Sunday, April 11, 2021

Sunday Reading

The Passing of Prince Philip — Rebecca Mead in The New Yorker.

The last new thing that the public learned about Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh, who died on Friday morning, at the age of ninety-nine, was his observance, or lack thereof, of Zoom etiquette. This was revealed by his grandson Prince Harry, in a televised interview with James Corden, in late February. “My grandfather, instead of, like, pressing ‘Leave Meeting,’ he just goes doof,” Prince Harry said, miming the swift shutting of a laptop. The anecdote was charming, demonstrating Harry’s fondness for his elderly relative, and also suggesting that the Duke, like so many of us, was impatient with the constraints of technology. But it also offered the opportunity for viewers to wonder about the scene at Windsor Castle after the Duke had smartly closed the laptop lid. What observations did Prince Philip—who was never known for mincing words—make to the Queen, or even to a conveniently stationed equerry, about the choices of his grandson, or about the varied fates of his other descendants, a total of four children, eight grandchildren, and ten great-grandchildren? What must Prince Philip, who lived in the public eye for more than seven decades, have thought when he reflected upon the accomplishments and the travails of the family and institution of which he was long the patriarch, if not ever the head?

Prince Philip was royal twice over before he even married the then Princess Elizabeth, in 1947. Born on Corfu, in 1921, he was a prince of the Greek royal family—which was soon to be deposed and then later restored, but eventually abolished—and of the Danish royal family, which endures, if with considerably less pomp than attends the British monarchy. Before his marriage, he had served as a commander in the Royal Navy during the Second World War. Though he knew that his bride would eventually become the monarch, the prospect must have seemed at some distance, given that his father-in-law, George VI, was just in his early fifties. In the event, Elizabeth acceded to the throne in 1952, rendering Philip the world’s most prominent plus-one. Over the decades, much has been made of the sublimation of ego and masculine pride required of him, being not just the husband of the Queen but also her subject. (“I’m just a bloody amoeba,” he once grumbled, of his offspring taking his wife’s family name, Windsor, rather than his own adopted surname, Mountbatten.) One of the ways in which he might justly be honored, in the forthcoming commemorations of his life, is as a husband who, publicly, at least, was for the most part gracious in his acknowledgment of his spouse’s priority.

A recent poll of the British public placed Prince Philip fifth in popularity among members of the Royal Family: lagging behind the Queen, now ninety-four —whose status as most cherished is unassailable—and also behind Princes Harry and William, and Catherine, the Duchess of Cambridge. It is hardly a surprise that Philip, who was allergic to ingratiation of all sorts, should be less popular than the charismatic fauna of royals in their thirties. That he outstripped Prince Charles, the future King (No. 7), Princess Anne (No. 8), and Princes Edward and Andrew (Nos. Nothing) is not necessarily cause for constitutional alarm, but it does suggest that, with the death of Prince Philip, the British crown loses some of its lustre. He commanded public respect not just because of his advanced years but because, despite being supplied, like all the royals, with a life of remarkable luxury, he took seriously the self-abnegation that being a member of the most privileged family in the nation demands. Among his progeny, the example he set has been only sometimes followed—and, although one can hardly blame subsequent generations of royals for finding surprisingly thankless the roles into which they have been born or have married, Philip seems to have borne his submission to a life of service more thoroughly than almost any of his heirs.

He did not retire from public life until 2017, at the age of ninety-six, after which point he spent most of his time living in comparatively simple fashion at Wood Farm, a cottage on the Sandringham estate, in Norfolk—where, according to Charles Moore, in the Telegraph, he decreed that “the walls should be white and the ceiling the same color as the carpet.” While there, he continued to drive a coach and horses for recreation. He did not surrender his driver’s license until he was ninety-seven, when, while behind the wheel of a Land Rover, he crashed into another vehicle, inflicting thankfully non-life-threatening injuries on the driver and passenger of the other car. It may have been Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s own irrepressible impulse toward recklessness that informed his choice of metaphor in paying tribute to the Duke as an “expert carriage driver,” who “helped steer the Royal Family and the monarchy so that it remains an institution indisputably vital to the balance and happiness of our national life.”

In a nation currently as unbalanced and as unhappy as the United Kingdom—where the wearying restrictions of social distancing, quarantine, and closure have, in recent months, offered little to hope for, and where the effects of Brexit, from sluggish exports to rioting in Belfast, might have been better anticipated by those who have ushered them in—the death of a ninety-nine-year-old man after a life lived well does not come exactly as tragic news. If one thinks, though, of the Queen not as a sovereign but as a spouse deprived of her life’s companion, it’s easy enough to summon sympathy. Even a public loss is, like every loss that has happened in the past year, particular to those going through it. Private grief can only be imagined, like whatever transpires in the empty air after the decisive closing of a laptop lid. (Doof.) Even before the coronavirus required the imposition of severe restrictions on the observations of funerals—restrictions from which the monarchy is not exempt—Prince Philip had made his own preferences clear. He is not to be given a state funeral of the sort that will occur at the Queen’s inevitable demise. Instead, he will be buried at St. George’s Chapel, on the Windsor estate, in about a week’s time, with a service expected to be attended by no more than thirty mourners.

Doonesbury — “An old man, broken with the storms of state.”

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