Thursday 30 September 2010
Brian Viner: The day I tried to butter up the Duke of Edinburgh
Let me speak up for the Royal Family. I can tell you that the Windsors, having reportedly applied for and been refused a government heating grant, are commendably frugal in how they warm Buckingham Palace. In March this year I interviewed the Duke of Edinburgh, in what is charmingly known as the Sunshine Room, just off the Principal Corridor, and it was heated by a two-bar electric fire, only one bar of which was switched on. I might have been visiting The Royle Family.
I was there to talk to the Duke about his sporting life, and decided almost literally to butter him up by taking him two packs of smoked butter. This was not entirely whimsical. A friend of mine runs the Organic Smokehouse in Shropshire, and had told me that when the Queen and Prince Philip passed their stall during a visit to Ludlow farmers' market a few years previously, one particular item had intrigued Her Majesty. "Smoked butter!" she exclaimed in amazement, and walked regally on, only to return a moment later to say, again, "smoked butter!" A packet was duly slipped to a lady-in-waiting, and a couple of weeks later my friend got a call from the Palace asking for more. Apparently Prince Philip was most partial.
And so it was that I became almost certainly the only person ever to walk across the forecourt of Buckingham Palace with a briefcase containing two tape recorders and two packs of smoked butter. I told the Duke's delightful press officer of my plan, and she suggested that it might be best to wait until the interview was over. "I believe Mr Viner has something for you, sir," she duly said as the old boy got to his feet, which was my cue to remind him of his trip to Ludlow.
Unfortunately, as I reached into my case, I realised that even on one bar, the electric fire had had a disastrous effect. Yet there was nothing else in there I could give him, apart from a month-old boiled sweet. The royal eyebrows shot heavenwards as I self-consciously handed over my gift. "Smoked butter!" he said in a kind of strangulated voice, as if he had never seen it before in his life, and doubtless wondering why a chap should talk to him for 45 minutes about cricket, soccer, rugger and carriage-driving and then give him two slightly melted packs of smoked butter. As he walked off down the Principal Corridor I heard him again exclaiming "smoked butter!" We shouldn't be too hard on the royals. Theirs is a truly odd existence.
Will we ever see a same-sex partner in the Ryder crew?
Not even the footballing Wags enjoy as much concentrated limelight as the wives and girlfriends of the Ryder Cup golfers, now congregated in south Wales ahead of the biennial contest between Europe and the USA, which commences tomorrow. When the American players arrived at Cardiff airport on Monday, there was at least as much media interest in their womenfolk. This interest was expressed differently in different outlets. For one red-top columnist, it was clear in the photograph of the players and their consorts standing on the steps of the plane that the men were all trying to keep their partners well away from their most famous teammate, lest the girls should catch the eye of the Tiger.
Fatuous and insulting as this was, the gaps on the aeroplane steps all told a story. Phil Mickelson's wife wasn't there because she's been suffering from breast cancer, Steve Stricker's wasn't there because she "couldn't get a babysitter", which seemed like an oddly prosaic excuse, and as the world knows, there no longer is a Mrs Tiger Woods. Looking again at that photograph, another thought occurs. What will happen when a Ryder Cup golfer has a same-sex partner? Will he wear the matching kit? More likely, he will be kept well away from the cameras, for golf, like football, doesn't seem to do homosexuality. Why are some sports out and some not? It would make a very good university thesis.
A war hero to confound many a prejudice
Squadron Leader Mahinder Singh Pujji died earlier this month, aged 92. He was Indian, a Sikh who, having already qualified as a pilot, volunteered for the RAF in 1940 and flew Hurricanes with great skill, earning the Distinguished Flying Cross. Predictably, some of his RAF superiors tried to stop him wearing a turban, but he insisted upon it, and later claimed that the six feet of tightly wound cloth had helped prevent serious head injuries when he crash-landed after a dogfight over the Channel.
In 1974 Pujji settled in England, living initially in the east London borough of Newham, and I should think it highly likely that he endured some racism there, possibly at the hands of young men whose only experience of dogfights involved slavering bull terriers. After all, in that year's Newham South by-election, the National Front bagged more than 11 per cent of the vote. Moreover, Pujji lived close to the fictional home of Alf Garnett, and the actress Meera Syal once told me that in the mid-1970s, the casual racism in her school playground was always appreciably worse on the mornings after transmission of Till Death Us Do Part, featuring Warren Mitchell as Alf.
I can't help wondering what Johnny Speight's monstrous creation would have said about a Sikh Battle of Britain pilot. Then again it's not just racists to whom the story of Sqn Ldr Pujji should give pause for thought, but all of us.
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