Arguable: The wicked wit of the queen’s husband

Britain's Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, in his role as Captain General, Royal Marines, attends a Parade to mark the finale of the 1664 Global Challenge on the Buckingham Palace Forecourt in central London on August 2, 2017. Prince Philip, the 96-year-old husband of Queen Elizabeth II, conducted his final solo public engagement on August 2, 2017, overseeing a military parade in the pouring rain before retiring from a lifetime of service. The Duke of Edinburgh, wearing a raincoat and bowler hat, met members of the Royal Marines and veterans -- many younger than him -- before taking the salute in the forecourt of Buckingham Palace. / AFP PHOTO / POOL / Yui MokYUI MOK/AFP/Getty Images
YUI MOK/AFP/Getty Images
Prince Philip, the 96-year-old husband of Queen Elizabeth II, conducted his final solo public engagement on August 2, 2017, overseeing a military parade in the pouring rain before retiring from a lifetime of service.

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‘A cantankerous old sod’

Penguin has published a compilation of offbeat and amusing quotations from the sovereign of England, who, to judge from The Wicked Wit of Queen Elizabeth II, isn’t really given to offbeat or amusing quotations. Though she is the longest-reigning monarch in British history — she has been on the throne for 65 years, two years longer (so far) than the previous record-holder, her great-great-grandmother, Queen Victoria — Elizabeth’s output of bons mots is decidedly on the skimpy side.

So editor Karen Dolby had to pad the book with filler, such as a seven-page timeline of Elizabeth’s life, and a generous scattering of interesting trivia. I learned, for example, that the queen only wears hats in the daytime, that she is the royal patron of several (!) pigeon racing societies, and that she doesn’t need a passport (since all British passports are issued in her name).

But what really carries the book, IMHO, are the many quotes from Prince Philip, to whom Elizabeth has been married for 70 years (their anniversary was last week). Philip, who once described himself as a “cantankerous old sod,” is notorious for his unvarnished complaints and put-downs, and Dolby rounds up plenty of prickly examples:


• After the 1969 Royal Variety Performance, the prince challenged one of the performers, pop singer Tom Jones: “What do you gargle with — pebbles?”

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• When Simon Kelner, the editor-in-chief of The Independent, showed up at a reception marking the queen’s Golden Jubilee in 2002, Prince Philip demanded to know what he was doing there. Kelner replied that he’d received an invitation from the prince himself. Retorted Philip: “Well, you didn’t have to come.”

• At the opening of London’s City Hall in 2002, Prince Philip declared: “The problem with London is the tourists. . . . If we could just stop the tourism, we could stop the congestion.”

• Philip during a 1976 visit to Canada: “We don’t come here for our health. We can think of other ways of enjoying ourselves.”

• The prince couldn’t see the value of the Apollo space program. “It’s the best way of wasting money that I know of,” he groused to reporters in 1968, a few months before Neil Armstrong took one giant leap for mankind. “I don’t think investments on the moon pay a very high dividend.”


Philip’s kvetching isn’t particularly gracious. But then, the life of a royal consort must be an endlessly boring trial. And, however cantankerous he may be, his wife does seem quite fond of him. “She still lights up when he walks into the room,” a palace insider said in 2007. “She becomes softer, lighter, and happier.” That’s not a bad testimonial for a spouse known mostly for his gibes and gaffes. If Prince Harry, whose engagement to actress Meghan Markle was announced today, is looking for a marital role model, he could do worse than to consider his grandfather.

HANDOUT EDITORIAL USE ONLY/NO SALES HANDOUT EDITORIAL USE ONLY/NO SALES Mandatory Credit: Photo by Matt Holyoak/CameraPress/HANDOUT/EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock (9228897d) Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip A new portrait of the Queen and Prince Philip 70th wedding anniversary, London, United Kingdom - 18 Nov 2017
Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip on Nov. 18.

(Postscript: I wrote an Arguable item back in March about the British government’s “amazingly intricate plan” for the inevitable day when Queen Elizabeth dies.)

And now, the big seatbelt production number

I recently flew Virgin America for the first time, and couldn’t decide if I found its safety video eccentric and offbeat or just . . . off.

