It all seemed so promising. Philip was a glamorous prince, penniless but still eligible. He would found a Mountbatten dynasty, and share the Queen's constitutional duties. But it was not to be. So how disillusioned has he become?
Saturday February 23, 2002
He came into our lives when we most had need of him. This was 1947, and we longed for something wonderful and vicarious to break the drab despair of postwar austerity. And he was it. They called him Big Bubble and, unaware of Cockney rhyming slang (bubble and squeak = Greek), I pictured him as something magically iridescent, blown from a clay pipe. The big girls raved about him; he was handsome as a film star, tall and blond, heroic in his naval braiding, come from foreign parts to marry our princess that we might have peace and prosperity and happy ever after. I was all for it.
I remember being in Woolworths that day in November. One minute my mother picked out her Betty Lou lipstick, the next the world went mad. Shrieking, screaming women burst in from the street, chasing each other up and down the aisles, snatching newspapers from each other's fists. Tills were left unattended as more women joined the fray, squealing, "Show me, show me, show me", wrestling each other to the floor, exposing their stocking tops. It was as though all normal, adult dignity had been suddenly abandoned to the life or death imperative of laying eyes on earthly evidence of the wedding of Princess Elizabeth and her fairy prince, the beautiful Big Bubble of our dreams.
I remember, days later, poring over a blown-up frame of the prince's hand, clearly discernible behind the white roses and stephanotis, holding the princess's royal finger as they emerged from their nuptials. I found it deeply embarrassing. Children are natural barbarians, and I did not want my primitive grasp of totemism muddied by something humanly vulnerable like the common touch. As I understood the proper shape of a monarchic society, the whole point of kings and queens, princes and princesses lay in the splendour of their isolation; while our task was to praise, worship and adore them and, should they ever come up our street, wave our little flags and shout hoorah.
On the morning of the Woolworths hysteria and his wedding day, an exiled, penniless Balkan ex-prince, freshly ennobled by the sword of the King of England to the rank of Duke of Edinburgh, breakfasted with friends and remarked in the insouciant tones to which they were accustomed that he didn't know if he was about to be very brave or very foolish. But bravery and folly are not mutually exclusive; they combine to create the unmistakable habit of bravado. As a gay young blade about Paris, he'd introduce himself to pretty girls as Philip or Prince Philip, explaining when asked that he had no surname. He was a prince, he said engagingly, and since there were fewer princes than other people, further identification was unnecessary.
This was partly true. Philip was born royal, a great-great grandson of Queen Victoria. He did possess a surname. Sifting back through the predominately German bloodline, it emerges as Schleswig-Holstein-Sonderburg-Glucksburg, plus an optional extra of Hesse on the end. However, we are none of us obliged to adhere to our names, whether given or inherited, and for all practical, social and political purposes Philip's was not one to be sentimental about. His paternal grandfather was indubitably King of Greece, albeit a temporary one, reigning briefly on the sufferance of the Greek people and for the expediency of the British, French and Russian allies after the Balkan wars. By way of a small courtesy to his host nation, the king named his seventh child Andrea, known to the rest of Europe (vaguely) as Prince Andrew of Greece, an officer in the Greek army. He married Alice Battenburg, and Philip was their fifth child and only son.
His birth coincided with a veritable field day in the archaic sport of royal bashing. He was not yet a year old when his father was arrested and imprisoned to await the death sentence for high treason. By most accounts, the charges against him were somewhat exaggerated. Like Lord Nelson, he had merely blind-eyed an order that would have sent his men to certain death at the hands of the invading Turks. Therefore he must be discharged, dishonoured, disgraced and, inevitably, shot at dawn. He was rescued at the 11th hour by the intervention of influential relatives and whisked away, en famille, to France. The baby prince, so the story goes, was plucked from his nursery in the orange box that served as his cradle.
Such emotive fragments often embellish accounts of Philip's early days. He was born on the kitchen table of a small villa in Corfu with no gas, electricity or running water, is another. At all events, the young family of Prince and Princess Andrew of Greece did not appear to have been overburdened by wealth and privilege before or after their exile. The only constant in their lives was that they could put their hands on their hearts and say they were royal.
