THERE was no crush of people outside the wrought iron gates of Buckingham Palace on Saturday, the day after the death of Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh. The mourners came in a trickle, as singles or in pairs, to pay their respects or simply to take selfies against the slowly growing line of bouquets.
It could be that people stayed home out of fear of catching Covid-19, or because they just couldn’t bear to be out on a cold, rainy day. But perhaps the sparse turnout was also an affirmation of Prince Philip’s place in public life: never at the centre but always by the Queen’s side. And, as one visitor pointed out, the duke’s passing wasn’t tragic. “It is sad, indeed, but not a shock or a tragedy,” said Murray Wakefield, who was visiting London with his daughter to tour universities. “He was nearly 100 years old.”
Away from the visitors outside the palace, the commentary around Prince Philip is divided by those who thought of him as an eccentric, politically-incorrect man who told off-colour jokes and those who felt these peculiarities shouldn’t overshadow his contributions. To the latter, Prince Philip was an extraordinary individual who lived through war and a changing world by dedicating his life to service.
Of course, those who showed up outside the palace after his death had a soft spot for the duke. “I liked his face,” said Nina, who was hesitant to speak at first as she was not fluent in English. “I wasn’t interested in the royal family as such but there was something about his personality that made me come here today.” She brought flowers.
Nigel, who works with an evangelistic charity, said he was there to provide emotional support for those who have been moved by the duke’s passing. Members of his association had stayed outside the palace overnight. “People have had a challenging year, and those I spoke with here have expressed fear and anxiety,” he said.
A couple, Anna and Rory, marveled at the long marriage — of 73 years — between the Queen of England and the duke. “We would be lucky to spend that much time with each other,” said Anna, She added that it was important for her to pay her respects because “we have all been so separated during Covid-19”.
“It is nice to see people being people,” said Rory, who described the duke as the last of his kind. “He was not always politically correct but he always had a twinkle in his eye,” he added.
The couple noted how authorities did not prevent people, many of them without face coverings, from gathering outside the palace. “They wouldn’t dare to stop people today, it would be a PR disaster,” said Rory. He was referring to the high-handed behaviour by the police just weeks earlier at a vigil held for Sarah Everard, a 33-year-old marketing executive who disappeared on her walk home and was later found dead in the woods. Her death sparked a national soul searching in the country, as women called for stricter laws and better protection. A vigil held in her memory was disrupted by the police, and ended in arrests. Police said a demonstration was illegal in light of coronavirus restrictions.
Outside the palace, Rory noted the increased presence of security officials and the “jarring aesthetics of their security jackets”. There were a larger number of police officials in the grounds, and dozens outside the palace gates. Unlike previous occasions, where people have been allowed to walk up to the gates and lay down their flowers, in a post-pandemic world there were rope cordons and barriers to keep a distance. Earlier, visitors were allowed to place their flowers by the palace walls, but that was soon forbidden. Now they stood by the cordons, and scattered heaps of bouquets and cards were left by the barriers.
Teleki Pal said he brought a bouquet to leave it by the wall, but now had second thoughts. “The duke was a funny guy, he had a sense of humour. I reckon he would find it amusing if I just went back home with these.”
Bahja, another visitor, said she hadn’t spoken to someone in a very long time. “I am no fan of the monarchy. I don’t believe the modern world should have a set of people who have so much privilege,” she said, but she came because “grief is collective”.
“I came to see how people are feeling.”
Interestingly, Bahja said she had no idea about the duke’s contributions till after he had died. Though she criticised the BBC’s overly deferential coverage that halted all other programming to cover Prince Philip’s death, she said she was surprised to know how dedicated his life was to service. It was a testament to the Queen’s words in 1997, when on the occasion of her golden anniversary with the duke, she said. “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.”
Of the tributes, the sweetest were paid by children. Drawings of the duke, which bore no resemblance to him, were tucked away neatly by 10 and 11-year-olds into a bunch of flowers. Handwritten cards, with broken words and tell-tale childish spelling, expressed sympathy for the “luvly” Queen and hoped her heart wasn’t “braking”. It was remarkable, that of the dozens of cards written by children, the majority talked about how much this would affect her. Even they knew that the duke’s death was more about the Queen.
Published in Dawn, April 12th, 2021