The closest I’ve ever got to Prince Philip was at my graduation in 1977. Perhaps because he became Chancellor of Cambridge in the preceding year he was personally present to handover the degrees. Unfortunately, I can’t recall what he said or if he spoke at all. Yet if he only grunted, while his eyes lit up with mischief, it would be typical of the man.
In an age when we’re suffocatingly conscious of political correctness the prince has a reputation for being forthright and indiscreet but also witty and fun. His gaffes, as the British press calls them, have shocked a few but delighted many more. At times they tell the blunt truth while on other occasions they’re the sort of thing you wish you had said yourself.
Some of his funniest comments have been levelled at foreigners. On meeting Nigeria’s former president Olusegun Obasanjo, who was wearing traditional robes, he quipped: “You look like you’re ready for bed.” On seeing an exhibition of “primitive” Ethiopian art he pronounced: “It looks like the kind of thing my daughter would bring back from her school art lessons.” And to a student who had been trekking in Papua New Guinea: “You managed not to get eaten then?”
Of Chinese food he told the World Wildlife Fund: “If it has got four legs and it’s not a chair, if it has two wings and flies but is not an aeroplane, and if it swims and is not a submarine, the Cantonese will eat it.” Asked in 1967 about a possible trip to the then Soviet Union he replied: “I would like to go to Russia very much – although the bastards murdered half my family.” But my favourite is this delightful statement: “I declare this thing open, whatever it is”, as he cut the ribbon to inaugurate Vancouver’s City Hall.
Some of these comments are no doubt impolite. You might even say they smack of racism. But where would humour be without such ingredients? More importantly, the prince is equally outspoken about the British.
“British women can’t cook” he once said before adding, “They are very good at decorating food and making it attractive.” On a visit to Scotland he asked a driving instructor: “How do you keep the natives off the booze long enough to pass the test?”
On meeting Lord Taylor, the first black Conservative peer, the prince questioned: “And what exotic part of the world do you come from?” “Birmingham” Lord Taylor replied.
Sometimes the prince does correct himself but that only makes the joke better. Whilst touring a Glasgow factory his attention was caught by the state of a fuse box. “It looks as though it was put in by an Indian”, he exclaimed. Then he quickly added: “I meant to say cowboys. I just got my cowboys and Indians mixed up!”
The best part is that the prince is well aware of what he’s up to. Fifty years ago he told the General Dental Council: “Dontopedalogy is the science of opening your mouth and putting your foot in it, a science which I have practised for a good many years.” As The Times commented last week, when the prince announced his retirement: “Somehow, no matter how wide he opens his mouth or how deeply his foot becomes lodged in it, people never stay offended for long.”
And now an admission: I like a risqué sense of humour. It’s not just different it also brightens up our lives.
The views expressed are personal