The world has recently learned of the retirement from public engagements of His Royal Highness Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh and consort to Her Majesty the Queen of England. At 95 cantankerous years, he has certainly earned a rest from official duties. In his honor, my friend @voxsartoria posted numerous pictures of the Duke, from his diffident, youthful Battenberg beauty to his well-turned out great old age, faithful still to the cutter and shirtmaker alumni (John Kent and Stephen Lachter, since you’re wondering) of his now defunct former tailors. The Duke, as it happens, is indirectly responsible for the first custom tailor I used. Really, though, and contrary to the old saying, when it comes to Prince Philip, a thousand pictures hardly do justice to one of his words. Elegant he certainly was, with that strapping figure, and formerly self-effacing charm. The very correctness of the makers he used, consummate and talented professionals who got all the proportions right in order for the man himself to speak, suited his staidness. And speak, God almighty, he did. In place of his dress sense, Prince Philip is phenomenally memorable for the multitude of awful things he has said, which have given me hours of laughter.
Like his son, Prince Philip is interested in environmental causes, particularly wildlife conservation, although somewhat less diplomatic about them than Prince Charles. His own acid tongue could bleach coral reefs at a hundred miles. Perhaps it has, given the multiplicity of targets he’s trained it on with various horrifically bigoted and offensive statements:
On Indian mechanical genius, beholding an old-fashioned fuse box in Scotland:
“It looks as if it was put in by an Indian.”
On the Chinese, at a WWF meeting:
“If it has got four legs and it is not a chair, if it has got two wings and it flies but is not an aeroplane, and if it swims and it is not a submarine, the Cantonese will eat it.”
On the culinary habits of the New Guineans, to a trekker:
“You managed not to get eaten, then?”
On the Aborigines:
“‘Do you still throw spears at each other?”
On Cayman Islanders:
“Aren’t most of you descended from pirates?”
On the Scots, to a driving instructor:
“How do you keep the natives off the booze long enough to get them through the test?”
“We don't come to Canada for our health. We can think of other ways of enjoying ourselves”
“Are you running away from something?”
On cats, the fetish animal of all #iGents:
“Cats kill far more birds than men. Why don’t you have a slogan, ‘Kill a cat and save a bird?’”
“I don't think a prostitute is more moral than a wife, but they are doing the same thing.”
“When a man opens a car door for his wife, it's either a new car or a new wife.”
On sufferers of PTSD needing to man up:
“We didn’t have counsellors rushing around every time somebody let off a gun, asking, ‘Are you all right? Are you sure you don’t have a ghastly problem?’ You just got on with it.”
On Tom Jones:
“What do you gargle with – pebbles?"
"It is very difficult at all to see how it is possible to become immensely valuable by singing what I think are the most hideous songs."
"What about Tom Jones? He's made a million and he's a bloody awful singer.”
I’m not going to argue that in the Duke’s case harsh words hid soft heart. The Royals aren’t exactly known for their breadth of spirit, depth of culture or personal warmth. Rather, he’s ended up the world’s cantankerous great-uncle, a #shitmydadsays for Royal-watchers. Prince Philip’s long history of offensiveness suggests a bias against anyone who is not a member of a vanishing, inbred aristocracy, as well as a jaundiced and weary malocchia against those who are. Philip’s famously railed that to the Queen he was nothing but “a fucking amoeba” and cracked that as far as his own daughter Princess Anne was concerned, “If it doesn’t fart or eat hay, she’s not interested.”
There’s actually a harmlessness in someone who wears his irrelevance, not his heart, on his bespoke, prejudiced sleeve. He’s displayed the same earthy impatience asking the American ambassador where the Southern Comfort was in a state gift hamper or telling the Prime Minister of Italy at a state dinner to shut up about the wine and just get him a beer, any beer. Veronica Maclean recalls stumbling on the Prince at the funeral of Marshal Tito, uneasily sharing a VIP waiting room alone with Yasser Arafat, of all people, and begging for a drink.
Is there hate behind his mad words? Who knows? Who cares? He does not matter, having become a uniform studded in gongs, a former Mountbatten now battening down the hatches. Contrast Prince Philip with his relative by marriage, the late Duke of Windsor. Windsor, the foppish Fascist sympathizer, really could have done harm as a king-to-be of superlatively bad judgment and political inspiration. Philip is a defanged Prince Consort in a post-World War II-world of abridged status and power, a tourist attraction, a Commonwealth good luck charm, a state dinner centerpiece, an animated pair of ribbon-cutting scissors.
He was the acceptable face of a disappearing set of social hangups, chafing at his circumscribed and safe role. Contrast that with the hate exercised by those who actually do wield political power. I miss this representative of a different and unrelatable world already.