x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Celebrations as Queen Elizabeth's quirky consort Philip turns 90

A church service followed by a reception for Britain's latest and most famous nonagenarian: Prince Philip, the longest-serving royal consort in history.

Queen Elizabeth II holding the hand of her husband Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh as she arrives to address to the House of Lords, during the State Opening of Parliament in Westminster. Today Prince Philip Duke of Edinburgh will celebrate his 90 birthday. EPA
Queen Elizabeth II holding the hand of her husband Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh as she arrives to address to the House of Lords, during the State Opening of Parliament in Westminster. Today Prince Philip Duke of Edinburgh will celebrate his 90 birthday. EPA

LONDON // A family has had to postpone its celebrations to mark the head of the household's 90th birthday today because, as usual, he will be working.

Instead, friends and relatives will get together on Sunday for a church service followed by a reception for Britain's latest and most famous nonagenarian: Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh, husband of Queen Elizabeth II and the longest-serving royal consort in history.

"The Duke always treats his birthday as a normal working day when it falls on a weekday," explained a Buckingham Palace spokesman, "and he didn't feel there was any need to make an exception on this occasion."

So, on Friday afternoon, he will host a reception for the Royal National Institute for Deaf People, one of more than 800 charities of which he is either patron or president, while, in the evening, he will chair a military officers' conference followed by a formal dinner.

Such has been the dutiful lot of Prince Philip since his wife ascended to the throne almost 60 years ago. Although he has often been portrayed as a controversial figure with a reputation for grumpiness and gaffes, few question his devotion to either his queen or to his role in life.

He abandoned his beloved naval career, which had seen him escort merchant ships through 'U-boat alley' in the Second World War and be mentioned in dispatches after engagements in the Mediterranean, to become the faithful consort when his wife became queen on her father's death in 1952.

Since then, he has walked behind his wife on official tours to 143 countries and delivered more than 5,000 speeches at an average of eight a month.

Far from everything he said has gone down well, however. Decades ago, in one of his not-infrequent moments of self-deprecation, he coined the word "dentopedology" to describe his knack of opening his mouth and putting his foot in it.

His off-the-cuff remarks - such as telling British students in China that, if they stayed in the country much longer, they would end up with "slitty eyes", or saying to an African leader in tribal robes that he looked "ready for bed" - have often led to his being vilified, particularly by the UK's tabloid press (whose reporters, incidentally, he describes as "scum").

But, says Alan Hamilton, the now-retired royal correspondent on The Times, who covered dozens of Prince Philip's overseas sorties, "anyone who imagines that he is merely a crass purveyor of off-the-cuff tastelessness fails to get the measure of the man.

"He knows full well that in the stiff formality of a royal visit, those being visited are generally in a high state of nervousness, and that there is no better reliever of tension than a joke, preferably laddish, unexpected and slightly inappropriate.

"It's rarely the people to whom the jokes are addressed who take offence; it's middle-class commentators who view the duke as an embarrassing anachronism."

Born on June 10, 1921, in Corfu, he was the only son of Prince Andrew of Greece. Prince Philip was only 18 months old when his family was forced from Greece by a revolutionary court and he was bundled into an orange box and taken aboard a ship sent by the British government to rescue the Greek royals.

He spent most of his lonely boyhood in Britain, his mother suffering a nervous breakdown and sent to a sanatorium, his father living with his mistress in the south of France.

His surrogate father in Britain became his uncle, the Marquess of Milford Haven, whose enthusiasm for technology helped fire the young prince's lifelong interest in invention and design.

Philip Eade, author of a new book, Young Prince Philip: His Turbulent Early Life, says: "Philip was deeply appreciative of the home they provided for him, and never complained about his situation.

"But the fact remains he was virtually orphaned. When, years later, an interviewer asked him what language he spoke at home, he said: 'What do you mean, 'at home'?'."

He first met the-then Princess Elizabeth when she was just 13 and he was a 19-year-old cadet at Dartmouth Naval College in Devon in 1939.

The pair kept in touch intermittently and, after being reunited at the end of the Second World War, married in 1947, the same year as the duke became a UK citizen and renounced his Greek Orthodox faith in favour of the Anglican Church.

"Within five years she was queen and the relationship settled into a state of 'she wears the crown; he wears the trousers'," the Sydney Morning Herald commented earlier this week.

"His role as the trouser-wearer and head of the family is perhaps the most surprising - and the most challenging. As Diana's marriage to Charles disintegrated, Philip's letters to Diana, though direct, were full of sympathy, insight and affection, always signed 'Pa'."

Alan Hamilton says that this illustrates the paradox that is Prince Philip.

"As well as being the joker, he is also the philosopher in the royal pack," he says.

"The duke sees himself as a pragmatic facilitator, a banger-together of heads to get things done in a manner that can make the most ruthless management consultant seem like a pussyfooter.

"He dislikes intellectuals, bureaucrats, wafflers, wishy-washy lefties and romantics, yet he was sympathetic about Princess Diana's travails with the [Buckingham] Palace machine. And, of course, he hates journalists."

And so, with the minimum amount of the fuss he hates, he will celebrate 90 eventful years two days late and with most of the world still wondering what sort of man he really is.

Gyles Brandreth, the royal biographer, proffers one answer: "It was Napoleon who said if you want to understand a man, look at the world as it was when he was 20.

"When the queen and the duke were in their early twenties, it's around 1940. Their values are the values of Britain in 1940; all that is best of Britain in 1940 is exemplified by the Duke of Edinburgh in 2011."

dsapsted@thenational.ae