Question: What have Igor Stravinsky and the Duke of Edinburgh got in common? Answer: Nothing that I’m aware of, which is why Radio 3’s ‘Composer of the Week’ suddenly mentioning the ancient Greek’s name in the middle of something by the eminent Russian composer during its daily lunchtime slot caught my ear. The programme was playing quietly in the background when I noticed it wasn’t following the script; pretty quickly, I guessed by the tone of the gate-crashing announcer’s voice that the time had finally arrived to fly the flag at half-mast and all that. I suppose when anyone makes it to within a whisker of a century, there must be an awareness that the end could come at any moment; sure, we all know a bus or a mugger’s dagger or a sudden terminal diagnosis could bring that moment about prematurely, but if you manage to get as far as, say, 80, I reckon you must be conscious that another ten years will be a bonus, let alone fifteen or twenty. Prince Philip being such a public figure for such a long time has meant most of us have probably been expecting today’s announcement for a while; it’s just a surprise it took so long to get there.
The last twenty years of his record-breaking 69 as the Queen’s Consort have largely seen the Duke of Edinburgh playing the part of the most high-profile granddad-prone-to-saying-inappropriate-things in the country. During the slow and painful post-Diana infiltration of the Royal Family by a strain of touchy-feely Wokery utterly alien to a man of Philip’s generation, he has enjoyed a seamless transition from cantankerous middle-age to ‘I don’t give a f**k’ old age, whereby every private faux-pas picked-up by a journalist’s microphone has been tolerated (and secretly relished) as an unavoidable side-effect of advanced years. We’ve all had grandparents like that and we cut them the kind of slack denied the young; remarks that, had Philip made them 20-30 years before, would have provoked sensational headlines came to be dismissed in more recent times with a shrug of the shoulders and a muffled chuckle because that’s just the kind of amusing shit the elderly come out with. In fact, we were probably robbed of the Duke’s best gags, for I suspect they came during strained family dinners. I mean, with children and grandchildren like that, there would’ve been no shortage of material for Philip to work with.
Like Donald Trump, Prince Philip was one of those household names many were reluctant to admit were funny because what made him funny is what we’re not supposed to laugh at. Moreover, whereas everything about Trump which is so undoubtedly objectionable can make laughing at him when he says something funny difficult for some, the Duke of Edinburgh being such a long-serving member of an institution which continues to divide opinion often meant responding to any humorous gaffe would be in constant combat with negative feelings concerning his privileged position. It’s no wonder social media reaction to his death is either the fawning and occasionally nauseating ‘dedicated servant of the nation’ kind or the frothing-at-the-mouth, anti-monarchy rant, both of which to me say more about the commentator’s opinions on the institution Prince Philip represented rather than the man himself.
One of the ironies about the Duke of Edinburgh was the fact that, for a man who came to embody an establishment, he entered it as very much an outsider looked down on by those who ran that establishment in the 1940s. He was the ‘poor relation’ and a foreigner, to boot. He was routinely reminded of his lowly status and made to feel inferior by courtiers, private secretaries and the rest of the inner circle that keep ‘the Firm’ ticking over when he married Princess Elizabeth in 1947. Understandably, he had a small albeit intense chip on his shoulder for a while, confronted by the same diminished sense of emasculation as Victoria’s Albert when his young bride found herself Queen Elizabeth II within five years of their marriage. However, rather than running crying to the media and playing the victim by accusing the ruling elite of being ‘institutionally racist’, he took them on and eventually won. Philip certainly had as much of a difficult and dysfunctional family background as anyone responsible for more recent bad behaviour in Royal circles, but he didn’t play upon it in a way that would be expected today.
Philip’s sterling wartime service in the Royal Navy had helped his eligibility as a suitable suitor for the heir to the throne, but when one considers two of his brothers-in-law were fighting on the other side during the conflict we have just one of the tricky factors that made his beginnings so complicated. His four sisters all married German princes at a time when Nazism was on the rise and they wholeheartedly embraced the ethos; even if doing so was a means of survival, the association – coupled with the lingering toxic shadow of the Duke of Windsor’s fascist flirtation – never really left Philip or his generation of royalty. His formative years were scarred by disruption, beginning when he was just a babe-in-arms as a military coup forced Philip’s uncle, King Constantine of Greece to abdicate and provoked the family’s frantic flight from his birthplace. Philip’s childhood was spent shuttling between England, Scotland, Germany and France as his mother had a mental breakdown and was committed to an asylum whilst his father buggered off to Monte Carlo. I wonder what Oprah Winfrey would’ve made of all that.
After siring one heir and a trio of spares, it can’t be said that Philip didn’t do his duty, though the fact that three of his four children ended up divorcing their spouses whilst his own marriage spanned 74 years is perhaps more indicative of the different era that spawned him. It’s hard to imagine any marriage lasting that long now, but ‘duty’ was as important an issue to Brenda and her husband on the domestic front as it was in terms of service to the country and the Commonwealth. However begrudgingly he may have accepted his role as Consort in the beginning, Philip gradually settled into the part and was able to develop solo projects such as the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award scheme and becoming the patron of upwards of 800 organisations. He even opened the 1956 Melbourne Olympics on his own as part of a trip on the Royal Yacht Britannia that also took in a visit to Antarctica. Even when finally retiring from public life at the age of 96, he still demonstrated his reluctance to slow down when involved in a car crash near the Sandringham Estate in 2019. 97 at the time, it was probably a good idea for him not to be behind a wheel, though who else but Her Majesty would have the nerve to suggest so?
Once described by David Starkey as ‘HRH Victor Meldrew’, the reputation of the Duke of Edinburgh that most of us found the most interesting thing about him emanated from numerous ill-timed jokes usually made when meeting members of the public, many of which he claimed were wrongly attributed to him. Still, it livened up the institution with a bit of light relief, I suppose; and one could be generous in seeing him as the comedian to Brenda’s straight man. Even though the last year or so of his life appears to have been dogged by ill health not uncommon in an individual pushing 100, it’s nevertheless hard to picture Her Majesty without him beside her. Queen Victoria had 40 years as a professional widow, but at the age of 94 such a lengthy spouse-free spell is not a prospect her great-great-granddaughter has to look forward to. Wonder how long it’ll be before the next edition of ‘Composer of the Week’ is interrupted? Hmm, sounds a bit like the kind of tactless question the Duke of Edinburgh might have posed, that.
© The Editor