Retiring Prince Philip joins those accidentally written off…

PRINCE Philip yesterday joined the ranks of those pronounced dead before their time. As he is 95 that mistake might be accounted a near miss – “Damn close thing that,” you can imagine the Duke of Edinburgh saying. “Saw the whites of the blighter’s eyes.”

Someone at the Sun pressed the wrong button on their computer after updating the prince’s obituary ahead of the ‘emergency announcement’ from Buckingham Palace yesterday morning – and the refreshed obit went onto the website, but was quickly taken down. Anyone who edits on a modern newspaper will feel for that person: it’s easy for an unwitting finger to turn a sub-editor or writer in an accidental assassin.

Many people have been pronounced dead ahead of time, perhaps most famously the writer Mark Twain, who was reported dead twice – long before the days of the accidental finger. He retorted: “The report of my death was an exaggeration.”

The writer, poet and critic Clive James, who announced poetically that he wouldn’t live to see another year, and has since stumbled along, playfully borrows that quotation for the title of his column in the Guardian Weekend magazine, entitled Reports Of My Death (a must for anyone who likes a well-placed word).

My favourite undead person is the folk violinist Dave Swarbrick, who was written off by the Daily Telegraph in 1999. Never in the soundest of health, he had been admitted to hospital with a chest infection, prompting the quip: “It’s not the first time I have died in Coventry.”

Sadly, last year Swarbrick died for real.

The accidental entombment of Prince Philip, however fleeting, reminds us that obituaries are written well in advance – so much so that when the writer Colin Dexter died last month, his obit in the Guardian was composed by a dead man, fitting in a way for a crime writer. Dennis Barker died in 2015 but the obit he wrote for Dexter outlived him.

As a non-royalist sort of person, I have got this far without saying much about Prince Philip. Even those of us who aren’t in love with the royals have a soft spot for Phil the Greek, as he used to be called on Spitting Image years ago.

Another nickname for the prince might be Phil the Gaffe, as he is famous for them, and his clangers have shocked and delighted down the years. Here are a few…

“I declare this thing open, whatever it is.” (Said on a visit to Canada in 1969 – and one of my favourites)

“Everybody was saying we must have more leisure. Now they are complaining they are unemployed.” (Said during the 1981 recession, and not remotely funny)

“It looks like a tart’s bedroom.” (Said on seeing plans for the Duke and Duchess of York’s house at Sunninghill Park in 1988 – and, if true, hilarious)

“Yak, yak, yak; come on, get a move on.” (Apparently shouted from Britannia to the Queen, who was chatting on the quayside)

“If you stay here much longer, you’ll all be slitty-eyed.” (Said to British students in China during the 1986 state visit – and proof that the nation’s mad uncle can step way over the line).

Yesterday morning a Twitter storm blew up about that announcement at Buckingham Palace. It was at first assumed that someone had died, and it couldn’t have been the Queen as that would have been announced differently, so people thought that Phil might be on the way out (hence that mistake at the Sun).

In the event, it was announced that the Prince would be retiring from public life. Whatever you might think of him, he deserves a rest. “You get less for murder,” you can hear him saying. “I’m 95 don’t you know.”

When Prince Philip does die, all those misunderstandings, as he is said to call them, will be rolled out again, along with the sort of praise from politicians that can make a person feel squeamish.

So, yes, plenty of people have a soft spot for Philip, which is understandable on some levels, but odd on others: in truth, we know little about him, aside from his long servitude, his unguarded mouth and his acerbic nature.

The Queen is always circumspect in public, and only occasionally do her opinions leak out, usually through a gossipy daisy-chain: someone who heard that someone else heard the Queen say something spirited or mildly controversial. But she has been able to leave the unguarded moment to her husband.

It seems odd to me that we still have royalty, but plenty of people seem to like them. The argument about what would replace the royal family is usually so dull that it is unlikely ever to be resolved.

And, yes, he has kept on going on, but perhaps that’s easier when you have the advantages he has enjoyed. Still, at nearly 96, he does deserve a sit-down.

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