Getting on with the Business of Living: Thoughts on Prince Philip
In 1956, when my father was a 21 year-old undergraduate at the University of Reading, the Queen and Prince Philip paid a visit to what was then a very new campus. Her Majesty and the Duke of Edinburgh had come to dedicate a new building, as they have done so many thousands and thousands of times over the course of 70 years.
My father was there when the Queen and Philip entered the “junior common room,” stuffed with nervous undergraduates. Daddy was short, barely 5’7”, and he had to peep around some taller fellows to catch a glimpse of the Royal pair. As he did so, he bent over so that he appeared to be coming out from under a taller man’s arm. Prince Philip looked directly at my daddy, saw my father’s curious face peeking out, and laughed with pleasure.
That is the story as I heard it from papa, and I like to believe it happened just that way 65 years ago.
My father arrived in England in 1938, as a boy of three. A Jewish refugee from Nazi-occupied Austria, he fled with his mother, father, and older sister. One aunt and her husband escaped to New Zealand – and the entire rest of the extended family perished in the Holocaust, including both my paternal great-grandmothers. The family escaped because of the tremendous persistence of my grandmother, who worked tirelessly to find a country of refuge almost as soon as Hitler took over Austria.
The rest of the family didn’t quite believe things would get as bad as they did, but “Oma” knew. She wrote to the French, to the Americans, to the Danes, and to the Dutch. They all turned down her family refugee application. Britain said yes, in part because my father’s father was a medical doctor and the UK was keen on bringing in skilled refugees. Whatever the reason, there was no escaping one salient point: if it were not for Britain, my family would have perished with their relatives. Were it not for Britain, my brother and sisters and I would not be here, nor would my father’s eight grandchildren.
I know perfectly well that it was not the Queen, or her father, George VI (who was on the throne in 1938) who said “yes” to my family. And yet, for all of my life, the Queen and her family have embodied the culture of radical welcome for the world’s refugees. Even FDR’s USA wouldn’t take my father and his parents, after all. Emma Lazarus’ famous “lamp beside the golden door” was dimmed for most European Jewish refugees. Welcome, safety, and life were found only in the UK.
(My brother and sisters and I all hold British passports, thanks to our father. We are all dual nationals, in part out of sentiment and in part out of a real sense that if circumstances grow dire, we may need to do as our forebears did, and flee to the green and pleasant land that saved our family.)
In my own life, I have carried Prince Philip’s example with me since I was a boy. When I was a teen, I often slouched, as truculent adolescents are wont to do – and my grandmother implored me to improve my posture. As an example of how best to sit and stand, she showed me photos of the Duke of Edinburgh. His was the straight spine I tried to emulate 40 years ago – and some days, when I am working the register and very tired, I think of Philip, and I pull myself a little taller. I worry at times that I’ll never be able to retire, and then I think that Philip only stepped down from public duties in 2017, when he was 96, after a career that saw him perform more than 22,000 solo engagements.
If he could keep going, so can I.
Many years ago, in an interview, a journalist asked the Prince about his difficult childhood. His mother had schizophrenia, his sister perished in a plane crash, his family – thrown off the throne of Greece – bounced about uncertainly. He was shifted from the care of relative to relative.
The journalist wanted to know what lessons the Prince took from all this early trauma. Philip shrugged. “You learn to just get on with it,” he said.
I’ve thought about that interview many times since 2013. I can be paralyzed by grief and trauma over my mistakes, and when I do reach that near-catatonic state, I have learned that the quickest way to snap myself out of it is to contemplate the Queen and Philip. What would they do if they were in my situation? Surely, they would get on with the business of living, do the next right thing, and show up for the people who need them.
If they can do it, so can I.
I grieve Philip’s death because he represented a nation that saved my family. I grieve Philip’s death because his passing deprives the Queen of her best friend and most trusted confidante, the man she first fell in love with 80 years ago. I grieve Philip’s death because he did his best so well, and so imperfectly. His gaffes, his flashes of impatience, his penchant for saying genuinely appalling things he regretted – these humanized him in a way that made him both more lovable and, in my eyes at least, worthier of emulation.
Philip got on with the business of living for 99 years, without public complaint. He did it with a straight spine and a twinkle in his eye. His work may have seemed frivolous and even offensive to some, but to me, for a host of reasons, it has meant everything.
Rise in Glory, your Royal Highness.