Review: Young Prince Philip: His Turbulent Early Life by Philip Eade
Harper Press, £25
Published 02/07/2011 | 05:00
Prince Philip has, for years, been the butt of standing jokes by British comedians -- ever since the satirical magazine Private Eye dubbed Queen Elizabeth's consort 'Phil the Greek'.
True, he was for a short time the apparent heir to the Greek throne; and it often seems that Philip has earned his bluff reputation with his caustic jests, some bordering on the offensive. (Visiting China, he told a group of British students that if they stayed there too long they'd return "slitty-eyed" -- the Chinese didn't complain, but it was headlined as a dreadful gaffe.)
However, you cannot judge a person's life until you have walked a mile in their shoes, and this brilliant new biography of Philip's early life takes you inside that experience.
Philip of Greece, as he was born, was the fifth child and only son of Alice of Battenberg (sister of Lord Mountbatten, who met his fate in Sligo in 1979) and Prince Andrea, son of George I of Greece. The Greek monarchy had been exiled in 1921, and so Philip came into the world on the kitchen table in a villa in Corfu.
His parents were royal but there was never any money and at one point in his infancy, Philip's cot was a disused fruit crate.
The extended family were a colourful lot: one great-aunt, Ella, sister of the doomed Czarina Alexandra, dedicated herself to the Russian poor, only to be arrested by the Bolsheviks, thrown into a pit and blown up with a hand-grenade. His mother, Alice, became mentally unstable when Philip was seven, and was admitted to an asylum, yet she never gave up her lifelong dedication to charitable works and she ended up as an Orthodox nun.
Philip's uncle George had a gay attachment to his own uncle, Waldemar: his aunt Nada, Marchioness of Milford Haven, had an affair with the American heiress Gloria Vanderbilt, and frequented lesbian bars in Cannes; another aunt, Marie Bonaparte, was psycho-analysed by Freud and became a lecturer in female sexuality.
After his mother's illness, his father lived with a flakey French mistress, whose grandmother had been mistress to both Manet and Courbet, while his aunt Edwina Mountbatten had a long affair with Nehru, the Indian leader. And then two of Philip's sisters married German aristocrats who became senior officials in the Nazi party. What a family!
Because of his mother's mental illness -- and his father's carousing on the Riviera -- Philip had no fixed abode when he was growing up: instead, he was passed around among various relatives, most of whom, luckily, were nice to him, and paid his school fees. At 16, he suffered the loss of a beloved older sister, Cecile, and her family, in a plane crash.
His first language was French and his original religion, (to which, it is said, he has returned in recent years) was the Greek Orthodox church. Philip is tri-lingual -- equally fluent in French, German and English. (When asked as a lad which language did he speak at home, he replied "where's home?")
Philip was -- fortunately -- sent to school in England: he might have remained in Hitler's Germany with his siblings but his sense of humour spoiled his copybook: every time he witnessed the Nazi salute he cracked up laughing.
He attended Cheam, and after that the famously spartan Gordonstoun, founded by the German-Jewish refugee Kurt Hahn. He won prizes for maths -- always a sign of intelligence -- and languages, and could have gone farther academically.
The wonder is that this penniless prince -- on one occasion his school fellows had to have a whiparound to provide him with kit for a family wedding -- grew up so sane. One shrink says he has a "highly defended personality" -- he laughs things off so as not to allow any emotional probing -- but that is how he has coped, and on the whole he has coped very well.
Elizabeth fell madly in love with him when she first met him, when she was 13, though her parents did not initially approve of Philip, and thought him a rough diamond. He was also considered not British enough -- indeed, until he obtained British nationality (wangled sooner than usual by his uncle Dickie Mountbatten) he wasn't really British at all.
But his cosmopolitan background makes him all the more interesting. His life also provides a dramatic glimpse into the world of tumbling thrones -- Greece's instability didn't begin today or yesterday -- eccentric aristocrats and surprising bouts of altruism. Philip's philosophy is "get on with it!" and at 90, I think we can say he has got on with it: he has stayed the course, and endeared himself to the country he has dutifully served as its longest-ever Prince Consort.