Prince Philip, husband of the Queen, announced last week that he was retiring from public life at the age of 95.
For the media, the tabloids in particular, it’s a great loss. Philip was never boring. Over the course of many decades of ribbon-cuttings, charity appearances and chit-chat with the riff-raff, the Queen’s consort became legendary for many a politically incorrect quip and ripe remark.
To a tourist in Budapest: “You can’t have been here long, you haven’t got a pot belly.”
To a Scottish driving instructor: “How do you keep the natives off the booze long enough to pass the test?”
To an Aboriginal leader: “Do you still throw spears at each other?”
And to me, in the fall of 1993, a question about my underwear.
Yes, I was Philipped, and while the British press treat it as a gaffe or embarrassment, it’s something I will remember fondly.
I was a young freelance writer in Toronto and had just landed a party column in the Globe and Mail newspaper. My first assignment was to cover a top ticket fundraiser for the World Wildlife Fund. Five hundred of the city’s movers and shakers paid $125 to witness an endangered species in an unnatural habitat: Prince Philip was attending the reception as the WWF’s international president.
The Toronto establishment had turned out in force for the chance of princely proximity. As a junior reporter, my big plan was to hang back and observe, a fly on the wall.
The following was my account of what happened, published on Oct. 21, 1993:
During the Join His Royal Highness cocktail reception, I’m having trouble looking genteel and juggling pen, notebook, purse, drink and cheese cubes. For lack of hands, the pen goes between my teeth for a moment while I reorganize.
When I look up, there he is.
His Royal Highness has strolled over, unflanked by hangers-on, and we are eye to eye. But I have a pen in my mouth. And to give my stunned grin that extra plebian touch, it’s a Bic pen, the 69-cent orange job with the blue cap, which by some benevolent stroke of providence is not chewed on one end. The pen momentarily spares me from squeaking out some pathetic, protocol-free address along the lines of “Hi.”
Mercifully the Duke steps into the breach.
“You’re taking notes, are you?”
It’s a blur, but I make some noise in confirmation.
“What for?” he has to ask.
I manage to remember the name of the paper I’m representing and the section, “Fashion,” but still have not grasped “Your Highness.”
The royal inane chit-chat wheels start turning: “Oh, fashion.” He pauses, as the appropriate fashion-related sound bites come down the pipe.
“I suppose you’ll be looking out for people wearing mink coats, then,” he quips. Much hearty ho-ho-ing all around, and laughing protests, “Surely no one would wear fur to something like this.”