Prince Philip: Royal flash

It never was a good idea to fall foul of the Duke of Edinburgh. And at 87, his willingness to take on those who upset him is undiminished

Little stories can leave behind an indelible impression of a person's character. For me, the most telling story about the Duke of Edinburgh is a trivial one which sticks in the mind because it involved someone I knew.

Many years ago, a colleague on a local newspaper was out and about in Windsor when he unexpectedly came face to face with the Duke. He reacted as he was trained, introduced himself, and threw a question at him about some event, to which, to his surprise, he received a full and courteous answer. Only then did he realise that he could not note down the Duke's thoughts, because he had left home without out a Biro.

Prince Philip watched him fumbling in his pockets and asked, with obvious amusement: "Have you forgotten your pen?" My colleague admitted that he had, and with an effrontery born of desperation, asked: "Can I borrow yours?" This merely added to the Prince's amusement, and he reached into an inside jacket pocket to produce a very expensive-looking silver pen. My colleague's only regret was that he had to hand it back.

Prince Philip is not always so tolerant of journalists. In fact, for the 50-plus years he spent in the public eye, he has patiently not reacted to the millions of words written about him, even when the obsessive Mohamed al-Fayed was publicly accusing him of murder. It must have been a difficult act of self-denial for a man who likes to be active, who can be quite belligerent at times, and whose exasperation with the press has revealed itself in occasional unguarded moments, as on the occasion many years ago when he created a sensation by describing the Daily Express as "a bloody awful newspaper".

This week, his fury has been directed at the London Evening Standard and its royal reporter, Sri Campbell, who filled the paper's front page and an inside page on Wednesday with the "exclusive" revelation that the Prince had been diagnosed with prostate cancer.

The reaction from the Palace was unusually swift and sharp. The story, they said, was both untrue, and an invasion of privacy. A complaint put straight in to the Press Complaints Commission. Yesterday the Standard backed down, conceding that the Prince does not have cancer, but was diagnosed in April with a chest infection. The retraction said: "We unreservedly apologise both to him and to his family for making this distressing allegation and for breaching his privacy."

The Standard is part of Associated Newspapers, one of the nation's most powerful news organisations, so this was a significant victory for the Palace, and an interesting moment for the royals to make recourse to the Press Complaints Commission. Normally, they simply ignore reports about the health of any member of the family, on the basis that if they confirm or deny rumour, they will be expected to comment on them all.

But after last month's court ruling in the Max Mosley case, that even a rich and powerful man who pays for sado-masochistic sex is entitled to privacy, this week's events could be a signal from the royals that they too regard parts of their lives as beyond the range of justifiable press interest.

The Duke is 87 years old, and though he is evidently in good health now, one day, inevitably, there will eventually have to be a bulletin on the old fellow's condition that will not be so good. And how we will miss him when he has gone. There was never a time in living memory when "Phil the Greek" was not there – on the one hand the embodiment of upper-middle-class restraint, on the other entertaining the nation with unwitting outbursts of tactlessness.

Prince Philip Schleswig-Holstein-Sonderburg-Gluckberg, to give him the name with which he was born, on a dinner table, reputedly, on the island of Corfu, is not the king because there are at least 482 other living descendants of Queen Victoria with a prior claim on the succession. He is descended from Princess Alice, Victoria's second daughter, who married Ludwig IV, Grand Duke of Hesse. Her eldest daughter, Victoria, married Prince Louis of Battenburg. Their daughter, Alice, was born in Windsor Castle in 1885, in the presence of the Queen.

Congenitally deaf, poor Alice was married at 18 to Prince Andrew, fourth son of the King of Greece. He was not much of a family man. Exiled from Greece in 1922, he lived with his mistress aboard a Mediterranean yacht, while his wife was treated for schizophrenia in a Swiss sanatorium.

Philip, their son, was sent to live in the UK, with the Mountbatten family. His first experience of secure environment, where he knew he belonged, was probably at an English public school, Gordonstoun, where he later sent his sons. He had not seen his mother for several years when they met at a family funeral in 1937, where his father and Hermann Göring were fellow mourners. She wanted him to return with her to Greece, but by now he was effectively a Mountbatten by adoption, and had already met his future bride.

When he formally proposed to Princess Elizabeth, in 1947, he knew he was sentencing himself to spending his old age walking one step behind the monarch, but he could reasonably expect 20 or 30 years as the King's son-in-law, pursuing his career in the Navy. Instead, he was suddenly plunged into his public role when the King died at the age of only 56. He had to break the news to his wife while they were in Kenya. His private secretary, Colonel Michael Parker, said that he looked as if half the world had dropped on him.

