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Prince Philip's prickly and prone to gaffes but life will be a lot more boring without him in public eye

 

By Lindy McDowell

As Prince Philip makes the decision to step back from his royal duties at the grand old age of 95, it marks an end to the longest serving and most devoted double act of any monarchy in the world.

It was the moment during her long reign when the Queen has arguably never looked more lost, vulnerable and just, well, old. As she walked alone into the cavernous grandeur of St Paul's Cathedral on that June day in 2012, there was the briefest of moments when she looked unusually tense and weary. And most of all, a wee bit lonely.

Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, her stalwart consort and unflagging support, was not there by her side for this important religious highlight - the service of thanksgiving to mark her Diamond Jubilee on the throne.

The duke was ill in hospital with a bladder infection.

The then 91-year-old Philip had got what we would call a founder during an ill-advised jubilee celebration jaunt by flotilla down the Thames a couple of days previously.

Obviously, the organisers had been depending on better weather - it was mid-summer after all. In the event, the royal couple, combined ages 178 (she was then 87) had to spend four hours standing on the prow of a barge chugging down the Thames in the, at times, driving rain.

You wouldn't put your granny and granda' through it.

Yet neither of the royal couple sat down. They waved, they smiled, they looked as though there was nowhere else they'd rather be.

Royalty's longest serving and most devoted double act did what was expected of them.

It will be a hard act to follow.

For the Queen without the duke is almost unthinkable. His role has been an odd one and, doubtless, a difficult one.

But the man born a prince of Greece has carved out a unique place in the history of the British monarchy and in the hearts of the nation.

He and the then Princess Elizabeth were married almost immediately after the war, in which he'd served in the Royal Navy.

The early death of her father and her accession to the throne thrust upon them both momentous responsibilities and a heavy sense of duty.

It would have been tricky enough for a man of his generation to play what was, let's face it, second fiddle to the wife.

But you do get the feeling that the irascible duke took it more comfortably in his stride than his portrayal in the Netflix series The Crown would suggest.

In that drama, he is played by former Dr Who Matt Smith, who gets all the hands-behind-the-back and quizzical-stare body language spot-on, but exudes little of the charm and humour of the real thing.

Smith's duke is petulant. The genuine article is way more bolshy, gobby and funny.

Books could be written, and doubtless will be, about his many, many 'gaffes'.

In more than 60 years of public life, in asides, interviews, public speeches and just laudable efforts at lightening the atmosphere on stuffy official occasions, who among us wouldn't also have dropped the odd clanger?

His relationship with the media could be prickly. When a photographer fell out of a tree during a royal visit to India, the duke was heard to remark, granted a little unkindly: "I hope he breaks his bloody neck".

There's also the story (perhaps enjoyed more in media circles) about his encounter at a press do at Windsor Castle, with Alan Rusbridger, of Guardian fame.

"Why are you here?" the duke inquired. "Because you invited me," replied Rusbridger.

"Well, you didn't need to come," sniffed the duke.

Refreshingly, he was a royal who said what he thought. He didn't patronise.

"How many people have you knocked over on that thing this morning?" he inquired of a man on a mobility scooter.

True, it was maybe a bit unkind to blurt out to a young boy who'd shared his future career plan that he was a bit too fat to be an astronaut.

And some of the comments about other ethnicities were never going to help the British diplomatic corps.

People warmed to him, though, not despite the odd human slip or outburst, but often because of them.

In 1994, during a trip to Belize, as the Queen was talking to her hosts on the quays, he bellowed at her from the deck of the Royal Yacht Britannia. "Yak, yak, yak. Get a bloody move on!"

That wasn't a consort talking. That was just a long-suffering partner.

And we've all been there ...

Alongside the Queen, he lived through historic times and what were surely painful times on a personal level.

The Diana and Fergie years, those anni horribili of turmoil for the monarchy and for the family. And then the awful accident that claimed the life of Diana, and the vile and lunatic lies that circulated online suggesting that he had some kind of role in her death.

Like the Queen, he rose above it all with dignity. Never complain, never explain.

The 1979 IRA murder of his uncle and mentor, the man who was in many ways his father figure, Lord Mountbatten (below) had also been a grievous blow.

What thoughts, you wonder, went through his head when in 2012 during one of their many visits to Northern Ireland, he and the Queen met and shook hands with Martin McGuinness?

There is a moment during that Belfast meeting when Mr McGuinness is seen to lean in for a chat, but Prince Philip steps smartly away.

Just awkward coincidence? Or the duke juking?

Who knows? But HRH could hardly be described as effusive.

At the venerable old age of 96, he now signals that he is opting for the retirement that most people take for granted 30 years earlier.

Born in 1921, he's now as old as some of the many countries he's visited - Northern Ireland among them.

True, it wasn't like working down a mine. But the job has been demanding in its own right and the duke, one of the hardest-working royals - even in his 90s - deserves respects for his contribution to the hundreds of charities he has championed.

Not least the Duke of Edinburgh scheme, which bears his name and which has helped hundreds of thousands of young people in more than 140 countries worldwide.

And, hopefully, the indefatigable duke has a few more years ahead of him yet.

Hopefully, he won't fade entirely from public life.

Because he is, in many ways, the last of a diamond breed.

A generation who put public duty and public face before self and self-interest.

A generation who, as the duke himself might say, just got bloody on with it.

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