A Prince among men: Australians are at one with majority of Brits

AVID fans of the royal soap operas House of Windsor and The Crown have had a lot to occupy them already this year, with every prospect of more intriguing plot-twists to come.

Above: The Prince of Wales being given a grass skirt to wear prior to receiving a chiefly title during a visit to Vanuatu in 2018. A remote tribe in the island nation who revered Prince Philip as a god-like figure will mark his death with dancing, speeches and the ceremonial drinking of the native plant kava, according to an expert on the culture
Above: The Prince of Wales being given a grass skirt to wear prior to receiving a chiefly title during a visit to Vanuatu in 2018. A remote tribe in the island nation who revered Prince Philip as a god-like figure will mark his death with dancing, speeches and the ceremonial drinking of the native plant kava, according to an expert on the culture

The two series are, of course, quite different. One is a docu-drama and the other is much stranger than fiction, but viewers can be forgiven for forgetting which is which.

Was it the docu-drama or the fictitious version that featured ex-Prince Harry and his no longer blushing bride pleading their cause to Oprah Winfrey? I fear it must have been the reality show in which blunt Prince Philip passed away, just a couple of months short of his 100th birthday.

I gather British viewers were quicker to condemn the young couple for their apostasy than Australians. The general view here is that they are entitled to a life of their own, in whatever country they choose, and if that means the loss of a title or two, so be it.

On Prince Philip, however, we are as one with the majority of Brits. He seems to have been a thoroughly decent bloke, doing a really tough job better and for longer than anyone could reasonably have expected. He was a man more sinned against than sinning, chiefly by reporters from the tabloid press, desperate for spicy stories to relieve the monotony of yet another royal tour of Woop Woop.

I don’t think I’ve ever come across the word ‘gaffe’, used either in print or conversation, without the word ‘royal’ attached and a mention of the Duke of Edinburgh close by. How they loved to castigate his supposed clumsiness or lack of tact or diplomacy, with sinister implications of racism or sexism or simply being ‘out of touch with the modern world’ lurking just below the surface.

Philip’s death gave them a chance to reprint all his ‘royal gaffes’ – which turn out to have been surprisingly few in number, given his many decades of loyal service. All have been repeated many times already and, with the benefit of hindsight, seem not to have been so remarkably insensitive, after all. I suspect Philip’s critics would be found to have made much more injudicious remarks, if all their private comments were raked over by Grub Street.

Prince Philip had a pretty unenviable job, for a man of action. Every move he made was examined through the microscope of political opinion, to see if he was stepping over some invisible line.

He probably wasn’t as testy and impatient as he is portrayed in The Crown, but as Prince Charles said, after his death, he didn’t suffer fools gladly (if at all) and didn’t like wasting his time.

Who does? He was obliged by his position to make small talk with strangers, but he tried to ensure it wasn’t so small as to be meaningless. He didn’t discuss anything so anodyne as the weather: he asked the people he met about themselves, thinking that if he was going to shake hands with someone, he might as well try to discover something interesting about them.

Like most people who met him, I remember every word of my one encounter with him. He had used one of his standard jokes, about being ‘the most experienced plaque unveiler in the world’, duly uncovered an inscription saying he had opened a new student accommodation building at Cambridge University, of which he was Chancellor, and proceeded to work down a line of major donors to the building fund, shaking hands and exchanging a sentence or two with each of them.

I noticed that he was brilliant at spotting club or regimental ties. This skill gave him a chance to say something personal to most of the people he met, surprising them with his knowledge. I was introduced as having helped to raise the £10 million the building had cost, so he said ‘That’s great, so you can have some time off now the money’s raised, can you?’ I replied that there were still plenty of other things that needed funding, such as student scholarships and bursaries and a new boathouse for the rowing club, and he laughed and moved on – but I was left feeling that he had not simply repeated a platitude, but had made a genuine effort to communicate with me. What more could one ask of such a brief encounter?

He came to Australia 19 times with the Queen and a further 19 times alone. He must have liked the place. He certainly didn’t deserve the embarrassment of being the first recipient of an Australian knighthood, when PM Tony Abbott decided to resurrect the old honour system. Prince Philip’s private response is not recorded, but in public he showed a courteous interest in the regalia and left instructions that it was to be displayed with other awards at his funeral. For Abbott, it was the beginning of the end, the moment when most Australians realised he was not simply an egotistical bully but one who had lost touch with reality altogether. He was deposed by his own party later that year.

The most unusual honour Philip received came from the indigenous inhabitants of Tanna Island in Australia’s neighbour, Vanuatu, who understood that he shared their respect for tradition. Legend had it that the pale-skinned son of a local mountain god had journeyed across the seas and married a powerful woman. They recognised and revered Philip as that deity. When they sent a ceremonial club as a gift to him in London, he was photographed with it, in a suit, and sent them copies, which they posted in their homes, to assist with their daily prayers for his blessing on their yam and banana crops.

He didn’t dismiss the whole thing as primitive nonsense, as the tabloids’ version of Prince Philip might have done. He showed respect to their views and built yet another small bridge to a far-flung part of the British Commonwealth of Nations.

Truly, he was a Prince among men. We shall not see his like again.

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