There must come a time in every royal child's life when they are informed by those who have care of them that they are this thing called "royal". It is an awesome thought. Should such a child look up the word that describes him in a dictionary, he would find such synonyms as "majestic" and "regal", and be none the wiser. Within an ambience where phrases such as "your majesty" and "his royal highness" are bandied about like any other two-syllable words, he might be forgiven for assuming royal highness and common lowness are immutable states of being.
The royal child is damned if he colludes with the construct and damned if he doesn't. He is constantly surrounded by those who offer whatever forelock-tugging knee-jerkery they feel best maintains their own security. Bludgeoned by incontinent praise, cut off from the companionship and rivalries of a peer group, he finds himself literally out of context. Perhaps most psychologically damaging of all is that the royal child is automatically robbed of that vital rite of passage in his childhood known as the roman familial or changeling fantasy, in which he can wean himself off the embarrassments of his parents by imagining himself to be the lost child of another, altogether nobler and more admirable family.
In some of these respects, Philip's early childhood was less rigid than most royally afflicted children. In exile, his parents lacked the wherewithal to support a grand lifestyle or, indeed, any life at all without the charity of the rich seam of European aristocrats and princelings to whom they were blood-related. He went to private schools in France, Germany and England, and in the holidays was given stately houseroom wherever it was convenient. At 10, he was effectively orphaned and literally homeless. His parents' marriage ended, and he lost his father to a wealthy widow in Monte Carlo and his mother to a bizarre mental breakdown of a religious and sexual nature.
By the age of 12, his sisters had married German aristocrats who would later distinguish themselves as bastions of the Nazi Party, which, along with his mother's madness and incarceration in a mental institution, did not make Philip a boy to boast about his immediate family in any great detail. He was brought to England under the patronage of his Uncle George, second marquess of Milford Haven and inheritor of the anglicised Battenburg name of Mountbatten.
George, whose main contribution to society was a vast collection of pornography, majoring most spectacularly in incestuous orgies and artificial sex organs that he left to the lucky British Museum, also generously paid for Philip to be educated at Gordonstoun, the famous bootcamp for the sons of those wishing to vicariously atone for the slothful opulence of their own lifestyle. As a strong, healthy lad, Philip read much virtue into the practical philosophy of the school's founder, Kurt Hahn, broadly verbalised as the pursuit of courage and honesty and compassion for those weaker than oneself. These accomplishments were sought through a regime of early rising, freezing showers, exhausting cross-country runs and much goal-oriented male social interaction in which it was forbidden, on pain of more of the above, to think or talk dirty. Though Germanic, this particular restraint fed neatly into the English upper-class tradition of schizoid male sexuality.
When George died in 1938, Philip's tutelage fell to his younger brother, Louis Mountbatten, who had long since harboured bold, dynastic ambitions for his handsome young nephew. It was clear to Mountbatten that, without a homeland, estate, position or any money whatsoever, the boy must be groomed for a good marriage. His eye fell upon the 13-year-old Princess Elizabeth, a rather lumpy girl of underwhelming intellect and little in the way of natural charm, who would one day be the Queen of England. Philip was to be the Prince Consort, to which end he must ditch his desire to be a fighter pilot in the Royal Air Force, that being a working-class occupation, and instead join the Royal Navy, as befits an ornament of the upper crust. Mountbatten saw to it that Philip was formally naturalised as a British subject, renounced his Greek titles and Orthodoxy, joined the Church of England and was able to ride horses, shoot big guns and play parlour games as well as, if not better than, all the other young English gentlemen.
Introduced into the royal inner circle, Lieutenant Philip Mountbatten, as he now styled himself, set about ingratiating himself with his prospective in-laws. At first sight, they must have seemed like a pushover. At that time, the cultural life enjoyed by the king and queen of England and their daughters was scarcely designed to intimidate a fellow of Philip's limited education and fun-loving disposition. It was a well known and cinematically recorded fact that the king's idea of having a good time was to sit cross-legged in boy scout shorts before a jamboree bonfire doing the actions to Under The Spreading Chestnut Tree. He was a devoted fan, as was his wife, of popular musical comedy, and Windsor Castle house parties tended to major on sing-songs around the piano, congas up and down the corridors, dressing up for pantos and playing charades. Philip contributed appropriately to the royal family repertoire with his own merry japes: joke false teeth, whoopee cushions, farting noises, and so on and so forth. He was a great hit with the princesses.
