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'Nothing but a bloody amoeba' - don't beware of Greeks bearing gaffes

The Duke of Edinburgh brought much-needed comic relief to the UK's 'Firm' and he'll be missed, says Barry Egan

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Back seat: Prince Philip. Photo: PA

Back seat: Prince Philip. Photo: PA

Back seat: Prince Philip. Photo: PA

The Duke of Edinburgh was alleged to have said prior to his wedding to Princess Elizabeth, the heiress presumptive to the British throne, on November 20, 1947, at Westminster Abbey: "I suppose I won't be having any fun any more." That wasn't always the case.

In the 1950s, Prince Philip used to seek refuge in London from the fusty realities of life at Buckingham Palace with his aristo chums at the Thursday Club. Depending on the night, the pals included Lord Louis Mountbatten, Cecil Beaton, various Royals as well as David Niven, Peter Ustinov, Stephen Ward, the Krays, Arthur Koestler, spy Kim Philby, musician Larry Adler and lady friends with colourful names such as Flo, Loulou, Beryl, Gertie, Simone and Pat.

Tarts, toffs and traitors aside, a one-time member of the Thursday Club, Miles Kington, once recalled a revelatory conversation. "You men are all distinguished people," he said to Lord Mountbatten, "You are all distinguished in action, or thought, or culture, or in heredity. But these girls..."

"These girls are all great ladies in their own right," Lord Mountbatten said. "The Duchess of Northumberland, the Percy, the Lady Devonshire..."

"These are their titles?" Kington replied - his flabber well and truly gasted.

"No," he said. "They are the pubs they work at."

Another occasional guest at the Thursday Club was, of course, Stephen Ward, who procured actual ladies of the night for British government minister John Profumo, and whose sex parties became notorious in the subsequent court case. One of the more outrageous stories from that period was that the mystery man who attended Ward's parties at Cliveden, Lord Astor's estate, in late 1961 was none other than Prince Philip.

Apropos of preposterously apocryphal tales of extramarital infidelities at the Feast of Peacocks, and rumoured affairs down through the years, The Duke perhaps best answered those questions when he said himself once: "Have you ever stopped to think that for the past 40 years I have never moved anywhere without a policeman accompanying me?" Needless to say this last bit was roared at the journalist who had the cheek to ask the Duke such a question.

At the age of 95, The Duke of Edinburgh is sadly retiring from public engagements this autumn - sadly because he is inarguably the most entertaining and colourful British Royal by some distance. A curmudgeonly, possibly racist, possibly barking, old goat with his foot permanently in his mouth, Prince Philip is the Jeremy Clarkson of the Firm. "It looks as if it was put in by an Indian" - when pointing at an old-fashioned fusebox in a Scottish factory in 1999 - is as barking and racist as his comment to British students in China during an official state visit in 1986: "If you stay here much longer, you'll all be slitty-eyed."

Never one for polite conversation at Her Maj's side throughout her 65-year reign, Prince Philip says the most unforgivable, outrageous things. "You look like a suicide bomber" - to a young female officer wearing a bullet-proof vest in London in 2002; "There's a lot of your family in tonight" - to businessman Atul Patel at a reception for British Indians in 2009.

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Still, he has long provided comic relief in the British Monarchy that possibly needed, from time to time, his terrifyingly un-politically correct one-liners. "British women can't cook", for example, uttered in 1966. Or, "It looks like a tart's bedroom," after seeing plans for the Duke and Duchess of York's house at Sunninghill Park.

He will be most remembered when he dies for his gaffes. The biggest gaffe, of course in an irony of ironies, was not by the Duke at all, but by one of his tormentors in the press: the Sun claiming he was dead last Thursday. His ill-tempered propensity for the public faux pas could perhaps be traced all the way back to the anger he buried inside himself since his unhappy and severely unsettled childhood.

Or to the fact that Philip had to give up his naval career to play second fiddle to his wife - as Vanity Fair put it, "an uncomfortably advanced spousal dynamic, especially for a headstrong officer in the 1950s."

The Duke has had to spend his entire adult life as an essentially emasculated consort to his Queen. This sense of emasculation was felt most keenly when on the constitutional advice of Winston Churchill (and his cabinet) the Queen denied Philip's request to give his name to their children.

"I am the only man in the country not allowed to give his name to his children - I'm nothing but a bloody amoeba," he is infamously alleged to have thundered at the time. There are other elements that added to his sense of being an outsider to the British Establishment. Born on a table in Corfu to an eccentric mother and a playboy father who effectively abandoned him, Philip "didn't go to Eton, he didn't shoot and because he was Greek it was thought he might do something wrong at any moment," Royal historian Christopher Wilson suggested. There were many in the Firm who considered him unsuitable. There was the little problem of the marriages of three of Philip's sisters to Nazis. His German mother, Princess Alice of Battenberg, suffered mental problems and ended up for a time in an institution. The Duke is possibly glad at 95 to finally be allowed to, in a sense, leave the institution of the British Monarchy.

He'll be missed. Don't beware of Greeks bearing gaffes.


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