On the one hand, we’ve all heard the spiel (“insert the metal end into the buckle . . . put your mask on first before you offer assistance”) a thousand times, and Virgin’s attempt to make it less tedious and ignorable is to be welcomed. On the other hand, why did the airline decide it would be a good idea to turn a 90-second announcement into an endless — OK, five minutes, but it felt endless — song-and-dance routine, complete with writhing stewardi, rapping children, synchronized Men in Black, and a flying nun?

Then again, what do I know? The video has been viewed more than 12.7 million times on YouTube, so somebody must find it irresistible. But after watching the first two minutes as I waited for my flight from San Francisco to Boston to get underway, I couldn’t help wondering when it would end — and wondering what Virgin hoped to accomplish with such an elaborate, and presumably expensive, production. Does it make passengers more attuned to safety? More prepared for an emergency evacuation? More interested in flying Virgin?


Or just more desperate for the routine to finish?

Apparently I’m not the only passenger to find the Virgin video less than delightful. So does airline-pilot-turned-blogger Patrick Smith, whose popular website Ask the Pilot has been covering “all things air travel” for 15 years. In a blog post titled “Safety Video Hell,” he captured my reaction precisely:

The idea, I think, is that you’ll come away thinking: Wow, like, that’s so edgy and cool and fun.

I came away tired and looking for an aspirin.

They took a somewhat entertaining idea and made a monster out of it. The video runs for an excruciating five minutes. Imagine being a Virgin America frequent flyer, or employee, and having to endure that thing over and over and over and over. The cabin crew are going to need counseling.

Smith describes airline safety videos as “a kind of legal fine print come to life.” Airlines make a safety announcement at the start of each flight, presumably, to ensure that important information is taken seriously. But making a big production number out of it only detracts from its significance. It tells passengers: Hey, this is fun! It should be telling them: Hey, this could save your life! Virgin might have generated “a little publicity and a bit of social media buzz,” he writes, but it didn’t make the safety briefing compelling.

“If you insist on being cute, please do it in 60 seconds or less,” Smith pleads. I second the motion.

Divided we stand

In a Thanksgiving tweet, I remarked lightly that I’d “heard my first official ‘It’s-only-Thanksgiving-and-Christmas-is-still-five-weeks-away’ Christmas song at 8 a.m. this morning. In a kosher bakery in Brookline.” Then I added: “As #ThomasJefferson said about religion in America: ‘Divided we stand.’”

A reader wrote to ask if I was being facetious or making some obscure Jefferson joke. Far from it, I answered, and provided a link so she could read Jefferson’s original comment. I want to expand on the point here.

Rembrandt Peale
Thomas Jefferson.

The third president used the phrase in a letter he wrote to Jacob de la Motta, an American physician, Army veteran, and Jewish communal leader, who had sent Jefferson a copy of his remarks at the dedication of Congregation Mickve Israel, a synagogue in Savannah, Ga. In his reply, written at Monticello on September 1, 1820, Jefferson described how “gratifying” he found it that the United States was the first nation in history “to prove to the world two truths, the most salutary to human society — that man can govern himself, and that religious freedom is the most effectual anodyne against religious dissension: the maxim of civil government being reversed in that of religion, where its true form is ‘divided we stand, united we fall.’”

Jefferson’s point was not merely, like that of George Washington’s famous letter to the Jewish community of Newport, R.I., that the new American government was committed to religious tolerance, and would give “to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance.” He was arguing something deeper, and as relevant today as ever: The surest way of preventing a society from tearing itself apart in religious strife is not through the establishment of an official religion, but through a steadfast refusal to give any religious creed the endorsement of the state, let alone to dictate how Americans should worship or what faith they should confess.

Our most volatile clashes and controversies tend to flare up when government has its heavy hand on the scale. The neverending skirmishing — or worse — over what is to be taught in public schools is a good example. Because schools are controlled by the government, and the government is controlled by those with the most political power, parents, teachers, and administrators frequently find themselves at daggers drawn.

“Throughout American history,” Neal McCluskey, a scholar at the Cato Institute, has written, “public schooling has produced political disputes, animosity, and sometimes even bloodshed between diverse people.” Battles royal have erupted over race and ethnicity, over Darwinism-vs.-intelligent-design, over the censoring of books and the wearing of armbands, over multiculturalism and sex education.

