A friend of mine’s father – who knows Prince Philip – calls him ‘a kind of semi-deity’. I realise that’s laying it on a bit thick, when it comes to sycophancy to the Royal Family.
But he’s certainly a quite extraordinary figure: a 95-year-old war hero, who has been working solidly and loyally for nearly 70 years alongside his wife. In November, he and the Queen celebrate their 70th wedding anniversary.
This morning’s announcement from Buckingham Palace – that he’s retiring from royal duties this autumn – should have been utterly routine. How many other 95-year-olds are still travelling the length and the breadth of the country, week in, week out?
In fact, the announcement was shocking. Part of it is the batsqueak of mortality that came with the news. If the prince is retiring, he must be feeling some diminution of his powers. For the vast majority of the population who were born after the Queen came to the throne, the prospect of his disappearance from public life is a destabilising one. And, if he disappears from sight, can the Queen be far behind? An even odder, sadder prospect.
It’s also disturbing because of the prince’s extraordinary stamina. I met him 18 months ago at a Gallipoli Association lunch to commemorate the centenary of the Gallipoli campaign. And I was completely blown away by his fizzing energy, wit and confidence.
Before lunch, at the Cavalry and Guards Club on Piccadilly, he strolled around the drawing room with ease, untrammelled by ADCs, driven on by curiosity. He is limber in the flesh, lean and curious, trawling the room for adventure, his hawkish face alert, his eyes flashing with curiosity.
Unlike so many of the great, the grand and the good, he positively invited you to approach him. And so I did.
‘Who roped you into this?’ the prince said in a mock-teasing way.
He had immediately broken the ice. I was all set to go into full deferential mode, perfectly happy to bow and call him ‘Your Royal Highness’. But there was something inherent in his manner – brisk, impatient, keen for amusement – that dispensed instantly with all that flummery.
I told him the story of my great-grandfather, who died at Gallipoli, after telling his second-in-command not to duck the Turkish bullets. The second-in-command did duck – and survived for another 60 years. A few seconds later, my great-grandfather was cut down by a hail of gunfire.
‘Were you allowed to duck in the navy during the war?’ I asked Prince Philip.
‘What a silly thing to do!’ he said. ‘Not much point in ducking on a ship.’
Written down like that, his words might look rude – an insult to the descendant of a war hero. In fact, the line was very funny. I cracked up laughing; Prince Philip remained completely deadpan. It certainly wasn’t tasteless – if anyone can make jokes about world wars, someone who has served valiantly in one can.
I suddenly realised that’s what all Prince Philip’s ‘gaffes’ were – jokes. Jokes, brilliantly deployed to put nervous, deferential members of the public at their ease.
And also designed to make his time more amusing. However great the feelings of duty, it must be tiring to spend your life unveiling plaques and shaking the hands of nervous subjects. Make a joke and you take down the barrier of deference, and get closer to the real person beneath.
I didn’t have time to keep on chatting with the prince. He had already set off round the room, in search of providing amusement and interest for himself, and unforgettable moments for any lucky fellow he bumped into.
He deserves a rest from all this. It must be exhausting for a man half his age. But I’m so very glad to have met one of the extraordinary figures of the age, before he enjoys what I hope are many years of retirement.