PROFILE : A model of an absent father

Prince Philip is the archetypal patriarch - dutiful, bullying and redundant, says Polly Toynbee; Forged in life's school of hard knocks, trained to masculinity, he grew up to be the outward shell of all that an English father should be
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The Independent Online
One of the royals' many uses is to offer themselves sacrificially as universal caricatures, a unifying point of reference across all ages and classes. Thus Anne is everybody's dreaded bossy aunt, Andrew the practical joking uncle, Charles the neurotic one, while the Queen is that familiar matriarch who holds sway by refusing to discuss anything difficult. In our distress and our calamities, we feel we know them all.

Today, our national paterfamilias, the Duke of Edinburgh, is 74. Among the 850 organisations of which he is an energetic patron, he does not, alas, include Families need Fathers. But maybe they should write to him to suggest it. For in the image of the Duke we have a rich, deep archetype of British fatherhood.

Forged in life's school of hard knocks, trained to masculinity, a man with balls (his main role in royal history, as he himself wryly implied once), he grew up to be the outward shell of all an English father should be. Not so much stiff upper lip as jaws wired together, with that royal repressed voice that sounds as if he has something nasty in his mouth he can't bring himself to swallow.

His broken home ensured he was brought up like a medieval knight, steeled for a life of duty, without womanish softness around. Born in Corfu, son of Prince Andrew of Greece, his family was exiled and fled to Paris when he was a baby, destined to scatter, living restlessly in that the world of dispossessed royalty. His mother was deaf and could only communicate through sign language. When he was 10, his parents separated. His mother went mad through a traumatic menopause, took the veil and fled to a convent, while his father took to the gaming tables of Monte Carlo. A close friend of Prince Philip says: "When he needed a father, there just wasn't anyone there."

As the family dispersed, Philip's four much older sisters all married Germans, including an SS colonel. A lonely boy, unloved, uncared for and, by upper-class standards, penniless, he was dumped in an English prep school and then at Gordonstoun, where the Highland rigours of tough physical training suited his developing psyche, with his taste for obedience, duty and hardness.

Emotions were neither displayed nor discussed. When his sister and her family were killed in a plane crash, he was sent to represent the family at the funeral, but his school friends recall he showed no feeling at all, and the school was proud of him for taking it like a man.

Then came the Navy, the great love of his life - for in all writings about him it is said that he did not love Elizabeth Windsor when they married, though she loved him passionately. Since she met him at 13, she had kept a photograph of him on her dressing table. But his closest equerries have never seen him offer her a warm gesture, never a hug or even an arm around her shoulder or a physically tender touch.

In the privacy of the family, the Queen deferred to him, to compensate for his unmanly humiliations in their public life, always walking three paces behind. His fatherly pride was deeply mortified at being refused permission for his children to carry his Mountbatten name. He determined, like so many fathers do, to bring up his sons in his own admirable image. And as many fathers do, he bullied his eldest son mercilessly. He forced Charles to follow in his own footsteps at Gordonstoun, and then into not just the Navy, but every single arm of the forces. If one didn't make a man of him, perhaps another would.

All the indignities Prince Philip suffered at the hands of the palace establishment, as a mere consort to a queen and father of a king, he visited upon his son. Fathers often do that, heaping everything unsatisfactory about their own lives on to the head of their firstborn son.

Like most fathers, he was largely an absentee, trotting the globe ever faster, often alone, so much so that in those days when the tabloids knew how to spell lese-majeste, it was even speculated in the press that there was something wrong with the Windsors' marriage. Prince Philip's last and crowning fatherly act was to bully Charles into marrying the unsuitable Diana.

So many children are left longing for a relationship that never was, with a man who was never there. But when he is there, he feels an outsider and needs to make his presence felt in heavy-handed ways. "Children, Daddy's home!" does not summon up happy memories in all families.

Now Charles is the archetypal father of his generation - the failed New Man. Philip was playing squash when Charles was born, but Charles was in at his sons' birth, and it made him feel "grown-up", he told the cameras. Watching a birth is easy, it's the rest that eludes them. Charles, introspective, sensitive, yearning to do better than his own father, has failed, too. Sons in boarding school, himself absent most of the time, he looks stiff and awkward with them in public.

As the Duke sits at his breakfast table this morning (he likes a sturdy English breakfast,) and surveys another year passed by amid the wreckage of his family, will he sigh? Will he wonder where he went wrong? So many men do at his age, and then, too late, regret failing to be the fathers they should have been. What did they have to offer beyond boisterous games of football and the Sunday barbecue?

Poor Prince Philip, relic of a bygone era, is a true representation of the redundancy of fatherhood: it is fathers like him that gave masculinity a bad name.