TOM UTLEY: It turns out Prince Philip and I had two things in common… and one of them still drives me crackers
Very few of us, I venture to suggest, have lived lives quite as far removed from the ordinary as that of the late Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh.
Speaking for myself, I can’t claim to be a direct descendant of Queen Victoria, born into a minor European royal family and smuggled into exile in an orange crate aboard a British gunboat at the age of 18 months.
My mother was never confined to a sanatorium for the insane. I didn’t spend two terms at school in Hitler’s Germany, before fleeing to join my Jewish headmaster at Gordonstoun in Scotland.
I didn’t see action, with great courage and credit, in the Royal Navy during World War II. And, of course, I didn’t commit myself to a lifetime of public service by marrying the heiress presumptive to the British Crown.
As for the duke’s accomplishments, I wonder how many of us could boast even a tenth of them. I certainly can’t.
I wouldn’t know how to begin to fly an aeroplane or a helicopter, sail a dinghy (let alone command a warship), drive a horse-drawn carriage, play polo or paint a pleasing landscape. But Prince Philip could do all these things, with well-above-average skill.
‘One of the most striking things about Prince Philip, if you ask me, is that despite his unusual talents and extraordinary circumstances, he always seemed to have his feet firmly planted in the soil of the real world inhabited by the rest of us’
A younger Duke of Edinburgh playfully rides a children’s bicycle as seen in the BBC documentary special Prince Philip: The Royal Family Remembers
That’s not to mention his tireless work for his scores of charities, his early warnings about threats to wildlife and the environment — which seem all the more prescient today — and his efforts, far beyond the call of duty, to instil a sense of self-worth in the young (many millions of them since 1956) through the award scheme that bears his name.
All in all, then, he was a truly remarkable man, whose gifts and achievements can’t be explained away simply by the fact that he enjoyed advantages denied to the rest of us.
Ask yourself this: would you have led such a full life and done such a good job in his shoes? I know I wouldn’t.
Yet one of the most striking things about him, if you ask me, is that despite his unusual talents and extraordinary circumstances, he always seemed to have his feet firmly planted in the soil of the real world inhabited by the rest of us.
Despite the palaces, the banquets, the fawning staff and the relentless attention from my colleagues in the media — ever on the lookout for one of his famous ‘gaffes’ — he never quite lost the air of an ordinary bloke, just as much subject to the comedy and frustrations of everyday life as the rest of us lesser mortals.
At one level, at least, he was one of us — a point that came across vividly in Wednesday night’s touching and illuminating tributes to the duke from Royal Family members and others who knew him well, in a BBC programme conceived to mark the 100th birthday he didn’t quite live to see.
There were two moments in particular, during Prince Philip: The Royal Family Remembers, at which I hailed the great man as a brother and a soulmate.
The first came with Prince Charles’s testimony that when he tried to help his father with the barbecue, the latter would yell at him to ‘go away’ (though if my guess is right, he probably used a stronger expression, unfit for repeating here).
Despite the palaces, the banquets, the fawning staff and the relentless attention from my colleagues in the media – ever on the lookout for one of his famous ‘gaffes’ – he never quite lost the air of an ordinary bloke
There were two moments in particular, during Prince Philip: The Royal Family Remembers, at which I hailed the great man as a brother and a soulmate
Now, I may not share many of the late duke’s accomplishments. But like him, I do pride myself on being the king of the family barbecue.
And as all my fellow monarchs of the charcoal will know, there’s nothing more irritating in this world, when you’ve positioned the sausages and burgers in exactly the right place on the grill, than to have some incompetent busybody come along and interfere.
All right, there may be one thing more irritating, and that brings me to the second point in the programme at which I felt a surge of fellow-feeling for the duke.
I’m thinking of the moment when Peter Phillips, son of Princess Anne, fondly recalled his grandfather yelling in fury at his computer when it failed to do his bidding.
‘He loved technology, he loved gadgets, but it was always quite entertaining watching him trying to figure things out,’ he said.
‘I have memories of him getting a new laptop or a new printer sitting in his office and hearing him shouting at it from the breakfast room as he couldn’t get it to work.’
Is there any one of us, of my age or thereabouts (I’m 67), who doesn’t know exactly how the duke felt?
As I’ve written before I, too, have a love-hate relationship with what I still think of as the ‘new’ technology.
I’ve marvelled at every gadget as it has come along, from the pocket calculator and the video tape recorder to the CD player, from the satnav, the laptop and the Kindle to Amazon’s Alexa and my newly acquired iPhone 11 (already two generations out of date, I note, and I still haven’t mastered a hundredth of the miraculous things it can do).
I even spent a small fortune more than I’d intended on the car I bought three years ago, just for the wonder of its computer-controlled ability to park itself — a function I can’t have used more than half a dozen times since I finally understood how to work it.
But though I love the convenience of email, internet shopping, a phone with an in-built camera and the rest, I know of nothing more infuriating than an electronic gadget that won’t do what I want it to, simply because I’ve never learned how.
So it is that at least a couple of times a week, I find myself shouting in impotent fury at my laptop when it fails to connect to the printer, or screaming at the TV when I press the wrong button on the remote control and the programme starts whizzing back to the beginning.
Meanwhile, my sons, brought up in the electronic age, feel perfectly at home with the technology.
Almost from their earliest childhood, they were able to solve my problems, with a few deft clicks on a keyboard or a remote control, on the rare occasions when they deigned to offer help.
But now all but one have fled the nest, and the last is never there when he’s needed, I’m left alone and helpless with Mrs U, who happens to be the only person left in Britain who is less competent with technology than her husband.
I’m not thinking only of their effect on my blood pressure, however. For the wonders of this electronic age have brought a great many problems alongside all their benefits.
I’m thinking of the impending death of the High Street, accelerated by internet shopping, and of cyber fraud costing the unwary £4 million a day. I’m thinking of the illnesses missed by GPs, who increasingly conduct their surgeries over Zoom, in place of face-to-face consultations.
That’s not to mention the epidemic of fake news, hard-core pornography and terrorist propaganda spread over the internet, while the regulatory body, Ofcom, fusses over whether words such as ‘snowflake’ and ‘gammon’ may be deemed offensive on TV.
We can hold social media responsible, too, for the misery suffered by so many children and teenagers from cyberbullying, spread by trolls hiding behind the shield of anonymity.
Indeed, I see a supreme irony in this week’s news that Apple is developing an app that will detect signs of mental health issues from the violence with which we jab at our phones and the number of typos that slip into our text messages.
Speaking from my own experience, as my wife and I rage at inanimate objects like royal dukes, electronic technology is the cause of mental health problems, not the cure.