Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh
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By the end of his distinguished naval career, which was forced by the death of his father-in-law, King George VI, and the resultant need to stay by his wife’s side as she ascended to the Throne, Philip had risen to the rank of Commander. Although he found it painful to relinquish his duties, the Duke sought to retain an involvement in the armed forces. To this end, he was appointed Admiral of the Sea Cadet Corps, Colonel-in-Chief of the Army Cadet Force and Air Commodore-in-Chief of the Air Training Corps, all of which provided him with excellent channels for one of his greatest passions – the training and education of young people. As if further proof of his devotion to the British military were required, he took on, in 1953, the duties of Admiral of the Fleet, Field Marshal and Marshal of the Royal Air Force.
Prince Philip was later to explain his fascination for the sea, which he described as “an extraordinary master or mistress”. In a radio interview, he explained: “It has such extraordinary moods that sometimes you feel this is the only sort of life – and 10 minutes later you’re praying for death. If you go to sea in the Merchant Navy, or in the Navy, or as a yachtsman, you are in a completely different environment and so you have to function in a different way and relate to people in a different way.”
Perhaps the Duke’s most successful initiative has been the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award Scheme, which was launched in 1956. Over the course of half a century, it has enabled two-and-a-half million able-bodied and disabled 15- to 25-year-olds the world over to challenge themselves physically, mentally and emotionally by practising a range of outdoor activities designed to promote teamwork, resourcefulness and a respect for nature. The Duke has also worked to promote the needs of the natural world through his patronage of what is now the World Wide Fund for Nature, beginning in 1961. He was the first president of this organisation – an entity dedicated to preserving and protecting the rapidly disappearing treasures of the natural world – and continues to be its President Emeritus.
Even though the Duke clearly prizes action above intellectual debate – he once famously declared that although he had not been to university, he did not feel in the least diminished by missing out on the experience – his more thoughtful side and his recognition of the profound importance of education have found various outlets. He has served as Chancellor of no fewer than five of the nation’s universities, and, despite his feigned and jovial reluctance to be seen as an anything approaching an intellectual, the Duke holds a number of honorary degrees and honours from universities all over the world.
The Duke, who has now completed more than 20,000 official engagements, has continued to speak out about issues that concern him. Over the past few years these have ranged from the popularity of counselling (during the war, he pointed out, people “just got on with it”) to the prevalence of pornography on the Internet, a medium that he described as “technology without ethics”. “Innovation and globalisation sound splendid,” the Duke notably stated, “provided they are not being led by unscrupulous managers and clever criminals.”
One facet of the Duke’s later life that has frustrated him is his disrespectful treatment at the hands of the British press. He has been increasingly stereotyped for supposed “gaffes” – reports of his statements that have been construed as tactless, most notably a 1986 comment in Beijing, during a State Visit to China, that exchange students might “go native and come home slit-eyed”. Yet he has resigned himself to ill-treatment by the newspapers. “There we are,” he told a friend. “I’ve become a caricature. I’ve just got to live with it.” He is well aware that the media have painted a reputation for him. “When we were in South Africa some years ago, I flew up to Kimberley and was persuaded to take some media people with me. On the way back, one of them said to my policeman that it had been a waste of time as I had not put my foot in it.”
As he approaches his eightieth year, the Duke, a man who has experienced everything from exile to poverty and the unforgiving realities of war, is as phlegmatic as ever, but perhaps just a touch more reflective. When asked, in a recent interview, whether he wished to be remembered as the “Duke of Gaffes”, his reply was pragmatic if a little melancholic: “What you wish to be remembered for has nothing to do with it. You can wish all sorts of things. If it doesn’t happen, it doesn’t happen.”
This is Part 4 of a 4 part profile
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