But, below the surface, all was not entirely sanguine in the House of Windsor. Advisors to the king were at pains to point out the constitutionally unsatisfactory cut of Philip's jib, his politically incorrect family connections, his womanising, his poverty, his fast and loose ways. The king was personally concerned that Philip's royal heritage had been incurably infected by his commoner upbringing. He had been most fastidious in preparing his daughter for her destiny. Shielded from the troublesome effects of a liberal education, she was tutored in such arcane matters as the history of the British monarchy, peerage and heraldry, which studies she was persuaded to undertake while assuming an upright position, since the ability to stand up for hours on end was considered as vital to her future career as the royal mind-set they indoctrinated. This ruthless regime produced a shy, unimaginative but dutiful little girl, beset by anxiety neuroses and frequent outbursts of petulance and foot stamping.
As a very small child, Elizabeth had witnessed the coronation of her father, the full-fig ritual of the enthronement and anointing that has, from its pre-Christian roots, transformed the sacrificial biped into a divinity. As Catholics believe in the literal transmogrification of the bread and wine, Elizabeth religiously gives her personal credence to the concept of the Divine Right of Kings. It is as though the gulf between pagan concepts of king as god, saviour, sorcerer, priest and warrior had not been closed by 2,000 years of Christianity and rational thought. Certainly, Elizabeth would have been well versed in monarchic exhibitions of flim-flammery. Elizabeth I, for instance, was persuaded of her supernatural healing powers and solemnly sallied forth among her subjects from time to time, laying gloved hands upon the scrofulous, who were pleased to announce themselves miraculously cured. Charles I welcomed the similarly afflicted, 100 at a time, while his son upped the ante to 100,000 supplicants, many of whom were regularly trampled to death in the rush. His superstitious twaddle survived until Queen Anne and continues, metaphorically, with the distribution of coins, regally imbued with healing powers, on Maundy Thursday.
Mindful of such royal feats, while experiencing for herself the incessantly gawping throng of worshippers lining pavements at her every public appearance, it is not surprising that Elizabeth possessed a certain unworldly hauteur by the time she met Philip. She was determined to marry him. So determined that she called upon the spectre of her infamous uncle who gave up the throne to marry his unsuitable mistress, threatening to follow suit. The old king had no option but to shower the eight-guineas-a-week naval officer with titles, ranks, stately homes and entourages, so that his daughter might not be seen to be marrying beneath herself. With one mighty leap, Philip's professional ambitions were realised, and if he was not to be unmanned by the loss of any future sense of deserved achievement, he had to harbour other, more grandiose ideas.
He would, in other words, be the founding father of the royal house of Mountbatten. But the wedding went ahead with various unseen strictures imposed on Philip. He was not to be a royal highness. This meant that, in practice, he was merely his wife's little helper, the good-looking escort who could be relied upon to cheer her up ("Come along, Sausage") when she looked sullen in public. When their first two children were born and denied the name of Mountbatten, he was so infuriated that he was heard to remark that the Windsors had only wanted him for his sperm - or fucking sperm, according to who was reporting the flavour of his wrath. It became swiftly apparent that discretion was never going to be the better part of Philip's valour
Back in the mid-20th century, we were far more circumspect with language than we are now. People didn't say fuck. They simply didn't. I can remember a young, gently-bred girl photographer returning to Fleet Street from her assignment at Cowes week, still quite pale with the shock of being told to "fuck off" by the Duke of Edinburgh. Disporting himself in the south of France within a year of his marriage, Philip confided, in mock-complaining tones to holidaying aristocrats, of the sexual avidity of his bride. Staunch royalists were ambivalent. On the one hand, this prince consort was clearly no gentleman; on the other, their future queen had blessedly inherited the vigorous libido of Queen Victoria, thus boding a long and fruitful reign. But on her accession, Elizabeth failed to display another symptom of her great great grandmother's - passionate generosity towards her husband. Whereas Victoria had scrupulously shared the responsibilities of her calling with Albert, insisting he sat in on ministerial meetings and pored over despatch boxes with her, Elizabeth, with a little help from her government, chose to go it alone. Constitutionally, Philip did not exist. This was not what he'd been led to expect.
