Saturday, June 11, 2011

A visit to a Bethnal Green basement won me over to Prince Philip

By Tom Utley, writing on the occasion of the 90th birthday of His Royal Highness, Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh

The first time I saw the Duke of Edinburgh at close quarters was more than ten years ago, when he was visiting a drug rehabilitation centre run by a charity in the East End of London.

It was a low-key occasion — no more than a handful of social workers and a couple of recovering addicts, squashed into two tiny rooms in the basement of a dilapidated shop.

Nothing much newsworthy was likely to come of it, but I had been sent along with my notebook simply on the off-chance (and I may as well come clean) that the royal visitor, who is 90 today, would make one of his celebrated gaffes.

I arrived a good half-hour before the Duke and spent the time talking to the charity workers and addicts. It quickly became clear most of them were decidedly unenthusiastic about the impending visit, and the Royal Family in general.

Like me, they were expecting the cartoon character depicted in the red-top tabloids: arrogant, cantankerous and impatient with political correctness to the borderline of racism. Where drug addiction was concerned, they imagined that he would belong firmly to the cold showers and ‘pull yerself together, man’ school of rehabilitation.

The Duke duly arrived, with no ceremony and a single aide in tow ...... and by the time he left, no more than three-quarters of an hour later, everyone in that run-down, damp-smelling basement was singing a very different tune.

I wish I could record exactly what the staff and addicts told me, before and after the visit, so readers could compare and contrast. But since the Duke failed to oblige me with a gaffe, not a line of my report appeared in the next day’s paper (I was working elsewhere at the time) — and my notebook is beyond retrieval among scores of others in plastic sacks in the loft.

But while we were waiting for Prince Philip’s arrival, the words that came up most often were ‘irrelevant’, ‘privileged’ and ‘complete waste of time’. After he’d gone, they were ‘impressive’, ‘amazing’ and ‘incredibly well-informed’.

True, he hadn’t succeeded in turning these Left-leaning community workers into flag-waving royalists. But he had convinced them he was genuinely interested in their work, he knew a great deal about treating addiction and about government policy on the matter — and he was determined to give them all the practical help he could. If it was an act, it was an extremely good one.

Above all, he left them believing their work was important and hugely appreciated. And I would suggest that whatever their professed opinions about royalty, they felt a great deal more chuffed than they would have done after a similar blessing from, say, the Secretary of State for Social

As it happens, a few years later I myself was to feel the glow of the royal benediction. So I can testify at first hand about how good it feels.

It was when the red-tops [sensationalist newspapers] were laying into the Duke for his latest supposed gaffe, in which he was said to have reduced a boy to tears by telling him he was ‘too fat’ to become an astronaut.

But that wasn’t exactly what he had said. As the Mail’s report made clear, he was touring Salford University, where they were building a spacecraft, when he asked an obese 13-year-old, with a hideous Mohican haircut, if he would like to go into space. When the boy replied he would, the Duke laughed and said: ‘You’ll have to lose a bit of weight first.’

This struck me as perfectly friendly advice for a grown-up to give a child, and nothing at all to blub about. Certainly, it didn’t justify the boy’s revolting parents in telling the papers the Duke was an ‘ignorant fool’ and ‘a silly old Greek sod’, who should ‘keep his mouth shut’.

In a saner age, I felt, they would have had their heads chopped off for such abominable rudeness to their sovereign’s consort — who, incidentally, had fought gallantly in the Royal Navy to ensure the freedom of their lump of a kid to stuff himself with chips.

So my pen leapt from its scabbard to defend the Duke and to point out that as the founder of his eponymous award scheme, he was better qualified than most to dish out advice on physical fitness to the young.

In passing, I also defended his daughter Princess Anne, who was under red-top attack for her own ‘embarrassing gaffe’. Her crime was to have asked someone in the East End where he came from, and when he replied ‘Bengal’, she said: ‘There are quite a lot of you from there, aren’t there?’

In what sense was that a ‘gaffe’? Looked at from any angle, it struck me as a totally neutral statement of fact — the sort of remark anyone might make, when stuck for anything more interesting to say. There are, indeed, quite a lot of Bengalis in East London.

Anyway, after I’d dashed off my defence of father and daughter, I was astonished to receive a letter from the Palace. All right, it didn’t come from the man himself, but from his female press officer (and I can already hear the gales of cynical laughter from those who think what a sucker I must be to be touched by a letter from a flunkey).

But touched I was. It said the Duke had asked her to write to me because he’d been hurt by the criticism he’d received for his remark to the boy and was grateful I’d realised it was well-meant.

Had he really read my article — and was he really hurt by all the abuse — or was this just his spin doctor, acting off her own bat? Your guess is as good as mine.

But having seen Prince Philip at work in that drug rehabilitation centre, I choose to believe he’s more sensitive than people give him credit for and it was jolly courteous of him to convey his thanks to me.

Before you run away with the idea I’m entirely besotted, however, I must acknowledge that, like most of us, he has an unattractive side. Indeed, it was well-illustrated in David Cameron’s uncharacteristically inept tribute to the birthday boy in the Commons on Tuesday, when he quoted Prince Philip’s reply to someone who had once asked him how his flight had been: ‘Have you ever been on a plane? Well, you know how it goes up in the air and comes down again — it was like that.’

Why, when the Duke has made so many witty and pithy remarks over the years, did the Prime Minister choose to quote this example of sheer, unfunny boorishness? God knows, we’ve all asked people how their flights were. It’s a civil way of opening a conversation. The question really doesn’t merit a humiliating put-down from a royal duke.

Perhaps Prince Philip just doesn’t realise that most of us, when we’re asked how our flight was, could jaw on for hours about the delays, queues at security and food running out. If only air travel were simply a matter of going up in the air and coming down again, as it is for him, we’d all be a lot happier about it.

It may be that Mr Cameron thought the story illustrated the Duke’s dislike of small talk and his unwillingness to suffer fools gladly. I’m more inclined to believe it appealed to the Etonian bully in the Prime Minister.

Either way, this is not a day to dwell on Prince Philip’s faults. For he has virtues in abundance — boundless energy, good humour, stoicism, a keen interest in other people and an unfailing sense of duty — which, I reckon, far outweigh his failings.

I’m not going to apologise for my trade’s failure to give much space to his good works. For if we filled our papers with reports of his countless gaffe-free visits to drug rehabilitation centres and the like, people would soon stop buying them.

Enough to say that in that Bethnal Green basement a decade ago, I became a keen fan. And I know millions of others — perhaps many more than he may think — will join me today in wishing him the very happy 90th he’s so richly earned.


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