Book review: Young Prince Philip: His Turbulent Early Life


I have never met the high-spirited subject of this unusual book but I do own a lightweight summer jacket, now a bit frayed around the cuffs, made for one of his German nephews. The fact that all of Prince Philip's brothers-in-law fought on the wrong side in the last war is only one source of the turbulence that marked his early life and I'm more than happy to get these particular embarrassments out of the way quickly.

More significant or damaging were surely the strains between his Battenberg mother and Greek father and their own private dramas. Soon after Philip's birth, his father was under house arrest in Athens and facing a mock court martial while his mother, born deaf, was already sinking into a serious mental illness. Though Philip was born in a grand enough villa in Corfu - on the dining-room table, as it happens - his parents soon faced penury and went their own ways, leaving their son to be shuffled about between relations and schools in Greece, France, Britain and Nazi Germany. As an 18-month-old baby, our hero left Corfu in a crib fashioned out of an old fruit crate.

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The wonderful thing is that he seems to have been partly oblivious to these ordeals. Self-assured, energetic, hilariously mischievous and complex, he is described in these pages as both "immensely gregarious" and "a bit of a loner". His transition from bumptious baby to universally trusted head boy at Gordonstoun, from plucky seaman to breezy Royal escort, home maker and instinctive moderniser makes fascinating reading. "I just had to get on with it," he explained later. "You do. One does."

The extraordinary ordinariness of those formative years is also hard to believe. At the age of three-and-a-half, did he really travel on a London bus and insist, as my children do today, on sitting on the upper deck? Years later, did he really roar around war-torn Alexandria in an absurdly small car? And, shortly after the war, did he actually live in a cheap hotel in Newcastle and work in a shipyard?

The course of Prince Philip's romance with his third cousin, the Queen, is lovingly charted: his rare wartime visits to Windsor Castle, the happy family atmosphere he encountered there, subsequent high jinks with Elizabeth and her sister in the corridors of Buckingham Palace and the future monarch's decision, at the age of 17, that this devastatingly handsome blond-haired 23-year-old was "the one", are described in rich detail.

So are the machinations of Philip's uncle Lord Louis Mountbatten and the hostility to the match from some of the crustier courtiers, unaware that what they saw as the Prince's faults - his utter lack of fawning deference - were what the princess found so irresistible.

This carefully researched, warm-hearted and unjudgmental account, which ends with the Queen's coronation, is perhaps too rich in detail - not everyone needs to know that the Greek king had a dachshund called Otto or that the young Prince Philip was never very keen on wearing pyjamas - but also successfully quashes the myth that, as a young man, he recklessly "played the field".

The author is unable to corroborate the rumours about him and Helene Cordet and makes it clear that his famous public flirtation with musical comedy star Pat Kirkwood was pure innocent fun.

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In spite of this, to some people, disappointing news, this book will probably annoy the few remaining snobs and stuffed shirts around the palace. The subject of this book, on the other hand, who has apparently always enjoyed laughing at himself, will surely be amused by most of its contents.

For all his undoubted talent of opening his mouth and putting his foot in it, Prince Philip certainly comes across as a good egg, and fun to be with .