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I think for once the London press was being sincere when, collectively last week, it showed concern for the health of 91-year-old Prince Philip.
After all, he has given the press so many quotable quotes.
A reader, Misha, has sent me an e-mail describing Philip as a “crusty old coot” but conceding that considering his one-liners are extempore, they are smarter than those of stand-up comedians who have writers producing them.
Indeed Bob Hope travelled with two full-time gag writers.
Philip does not deny his title as “the prince of gaffes”. Last year he blamed his gaffes on what he called “dontopedalogy”, describing it as “the science of opening your mouth and putting your foot in it, which I have practised for a good many years”.
Misha sent me a comprehensive list of Philip’s faux pas. Some of his supposed gaffes I find perfectly innocuous – like his remark to a British tourist in Budapest: “You can’t have been here that long – you haven’t got a pot belly.”
Certainly he was a diplomatic time bomb.
When the president of Nigeria arrived wearing his grand flowing traditional robes, Philip said: “You look like you’re ready for bed!”
During a trip to Canada in 1976, he remarked: “We don’t come here for our health. We can think of other ways of enjoying ourselves.” Ouch!
And during an official visit in 1998 to Papua New Guinea he said to a British student: “You managed not to get eaten then?”
Deep into the Cold War he said: “I would like to go to Russia very much – although the bastards murdered half my family.”
When he attended the opening of the new R200 million British Embassy in Berlin in 2000 he described it as “a vast waste of space”.
As for his oft-repeated faux pas in 1995 to a Glasgow driving instructor – “How do you keep the natives off the booze long enough to pass the test?” – I imagine most Glaswegians would have giggled.
Less forgivable was his remark when visiting a British factory and he saw a badly installed fusebox.
He said: “It looks as though it was put in by an Indian.”
His apology was so insincere it was funny: “I meant to say cowboys. I just got my cowboys and Indians mixed up.”
And, I suppose, after visiting Beijing in 1986 he shouldn’t have publicly described the capital as “ghastly” or told a British student: “If you stay here much longer, you will go home with slitty eyes.”
Nor, at a gathering of the World Wildlife Fund in 1986, was his description of Chinese eating habits very diplomatic.
Yet, he must have thought it out: “If it’s got four legs and is not a chair; if it’s got two wings and flies but is not an aeroplane; and if it swims and it’s not a submarine the Cantonese will eat it.”
I am not sure what the Americans made of his remark in 2000: “People think there’s a rigid class system here, but dukes have been known to marry chorus girls. Some have even married Americans!”
Even his family can fall foul of his dontopedalogical one-liners.
Of his horsey daughter, Princess Anne, he said, “If it doesn’t fart or eat hay, she isn’t interested.”
Many years ago at a press conference he announced that he found London’s Daily Express “a bloody awful newspaper”. Cartoonist Giles next morning depicted the editor being dragged off to the Tower muttering: “At least he reads the bloody paper.”
More recently Prince Phillip said to a hospital matron in the West Indies: “You have mosquitoes. I have the press.”