Once the new, young royal family took up residence in Buckingham Palace, Philip's status was that of a sort of glorified housekeeper. Philip attempted to institute various de-pomping measures to the daily lives of those striving to keep the British monarchy in the 18th century. He caused an intercom system to be installed throughout the palace, plus a series of hotplates and dishwashers hither and yon, none of which did much to endear him to footmen whose livelihoods depended on their scurrying back and forth along palace corridors wearing buckled shoonies and knickerbockers. If the monarchy was to survive, he reasoned, they must phase out their anachronistic habits and think of themselves as "The Firm", a family with a job to do. He was, of course, strenuously resisted.
He could do no right. When he outlined his proposals for the Duke of Edinburgh Award scheme - his own well-meaning attempt to inculcate his own somewhat boy-scouty, action-man, do-good-and-win-badges value system into the hearts of adolescent Britons - palace mandarins took one look and dubbed it the Hitler Youth Movement. The more resistance he encountered, the more peevishly he strove to prevail. He prided himself on what he called "pantaxaria" - an epithet of Greek origin meaning the art of keeping people on their toes. He developed the Duke of Edinburgh stance: walking with his hands clasped behind his back and his neck thrust forward like a schoolmaster parading the form-room aisles looking for trouble. There was always someone or something to pick on.
When all else failed, he projected his dictatorial bombast towards the fourth estate. This was initially both unfair and unwise. The British press was uniformly reverent towards the Queen and her extended family for the first decade of her reign. If anyone suspected a spanner in the workings of our ideal first family, role-model to us all, they would die rather than divulge it. Italian and French subscribers to their own gutter press could read all about our lonely queen whose husband maintained a bachelor pad and gallivanted far and wide with his louche pals and their fast women, but here at home we wished to be apprised of nothing more challenging than the description of a matching hat and coat at a ship-launch. Such adherence to mythology did nothing to staunch the ducal throwing of monkey nuts into press enclosures, nor the rather naive request to be told what "all you fucking vultures" were after.
Very little of a questing nature was printed when, in 1956, Philip took a trip around the world on the royal yacht Britannia. Ostensibly, the reason was to put in an appearance at the Melbourne Olympic games, and en voyage to call upon the natives of various exotic commonwealth outposts. It was to be the junket of a lifetime. A special contraption was designed and installed aboard Britannia so that the ducal Rolls-Royce could be loaded and unloaded should docking facilities in the more outlandish ports of call prove inadequate. He took his old shipmate and equerry Michael Parker along for the ride and, by all accounts, American and European, the pair had a whale of a time, little of which might be considered either Spartan or self-sacrificial.
Philip was away for four months. Prince Charles's eighth birthday, his wedding anniversary and Christmas came and went. One British editor did cough politely and wonder who was paying the ¡ê2m for the Duke of Edinburgh's jaunt. Then the British press stirred its stumps to report - bomb, shock horror - that Philip's bosom companion, Mr Parker, was being sued for divorce by his wife on the grounds of sexual misconduct. Guilty, if only by propinquity, Philip had to be reined in. The full weight of the establishment came down on him like a ton of bricks. They made him a Prince of the Realm. A Royal Highness. A full partner in the firm.
