This Side of the Pond – May 18

By Sarah Pridgeon

My husband is fond of the idea that, if the British Isles were to unexpectedly explode, I would be somewhere in the queue to inherit the throne. I’m not sure who he thinks would be tasked with figuring out the line of succession or how many expats would have to turn down the opportunity before they got to me, but I do know what my better half is really getting at.

What he means is that he thinks he would get to be a king, which would in turn mean minions to bring him dinner in bed and no more dishes once he’s finished. Though I have explained in great detail that he would not suddenly be crowned Britain’s monarch, he has decided that, at least when it comes to this daydream, ignorance is bliss.

The point he is willfully ignoring is that, when a woman is on the throne, there cannot be a king. Thanks to hundreds of years of patriarchal thinking, “king” has always trumped “queen”.

Instead, he would be the prince consort, just like Queen Elizabeth II’s legendary husband. In this far-fetched scenario, I have assured him that he could still order takeout whenever he liked.

Prince Philip, the real queen’s consort, announced last week at the age of 95 that he will finally be taking a break from public duties. When asked why he decided to stand down, he said it was because he can’t really stand up for long any more.

Opinions are divided on the notorious prince. On the one hand, you have a fairytale life story that you wouldn’t believe as the plot of a soap opera; on the other, decades of cringe-inducing comments.

Philip was born a prince on the Greek island of Corfu but, in the first of a series of unlikely events, was carried to safety on a British naval vessel in a cot made out of a fruit box when his father was banished from Greece. He did most of his growing up in the UK with his grandmother, Victoria Mountbatten.

He joined the army in 1939, just in time for war to break out. He fought for the British despite two of his brothers-in-law fighting on the opposite side (another claim not too many people can make) and eventually became one of the youngest first lieutenants in the Royal Navy at the age of 21.

Perhaps the best known story of his service came during the invasion of Sicily in 1943, when he saved his ship from a night bomber by using a raft with smoke floats to distract them. After the war, he remained in the Far East to bring home prisoners of war, but he didn’t settle easily into peacetime service.

The prince was already corresponding with Princess Elizabeth, who had fallen for him before the war began. According to a biography by Philip Eade, Elizabeth’s governess described seeing him roar up to the forecourt of Buckingham Palace in a green sports car, “hatless” and “always in a hurry to see Lilibet”.

Prince Philip was a rough-and-ready rogue, by all accounts. Ill-mannered and “of no fixed abode”, he is described as carrying little in the way of clothes but always a photograph of the princess in a battered leather frame. Their love story continued, giving Philip the sense of purpose he thought he had lost.

“To have been spared in the war and seen victory, to have been given the chance to rest and to re-adjust myself, to have fallen in love completely and unreservedly, makes all one’s personal and even the world’s troubles seem small and petty,” he wrote to her.

Though sacrificing his own career to walk one foot behind the queen on public engagements can’t have been an easy transition, he took it upon himself to become her “eyes and ears”, visiting coal mines and factories to broaden her knowledge of her country. According to his biography, his “overly masculine” temperament did not take to the idea of being second in his own household, but this was the role he ultimately chose for himself as he became the first to pledge homage to the new queen.

“There were plenty of people telling me what not to do,” he said. “I had to try to support the Queen as best I could without getting in the way. The difficulty was to find things that might be useful.”

Theirs is a true love story, though in reverse to many of the “power couple” relationships we so often see. The support of one’s partner is no small thing when taking on such a heavy weight of duty.

Prince Philip’s detractors, of course, will bid you take a look at the hundreds of ill-advised comments he’s made from his position one foot behind the Queen. To be honest, there’s very little that can be said to excuse such clangers as telling a group of British students in China that, if they stayed there much longer, they’d “be all slitty-eyed”.

This is the man who asked a citizen of the Cayman Islands, “Aren’t most of you descended from pirates?” and wondered of a Scottish driving instructor, “How do you keep the natives off the booze long enough to pass the test?” He told a 13-year-old who wanted to become an astronaut that he was probably too fat, commented of the horse-loving Princess Royal that, “If it doesn’t fart or eat hay, she’s not interested” and asked an Australian Aborigine if his people still throw spears at each other.

He is essentially that family member who makes extraordinary comments at the summer barbecue and must be coaxed into the corner so the guests don’t overhear. Trouble is, the “family” in this context is the entire kingdom of Britain.

He is an enigma: the ruffian who won the heart of a queen and has supported her unfailingly for almost seven decades, but can’t seem to hold his own tongue. I have no doubt he’ll be missed, though I do suspect we’ll be hearing more from him before he leaves the world stage entirely because the people who will miss him most are far away from the continent of his birth.

It’s the final peculiar piece in the puzzle of his life. In a tiny village in the Pacific, tribal islanders are mourning a man they have prayed to since the 1960s.

The people of this remote village, you see, think Prince Philip is the son of their mountain god. Their legends say this pale-skinned son ventured forth across the seas to find a powerful woman to marry.

The Imanourane tribe of Vanuatu believes that, if Philip returns to visit, there will no longer be sickness or debt and the land will be fertile. If he fails to come, their daily prayers will have meant nothing. I can’t help but wonder if that means there’s one more adventure looming in this unique man’s royal future.