Day five of the period of national mourning for Prince Philip, and the consensus is that “of course, he would have absolutely hated All This!” This judgment is generally made as someone trowels on a bit more of This. Particular pride is taken by those who are producing the sort of anecdote to which the late Duke of Edinburgh would surely have remarked “get on with it” or “is there much more of this?” One MP’s tribute began: “You mentioned in your opening remarks the duke’s interest in ties.” Prince Philip’s tailor offered a detailed account of how his waist measurement had only expanded around three inches over several decades.
But ordinary things such as barbecuing are held to become absolutely extraordinary when royals do them. In his wonderful Princess Margaret book, Craig Brown quotes one royal biographer typical of their genre. “The Queen and Prince Philip drove themselves to the polo ground. Philip drove a station wagon, the Queen her favourite Rover. Sometimes, instead of changing into polo gear at the castle, Prince Philip was seen changing, quite uncomfortably, in his automobile, sitting sideways, pulling his breeches on. “Then” – Then?! Then what? This had better be fricking incredible. “Then he would stand up and fasten the belt … ” We’ll leave it there for space reasons. The point is: can you imagine this passage of almost mesmeric dullness appearing in a biography of anyone else famous on the entire planet, except for a member of the royal family?
We know that Prince Philip has gone to the good place, because many MPs spent yesterday afternoon telling us. But you can easily envisage a Sartrean short story in which a man is hellishly trapped in some windbag’s anecdote about him changing in the front seat of a car, condemned to spend all eternity never quite reaching the moment where he can fasten the belt and exit.
The genuinely interesting tales from Philip’s genuinely storied life could all be read last Saturday. Since then, the currents and crosscurrents of reaction have revealed rather more about other people – even other countries – than they have about him. I kept thinking of the Friends episode questioning whether there is any truly selfless good deed, as Keir Starmer yesterday chose to lionise the duke’s “quiet virtues” and “discipline”, while Boris Johnson preferred to insist a history of what might appear casual racism was in fact just a man “trying to break the ice, to get things moving, to get people laughing”.
Remainers have made sledgehammer references to the Europeanism Philip brought to the UK, while others pointedly claimed he was a typical refugee. Some people were simply telling other people about themselves: “I am someone who values duty and constancy” or “I am the sort of person who is too grown-up and egalitarian for such things.” Others have yet to get to the bottom of themselves: “I am weeping for a man who thought tears a sign of ridiculous weakness.”
There certainly have been many signs of weakness, such as the BBC news anchor for whom breaking news seemed to presage almost breaking down as she read the palace statement announcing the duke’s death. Do buck up, madam! Others loved it, naturally. It got great reviews in MailOnline’s comment section, where emotion was equated with a sense of occasion. Nigel Farage immediately decided the tribute from Prince Harry’s foundation wasn’t anywhere near emotional enough, claiming it evidenced “contempt”. Do buck up, sir! Nigel and many others would have benefited from being packed off to Philip-era Gordonstoun, where they would have been forced to wake to cold showers and barefoot runs, and have this absolute wetness knocked out of them.
Meanwhile, the BBC’s wall-to-wall Friday coverage has become the most complained-about event in British TV history – but a full 116 actual Britons also complained that the Beeb was making it too easy to complain about its coverage. Honestly. No one IN the royal family has ever been a tenth as mad as some people are ABOUT the royal family – not even George III.
Speaking of America, I enjoyed a report in the entertainment industry news bible Deadline – “Blanket Coverage of Prince Philip’s Death Proves To Be a Big Turn-Off For British TV Viewers” – which seemed to view the event simply as an unforced ratings catastrophe. I suddenly clicked that American showbiz being so resolutely on Meghan’s “side” is partly rooted in Hollywood’s gorgeously atavistic commercialism. They must feel pure incomprehension that the royal family should have lost/driven away/whatever one of their biggest box-office stars. In this reading, the Windsors are like a golden-age studio that has simply failed to hang on to a highly bankable performer. Ultimately it was a talent management failure – proper showbiz sacrilege.
Over here, the duke’s death was one of those moments that neatly displays how social media has changed people’s behaviour. The film critic David Thomson is brilliant on how the advent of Sky Sports changed how footballers carry themselves on the pitch. The explosion in camera numbers and angles has turned them into entirely different performers to their predecessors from simpler visual times. Footballers are now television stars – and their gestures and expressions have consequently become tailored to the medium, being predominantly for the benefit of its audience. As Thomson puts it, “they know they are part of a system of close-ups and slow motion”.
Something similar has happened on a mass scale with social media. People are far more performative online in accordance with their consciousness of being watched. My colleague Jonathan Freedland made me laugh recently when he noted how Twitter had turned everyone into the archbishop of Canterbury, somehow feeling that every major news story requires them to issue an official statement. Huge numbers of people now regard themselves as bound to post the sort of formal reactions to Philip’s death that were once the preserve of former presidents of the United States or the queen of Denmark.
I’m not talking about the sort of things you can imagine people saying conversationally to others back when not everything was pixels – “I hadn’t realised his sisters weren’t allowed at the wedding”, or “my mum met him at the WI and said he was lovely”. No, I’m on about this type of stuff: “Hugely sad at the death of the Duke of Edinburgh. He was a modernising influence on the House of Windsor, and his prickly exterior hid passions few understood. My thoughts are with the Queen.” Why thank you, random 41-year-old dude from the internet, and welcome to the Pooter party. But really – this is the sort of pontification one formerly expected only from absurdly pompous people utterly devoid of self-awareness or public standing, such as newspaper columnists.
A nation of archbishops-slash-newspaper-columnists – yet another thing Prince Philip surely wouldn’t have wanted. But then, neither royal fans nor royal detractors care entirely selflessly about what the royals want. Emotions are for us, not them. They are mostly required to serve as Rorschach blots, in which we see only what we wish and reveal only ourselves. Knowingly or otherwise.