In his new exalted position, Philip's first public act was to give a little speech telling the nation how many more personal sacrifices he was prepared to make in deference to the might of the commonwealth. Thereafter he found respectable employment as a sort of titular head boy in the great school of British industry. To this effect, he rose to the most arcane heights within the impenetrable world of freemasonry, and made frequent rousing speeches to industrialists, exhorting them to get their technological fingers out, boost exports and generally persuade their workers to toil harder and faster. Such pep talks were received with matey good humour, and the captains of industry would then button their Savile Row suits and repair to Claridge's or some fine place; no harm done. Similarly, his duties as honorary heap-big-chief-in-chief of every armed force Britain possessed were most amiably received since, apart from anything else, no figure or demeanour could possibly so elegantly model a full-fig-formal service uniform, with knobs on.
But Philip was predominately the creature of his own unfortunate culture, a subscriber to the forlorn hope that the male of the species is, in some profoundly genetic and spiritual sense, superior to the female. He was, and remains, a man's man, a masculinist, a homophobe and a misogynist. In short, he was not cut out to be a consort, since the concept of playing second fiddle to a female would have dismayed him to the point of self-disgust. He had entirely misunderstood the promise of his uncle's ambitions on his behalf. A disappointed man, he covered his helplessness and anger with the rough-hewn mask of arrogance and began to self-destruct.
It became a reflex mechanism to project his thwart upon his children, the press and the luckless souls he encountered in pursuance of his royal duties. The man who didn't know if he was brave or foolish behaved as though he felt like the biggest fool on God's earth. The numerous, infamous blurtings of a racist nature when abroad on family business have shaped themselves into a caricature. He will always be the fellow who can't be trusted not to say "slitty eyes" in China.
Yet he would have, really would have made another mark. As a practising pragmatist, with all the determined lack of imagination that implies, he was not invariably off-target with his comprehension of the changing status of the monarchy. As he and his wife approached middle age, he could envisage a time when they would no longer be seen as the embodiment of all that is thrillingly new and vigorous in society, exposing the monarchy itself as the brontosaurus it had actually been for several centuries. Unless they faced up to facts, he pointed out, they would all become extinct. The solution, he felt, lay in the bold acceptance of the fact that, Her Majesty excepted, the royal family had little use other than as figureheads for the prodigious production of profit for charitable organisations. He proved his point in the late 1960s by hiring a Hollywood press agent and touring the US on behalf of Variety Clubs International. Through the simple expedient of meeting the press and fielding their daft questions ("Why does the Queen have two birthdays?"; "What is the London Symphony?"), he raised ¡ê1m, won friends and influenced people.
In 1969, the BBC documentary Royal Family, in which Her Majesty was prevailed upon to perform as a wife and mother in front of the camera, was an unmitigated disaster. As David Attenborough pointed out at the time, "The whole institution depends on mystique and the tribal chief in his hut. If any member of the tribe ever sees inside the hut, then the whole system of the tribal chiefdom is damaged and the tribe eventually disintegrates." His anthropological insight was not lost on the tribe, who were a touch startled to behold their chief fingering a priceless ruby necklace and enquiring of her maid if she'd ever actually worn it, before letting it drop from her uninterested hand; then making the purchase of a lollipop for Prince Edward and saying that its cost had cleaned her out.
As the years rolled on, Philip grew increasingly disenchanted with his private and public role in life. In 1983, the Queen and Prince Philip were in California as the guests of President Reagan and his wife. According to American reports of the tour, Philip experienced the darkest night of his soul on the streets of San Francisco while sitting in the back of a limousine accompanied by Her Majesty, his wife. Already exasperated by what he took to be the excessive attention to detail of the US secret service agents assigned the task of protecting their royal persons, he lost his rag while waiting for Reagan's car to lead the ceremonial motorcade. Reagan was a few minutes behind schedule. Philip demanded the chauffeur move the bloody car. The driver demurred. "Move this fucking car," he screamed and, taking a magazine from the seat pocket, rolled it up and beat the driver across the back of his head. The Queen, meanwhile, sat impassively next to her husband, staring silently ahead.
And there, writ large in one unseemly episode, is the dynamic of the Windsor-Mountbatten alliance. If the health of a marriage can be defined by the flexibility of the balance of power between partners, this liaison has been set in stone, the scales immutably weighted as to who has the last word, the casting vote, the moral high ground. Her dignified silence outweighs his impotent wrath. Every time.
23.02.2002: Is that it? Part two