him to any great extent - the fortunes of a slightly older aristocratic generation suggest not.

Take the case of India Hicks, one of the bridesmaids at Charles and Diana’s wedding, a 32-year-old unmarried mother who retired to the Caribbean with her boyfriend and four-year-old son.

Then there’s Harry’s 34-year-old cousin Marina Mowatt, an extrovert young woman, who drank heavily, and married a husband who beat her up.

She caused a bitter split with her parents when she publicly announced that she was two months’ pregnant with her daughter - Zenouska - and refused their wish for a quick wedding. After the wedding the couple - to prevent any sales of family silver - sold their story for 30,000.

Lady Helen Taylor (formerly Windsor), married now and all grown up, rock’n’rolled before she was a bride. Photographed topless on a Corfu beach with her first serious boyfriend, she smuggled the second, Nigel Oakes, into York House, her parents’ grace-and-favour home in St James’s Palace.

And then there’s Harry’s father himself. In 1963, when Charles was just under 15, his worst experience of this difficult brand of publicity was the notorious cherry brandy incident.

Out on a sailing expedition from Gordonstoun, he and some other boys were given permission to go ashore to have supper and see a film. Crowds followed them to a hotel. Charles retreated to the public bar and when the barman asked him what he wanted to drink, he replied cherry brandy ("because I’d drunk it when it was cold out shooting," he later explained).

A freelance journalist walked in and the story of the underage prince asking for alcohol in a public bar became news. The media speculated whether the headmaster of Gordonstoun would use the cane on the princely posterior. Charles’s favourite detective was disciplined and later resigned, leaving the young prince deeply hurt; ever since, he has said the words "cherry brandy" make him wince.

The extent to which Charles was punished is unknown, and the effect of the crime on his character impossible to gauge. The strictures of the public school system may have helped and we know that the heir to the throne grew up to be a tree-hugger with a bent for old-fashioned architecture. There may still be hope for his younger son.

Of course, you can’t choose your relations and, with the additional burden of living in the glare of the media, it’s hard not to sympathise with Wills and young Harry. They’re probably nice lads, but would you want them living next door?