LONDON JOURNALBy SARAH LYALL
Published: June 9, 2011
Aidan Crawley/European Pressphoto Agency
“Well, so what? You just get old,” a testy Philip is shown barking at the hapless interviewer, Alan Titchmarsh, who has just mentioned an award the prince received from The Oldiemagazine. Asked if it was hard to give up his naval career when his wife became queen, Philip snorts, “How long is a piece of string?”
It goes on. “No,” he snaps when asked if he thought much about his role as a father when his children were young. “I was a father. Are you a father?”
And this is Philip when he is trying to be helpful.
The prince, also known as the Duke of Edinburgh, turns 90 on Friday. He is a former naval officer, has been married to Queen Elizabeth II since 1947 and is the longest-serving consort in British history. Although he intends to cut back on his engagements in a concession to his age, his propensity for uttering rude off-the-cuff remarks and wildly offensive would-be witticisms looks as if it is set to delight and appall the nation well into his 10th decade.
There are those who celebrate his habit of speaking his mind, saying that in an age when everyone is a potential victim, when even the slightest impolitic remark seems to require an over-the-top, self-flagellating apology, having a proud, all-purpose offender at the top of the royal food chain is refreshing and inspiring.
“He’s the last of a dying breed,” said Phil Dampier, a reporter who has covered the royal family and is the author, with Ashley Walton, of “Duke of Hazard: The Wit and Wisdom of Prince Philip,” a compendium of Philip’s best lines. “The great thing is that he never apologizes for these remarks.”
Indeed, when informed on a trip to Australia that his question — “Do you still throw spears at each other?” — had proved highly upsetting to the Aboriginal leader to whom it was addressed, Prince Philip accused the news media of making a big deal out of nothing.
“The trouble with you lot is that you’ve got a total absence of humor, a complete lack of humor,” he said.
Writing in The Times of London, the columnist Ben Macintyre said that Prince Philip’s “sense of humor is genuinely generational, reflective of a cast of mind in which Britainruled the waves, carved up foreign parts into easily derided types and assumed that anything made abroad was liable to break down.”
It is this mind-set, and his years immersed in naval humor, it seems, that cause Prince Philip to fall back on the nearest available stereotype when he meets people who are not like himself (which is almost everyone). It is what undoubtedly was behind his query — “Aren’t most of you descended from cannibals?” — to a museum curator in the Cayman Islands, and what inspired him to ask a Scottish driving instructor: “How do you keep the natives off the booze long enough to get them to pass the test?”
Not to mention perhaps his most famous remark, to a British student in China: “If you stay here much longer, you will go home with slitty eyes.” (He later defended himself by saying that “the Chinese weren’t worried about it, so why should anyone else?”)
He also seems to be unable to refrain from the sort of personal comments that might occur to some people privately, but that even nursery school children are instructed never, ever to make, because such remarks are not very nice. Blind people, deaf people, people in wheelchairs, poor people, unemployed people, French people, young people, Elton John — all have come in for the Philip treatment.
To a Kenyan woman offering him a present: “You are a woman, aren’t you?” To a young boy who said he wanted to be an astronaut: “You could do with losing a bit of weight.” To the president of Nigeria, resplendent in traditional costume: “You look like you’re ready for bed.” To the singer Tom Jones: “Do you gargle with pebbles to sing that way?” To the girls in red uniforms at a British school: “It makes you all look like Dracula’s daughters!”
In the House of Commons the other day, Prime Minister David Cameron praised the duke’s “unique turn of phrase” and “inimitable approach.” And Mr. Dampier said that Prince Philip is “cracking jokes all the time” as a way to cope with his public role, which consists essentially of shaking hands and making numbingly boring small talk with hundreds of strangers every day.
But Johann Hari, a columnist for The Independent and an outspoken anti-monarchist, said there was little to laugh at.
“I find the idea of standing in front of a man who literally committed genocide and saying, ‘It’s a pleasant change to be in a country that isn’t ruled by its own people,’ not to be very funny,” said Mr. Hari, referring to an encounter between Philip and the former Paraguayan dictator Alfredo Stroessner.
Mr. Hari also disputed the notion that simply by virtue of longevity, Prince Philip was an inspiring bridge between the old generation and the new.
“He’s a great symbol of continuity?” Mr. Hari asked. “If you gave my dad a job from which he couldn’t be sacked and a massive palace in which to live, he’d be a symbol of continuity, too.”
At the end of the Prince Philip documentary, in which he wipes the floor with the unfortunate Mr. Titchmarsh in the manner of a jungle beast dispensing with a bothersome gnat, Philip is asked if he has any regrets or wishes he had done anything differently.
For a moment, Philip looks as if he is prepared to open the door of introspection just a crack. “I’d rather not have made the mistakes I made,” he says. But then he slams it shut again. “I’m not going to tell you what they are.”