Years ago, the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh paid a fleeting visit to the Surrey town of Dorking. There were hundreds, if not thousands, of wellwishers penned in behind barriers. Those at the front had been standing there for many hours.
Among them was a small child holding a single daffodil. The Queen made her way along the barrier, smiling, chatting, collecting tributes. But she failed to notice the little girl with her daffodil.
Not so the Duke of Edinburgh. Walking, as ever, a few paces behind the Queen, he spotted the disconsolate child as she realised she’d missed her moment. He immediately went over to her, clasped her firmly under the arms, hoisted her over the barrier and told her to run and give her flower to the Queen.
It was the Duke at his best. Undoubtedly, he was capable of great kindness and compassion.
Prue Leith joking with Philip at a Duke’s Award ceremony at Buckingham Palace in 2017
And it was a vivid demonstration of just one of the many ways in which he was such a support to his wife.
It’s why, on their golden wedding anniversary in 1997, she said of him: ‘He is someone who doesn’t take easily to compliments but he has, quite simply, been my strength and stay all these years, and I, and his whole family, and this and many other countries, owe him a debt greater than he would ever claim, or we shall ever know.’
His manner was undoubtedly forthright – he could be one of the most irascible and downright rude figures in public life, and his gaffes are, of course, legendary. But they were frequently misinterpreted and seldom as offensive as the media liked to suggest.
The Indians, for example, were delighted when, visiting a factory near Edinburgh, he said a fuse box was so crude it ‘looked as though it had been put in by an Indian’.
The Asian community was reported to have been outraged by the remark, but a leading Indian newspaper had nothing but praise for him.
‘At last someone speaks the truth. He’s absolutely right, our electrical systems in India are appalling. Every Indian has to have about six transformers and seven circuit breakers between the grid and their computer because of surges and blackouts and so on. We really have got to get a grip.’
‘His roughnesses,’ according to one former Foreign Secretary, ‘came from the fact he led an extremely boring life and every now and again felt compelled to stir the waters.’
The explorer David Hempleman-Adams, the first person to have reached the Geographic and Magnetic North and South Poles as well as climb the highest peaks in all seven continents, puts it all down to the 50-mile expedition he did for his Bronze Award at the age of 13
I encountered that roughness myself. It was long ago, when I presented a prime-time TV programme (I also wrote books about his family and my father was a Fleet Street editor – reasons enough not to like me).
I was asked to help present prizes to Duke of Edinburgh’s Gold Award winners. For many years they had been too numerous for him to do all the presentations personally, and I was one of several ‘celebrities’ asked to help him.
Each of us was put into a state room at St James’s Palace with a group of recipients, and we were told that when we had done our stuff the Duke would come into all the rooms, we would each be presented to him and he would chat to the young people.
He came into my room as planned, he spoke genially to all the young recipients, quizzed them, joked with them, congratulated them heartily on their achievements, but when he was introduced to me the smile vanished from his face.
He looked me up and down – I would swear he snorted – and turned on his heels and walked off without either a handshake, a hello or a thank you. I am told Jennie Bond, the former BBC Royal correspondent, got much the same treatment.
A former director of the Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (RSA), of which Prince Philip was president for almost 60 years, worked with him for 17 years and never lost his admiration for him.
He said: ‘He was pretty fantastic, he was pretty daunting and could be pretty awful.
‘He would turn up here and be in a foul mood and make life very difficult. He could be quite rude to people, and unkindly rude, but after two or three hours he was invariably in a good mood again.’
How the Duke behaved was often dictated by how people behaved towards him. And like the classic bully, he liked it when people stood up to him.
My sister-in-law, Prue Leith, was chairman of the RSA at one time and did stand up to him.
She said: ‘Once, in a discussion on world population, he was banging on a bit about how too many people had too many children, and I found myself saying, ‘That’s a bit rich, coming from someone with four children’ – the sort of crack you’re not meant to make at Royals. He just laughed and said, ‘Touche.’ ‘
Like her predecessor, Prue encountered every mood. ‘One day he came to an RSA event in honour of Dame Judi Dench, and was cross that there were two photographers, loudly demanding an explanation from me in front of the half-dozen VIPs waiting to be presented.
‘Since I had no idea why we had two photographers, and anyway was unaware that we should not have, I joked, ‘No idea, sir, maybe it’s because one of them is useless and the other is back-up.’
‘What utter rot,’ he said and stamped off, leaving everyone embarrassed.
‘I hissed at the barman to get him a drink pretty damn quick, and left him to his own devices. Of course, being the pro he was, he got on and talked to everyone else, and by dinner time he was completely delightful company.’
Not everyone thrived in his presence. One former director of the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award broke into a sweat whenever he met the Duke – his shirt would be wringing wet and he had to give up the job.
The Duke’s Award, as it is commonly known, was his crowning glory. He was passionate about helping young people achieve their potential.
The explorer David Hempleman-Adams, the first person to have reached the Geographic and Magnetic North and South Poles as well as climb the highest peaks in all seven continents, puts it all down to the 50-mile expedition he did for his Bronze Award at the age of 13.
But this was just one of the 800 charities the Duke was involved with. He was also passionate about wildlife and conservation and was the founding table-thumping president of the World Wildlife Fund.
He was a great advocate for science, technology and design – he owned one of the first mobile phones ever produced and was the first member of the family to own a laptop.
He was a sportsman, an ornithologist, an oil painter; he was a pilot, a yachtsman and an international equestrian. He founded the world-famous Guards Polo Club and wrote the international rule book for carriage driving.
He was a patron of the arts, he bought or commissioned more than 2,000 works, he collected political and Royal cartoons and books – he had more than 13,000. It was he who suggested converting the bomb-damaged private chapel at Buckingham Palace into the Queen’s Gallery and putting works of art from the Royal Collection on display for the public.
He ran the estates at Windsor, Sandringham and Balmoral and was always thinking of new and better ways of doing things. He was the ultimate professional, a punctilious time-keeper, a passionate ambassador and lobbyist, a tireless speaker and phenomenally hard-working. And, when in a good mood, tremendous company.
His death robs the country of one of its most colourful figures. And whatever one’s view of him, there is no denying that he will leave a big hole in public life that will be hard to fill.
It will be a duller, blander, poorer place without him.