IT was the playwright Alan Bennett who said that if you live to be 90 in England and can still boil an egg they think you deserve the Nobel Prize. This came to mind when I learned of the death of Prince Philip at 99. He was never awarded a Nobel but from the outpouring of grief and cataract of tributes you could have been forgiven for thinking that a modern saint had just passed through the pearly gates.
I heard about Philip’s demise on the lunchtime radio news. It was not unexpected; he had been in hospital for some weeks previously and the omens were worrying. My immediate reaction was one of sadness. This, however, was followed by another of foreboding because I could guess what was coming next. I switched from BBC Radio 4 to Radio 5 where one can normally be confident of being served a diet of inconsequential chatter. Alas, it too had metaphorically donned a black armband and was given over to news of the royal expiry.
In desperation, I turned to Radio 3, the classical station, and Radio 2, which specialises in music that appeals to those who can remember when Freddy and the Dreamers topped the charts. No luck. Like their sister stations both had handed the controls to the same presenter, soft-spoken, genial Evan Davis, whom everyone would be happy to see turn up at a wake. Thus the tone was set across the entire network. For the rest of the day and, indeed, for the rest of the period leading to Philip’s funeral this weekend, the BBC was by and large devoted to hymning the Queen’s husband.
It was as if there had been a coup d’état. I closed my eyes for a moment and tried to imagine what it would be like in North Korea if – heaven forbid! – Kim Jong-un rode off into the celestial sunset. The shops would be deserted, the streets silent. No one would leave their houses. Everyone would be indoors glued glumly to state television on which a po-faced announcer recited the supreme leader’s manifold virtues and achievements. So it was with the BBC and Philip. Sundry celebrities and commentators appeared to offer their personal reflections and anecdotes, the tenor of which was that Philip was a jolly fine fellow who was too often misunderstood. He was praised for his decades of service to the Crown and – his Nobel laureate moment – for being the longest-serving male consort. If the broadcasters were to be believed, he had uncomplainingly sublimated himself to serve his liege. His, it seemed, was a life of consummate selflessness.
What, these talking heads were invariably asked, might the 94-year-old Queen be thinking at this moment? As a mere bystander, I cherish such questions, for who can say what any of us thinks. But the assurance with which the BBC’s royal correspondent answers them suggests he has paranormal powers. For beyond the usual banalities, he no more knows what she is thinking than you or I. Of course, she is grief-stricken. Of course, she will miss her husband. And, of course, she will remember good times and bad. Thereafter all is trite speculation.
It is one of the great myths of British life that there are people outside the royal family who know what its members think. The truth is that they are an island unto themselves. They look like normal human beings, and sometimes they behave like them, but the reality is that they’re freaks of inheritance and history. They have been reared to be different, to set themselves apart, to exclude others. They are a ’'Firm”, with their own protocols and rules of engagement. Every move they make is more choreographed than Swan Lake. Every word they utter is weighed as if it were evidence in a murder trial. Once they step outside their gilded bubbles, they are like specimens in a laboratory, endlessly examined for signs that might reveal who they really are.
Philip, it’s said, was an outsider, being of Greek origin. But class-wise he was a perfect fit. What irked some was that he was not an Englishman of a certain type. The diarist and diplomat Harold Nicholson, like so many of his ilk, an unreconstructed snob, said he was “rough, ill-mannered, uneducated and...probably not faithful.” How times change. By the third decade of the twenty-first century, Philip had metamorphosed into the kind of character who could fit snugly into a sitcom, like Basil in Fawlty Tower. What was once described as gaffes – concerning the Chinese, Indians and Australian aboriginals etcetera – were now described as jokes and attributed to his wicked sense of humour. In short, Philip, as he breezed into his tenth decade, had become an accepted part of the British landscape. A Nobel was the least he deserved.
Thanks to Covid-19 restrictions, his funeral will involve much less pomp and circumstance than would otherwise have been the case. Apparently, a mere thirty mourners will be permitted. The BBC, we can safely assume, will nevertheless provide wall-to-wall coverage. Older Brits and monarchists will feel this appropriate. But times are a-changin’. Reverence for the monarchy is in decline and republicanism is on the rise. Public disquiet was registered by tens of thousands of people who switched on to watch EastEnders and Masterchef only to find that they had been displaced by hosannas to Philip. I share their chagrin if not their choice of viewing. As Prince Charles said, his “dear papa” would have been “amazed” by the reaction. He was not the only one.
(Alan Taylor was deputy editor and managing editor of the Scotsman newspaper. He was a Booker Prize judge in 1994. His latest book is Appointment in Arezzo, an account of his friendship with the novelist Muriel Spark.)
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