Unable now to pursue any normal career, he dedicated himself to running charities, sponsoring the Duke of Edinburgh award, which encourages youngsters to test themselves physically and do good works on that old principle of "sound in body/sound in mind".

Given his own difficult boyhood, it is perhaps not surprising that there is well-publicised friction between the Duke and the eldest son, and between the old man and his former daughter-in-law, Princess Diana. It appears that the Duke did not approve of the way that his son was sleeping with a married woman, Camilla Parker Bowles, and displaying interest in an innocent-looking teenage nursery nurse, and told him bluntly that he should either marry Diana or leave her alone.

This is what lay behind the portrayal of Prince Philip as an authoritarian bully in Jonathan Dimbleby's authorised biography of Prince Charles. There was also Mohamed al-Fayed's bizarre claim that Philip ordered MI6 to assassinate his son Dodi and Diana, Dodi's lover, who died in a high-speed car chase in Paris. A coroner's court listened to six months of evidence at the end of which, in March, the coroner told the jury that they had not been shown a "shred of evidence" to support this allegation that Fayed had repeated so many times over so many years.

Prince Philip may indeed have dealt brusquely with his son and daughter-in-law, fearing that their behaviour could wreck all the years of work he and the Queen had put into preserving the monarchy. He had, after all, seen his father and his father's family chased out of Greece, and understood that crowned heads of state cannot survive without public support. But if there are people who have heard the sharp side of the Duke's tongue, there are many thousands of others who come across him and found him tolerant, patient and fun.

Other members of the Royal Family have made the headlines through sleazy behaviour which reveals that they are not quite who they pretend to be, but everything about Prince Philip is of a piece. Whenever he hits the headlines, it is because he is being himself.

Obviously, after the terrible massacre of schoolchildren in Dunblane, which led to a ban on handguns, he should never have said: "If a cricketer, for instance, suddenly decided to go into a school and batter a lot of people to death with a cricket bat, which he could do very easily, I mean are you going to ban cricket bats?" He apologised for that one.

He was also unbelievably tactless when visiting the site of the Amritsar massacre, where there is a plaque commemorating 2,000 Indians killed by the British. "That's not right. The number is less," said the Duke, and nearly set off a diplomatic incident.

Another well-documented gaffe was on a visit to Cardiff in 1999, when he was introduced to a group of deaf youngsters, as loud music was playing in the background. "Deaf? If you are near there, no wonder you are deaf." He was accused of not understanding that deafness has other causes, other than loud music – a strange accusation to level at someone whose mother was born deaf.

Other stories about him are so priceless that you wonder if they could be urban myths. When he was in Kenya in 1963, for the handover to independence, did he really turn to Jomo Kenyatta as the band struck up at midnight and say: "Are you sure you want to go through with this?" Actually, yes, he did. It evidently amuses him on these solemn occasions to test the limit of other people's humour. Asked later how his comment went down, Philip replied: "Kenyatta grinned all over his face and said, 'No!'"

A particularly infamous gaffe came when he told a British student in China: "If you stay here much longer, you will go home with slitty eyes", which inspired the immortal Sun headline "The Great Wally of China".

Not only has the old Duke dedicated more than 50 years to striving to preserve the institution to which he swore loyalty, without ever upstaging his wife or complaining about his lot, but he has also unwittingly entertained the nation. He may be a terrible bundle of old prejudices, but he is an institution in himself. He is the Royal Gaffer.

A Life in Brief

Born Prince Philip Schleswig-Holstein-Sonderburg-Gluckberg of Greece and Denmark, 10 June 1921, the only son of Prince Andrew and Princess Alice.

EARLY LIFE After his father was exiled from Greece in 1922, sent to live with Mountbatten family in England. Went to boarding school at Gordonstoun, where he was head boy. Met Princess Elizabeth as a teenager; they were married in 1947.

Career Joined the Navy in 1940. Spent the war in active service in the Indian Ocean and the Mediterranean, and was promoted to Lieutenant-Commander by 1951. After King George VI died in 1952 and Philip became consort to the new Queen, active military career was curtailed; has since mainly done charity work, most famously with the Duke of Edinburgh Awards.

He says "You have mosquitoes. I have the press." – To a hospital matron in the West Indies, 1966.

They Say "He'll walk behind his wife because that is how it has to be. But, mentally, he's way out in front." – James Whitaker, former royal correspondent

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