What does life look like at 95? Short probably. There can be no denying there is a lot less to go than has gone. And of that left, one hopes, will be lived in good health. So it’s not really a surprise the Duke of Edinburgh has decided to retire after 70 years of public duty. And after 22,191 solo public engagements, 637 solo overseas visits to 143 countries, he has probably earnt a rest. He’s stayed the course longer than he thought; “It’s better to get out before you reach your sell-by date.” he said on his 90th birthday but now, it’s likely, a real fear of looking frail in public has decided this. As ever he’s laughing it off; “I’m sorry to hear you’re standing down,” the mathematician Sir Michael Atiyah said to him yesterday. “Well, I can’t stand up much longer,” he replied.
He may have made, deliberately or not, some corking gaffes along the way;
- “If it doesn’t fart or eat hay, she’s not interested.” (on the Princess Royal)
- “You look like a suicide bomber.” (to a young female officer wearing a bullet-proof vest on Stornoway, Isle of Lewis, in 2002).
- “If you stay here much longer, you’ll all be slitty-eyed.” (to British students in China, during the 1986 state visit).
but his dedication to the Queen, and to his official duties as her consort are in little doubt. And since his announcement accolades to his service have dominated the Media. Now the caricature of a grumpy old man is being written away with a re-appraisal of his past skills (a qualified pilot, a great cricketer and polo player) and offerings to this country as a ‘moderniser and sage’ (as the author of 14 books – Competition Carriage Driving is one – and with a particular interest in science, engineering, design, the environment and conservation) ;
“What distinguished the young Philip then from the pomposity of what was in many ways an Edwardian royal household was his impatience with the old ways, and his preference for substance over form. A royal patron for science who was actually interested in science? A royal visitor to a hydroelectric power station who actually wanted to discuss the turbines? A consort who immersed himself in plans for children from Britain’s cities? Not since Prince Albert had a missionary for progress made it to the heart of the stuffy establishment.” (Matthew Parris, The Times)
Prince Philip has said he’ll stay in post until the end of the summer. And then he’ll be handing over to the ‘younger ones’ (time to step up Harry and Wills…). So that’s given the Royal Household a few months to plan his retirement do then.
No doubt it will be a grand affair, fitting for a Prince. There’s likely to be speeches and plenty of gifts too. Of course a medal and other dedicated silverware would be fittingly traditional. But what can the country give a man (who pretty much has had it all, including 2 pygmi hippotami, a gift from Liberia in 1961)? How about some hyacinths?
These highly fragrant, bell-shaped flowers, are usually associated with games and sports. And rashness. Whilst the blue hyacinth represents constancy and sincerity. A native of the eastern shores of the Mediterranean and named after a Greek youth, Hyakinthos, they do seem rather fitting for Prince Philip.
Sporting: Hyacinths are said to date back to ancient Greece. Mythology says Apollo the sun god, and Zephyr the god of the west wind were both infatuated with Hyakinthos (the son of Spartan king, Amyclas) and competed fiercely for his attention. Apollo would spend days with the boy, hunting and hanging out. One day whilst teaching Hyakinthos the art of throwing a discus, Zephyr, in a jealous rage, blew the discus back, killing the boy with a strike to the head. Apollo, distraught, named the flower that grew from Hyakinthos’s blood – hyacinth. And inscribed ai ai (a Greek cry of pain) on the petals.
Here Apollo, recognizable by his red cape and lyre, cradles Hyacinth as he stumbles. At their feet is the discus which caused Hyacinth’s death and scattered flowers. The Zephyrus, or west wind, blows Apollo’s cape. (The painting, Broc’s most famous, presently belongs in the collection of Poitiers and is often displayed at the Musée Sainte-Croix.)
Saintly – The devotion and sincerity associated with hyacinths is linked to the several Saint Hyacinths. From the Polish Dominican priest, St Hyacinth, who lived in Kiev from 1185-1287, and was known for his total devotion made manifest, when he carried a heavy statue of the Virgin Mary away from sacking Tartars.
To an early Christian Martyr, Hyacinth of Caesarea, a 12 year old Roman boy who refused to participate in cermemonies to Roman gods and was starved for his religious faith in 108AD. Amazingly his remains lie preserved today, in an elaborate Bavarian church close to Munich, Germany.
Aristocratic: Whilst the elevated status of hyacinths can be attributed to the 16th century mania for bulb plants, which saw them as prizes and as their prices rose so they became the preserve of the elite. Later epitomised in France by Louis XVI’s mistress, Madame de Pompadour, who held sway at the court of Versailles between 1745 and 1760.
An avid devotee of the hyacinth she ordered the gardens of Versailles to be filled with them and had hundreds forced “on glasses” inside the palace in winter. The flowers were used not only for decorating the great halls of palaces but also the plunging necklines of the ladies always looking for the latest novelties in fashion.
Today these fragrant flowers remain a symbol of style and elegance.
Fitting then for a man who has over time represented both, perhaps then, we could think like Lucien Freud and produce for Prince Philip a ‘Self-portrait with Hyacinth in Pot’?
Happy retirement, Sire.
Featured image: the Royal Bouquet, a sculpture commemorating the Queen’s diamond jubilee in 2012. http://www.dailymail.co.uk/