Yet furious conflict over religion in this country is almost unheard-of — even though most Americans feel at least as strongly about their religion as they do about their kids’ education. American Catholics and Protestants don’t get into vicious catfights over the pope’s authority. Orthodox and Reform Jews don’t wage war over the proper content of the Sabbath prayerbook. Atheists and believers don’t erupt in bitter clashes over whether children should be taught to pray before going to sleep. Though religious differences run deep, religious animosity is pretty rare. Americans live peacefully with neighbors whose deepest religious convictions they oppose. Why?

Because, in Jefferson’s words, “religious freedom is the most effectual anodyne against religious dissension.” Our Constitution enshrines religious liberty. Americans decide for themselves what to believe and how to worship. Government plays no role in those decisions. Politicians have no power to determine the doctrines of any faith. Church and state are separate in America. That’s why religion flourishes, and why it has tended flourish so peaceably.

There have been occasional exceptions, some quite shameful. Religious minorities have at times faced despicable persecution — Mormons were massacred, Catholics tarred as disloyal, Jews barred from hotels and universities. America’s religious tolerance hasn’t been perfect.

But those are exceptions, and they don’t invalidate the general rule: Where religious liberty is secure, divided we stand. Nearly two centuries after Jefferson penned his letter to Dr. de la Motta, America is a nation of 300 million and the home to faiths and sects the Founders never heard of. When it comes to religion, we are further from unanimity than ever. And yet we live, by and large, in a land of religious amity — a country where kosher bakeries play Christmas music, and no one bats an eye. Hallelujah!


My column yesterday endorsed the proposed repeal of the Affordable Care Act’s so-called individual mandate. That’s the requirement that US citizens must purchase health insurance or pay a steep fine to the IRS. The individual mandate has always been the most unpopular feature of Obamacare, and for good reason: It’s wrong for the government to punish people for not buying something they don’t want or can’t afford. The mandate hits only a tiny percentage of the population, since most people get health insurance from their employer, or are covered through Medicare or Medicaid. It penalizes mostly low- or middle-income families, for whom there is often no good health insurance option. The mandate is unfair and ineffective, and the sooner Congress scraps it, the better.

Last Wednesday, the day before Thanksgiving, I wrote about the Mayflower Compact. It deserves to be celebrated as the foundation stone of American democracy, for its key elements foreshadowed themes that would be enshrined in the Declaration of Independence — that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by God with basic rights, and that government derives legitimacy from the consent of the governed. That is no small legacy for a document of only 200 words, which was drawn up in haste as the Mayflower approached the coast of Massachusetts nearly 400 years ago.

Following up . . .

Last week’s Arguable sang the praises of Taylor Swift and other celebrity entertainers who keep their politics to themselves. Courtesy of reader Alan Ringuette, here’s another: Elvis Presley. The King gave an interview at Madison Square Garden in 1972, and was asked (starting at 4:35 in the video) for his opinion of antiwar protesters. “Honey, I’d just as soon keep my own personal views about that to myself,” he answered, a little shyly. “I’m just an entertainer and I’d rather not say.”

Wild Wild Web

Boston artist Ari Weinkle describes his work as “mostly experimental, often digital, and usually weird.” It’s also gorgeous, hypnotic, noodly, and alphabetically creepy.

You know that Plymouth is one of the 10 oldest cities in America — the Pilgrims and all that. Can you name the other nine?

That book that fell in a puddle or got left out in the rain? Here’s how to rescue it.

The forgotten (and kind of naughty) history of “Jingle Bells.”

Another Actress Accuses Kirk Cameron of Treating Her with Respect.”

First performed on this date in 1896: Also Sprach Zarathustra by Richard Strauss.

1,800 gallons of vodka were stolen from an L.A. distillery. “They won’t get far without mixers,” observes Dave Barry.

“OK” comes from Boston, thanks to an editor who — unlike my editors — apparently didn’t know how to spell.

The last line

“Then there was only the ocean and the sky and the figure of Howard Roark.” — Ayn Rand, The Fountainhead (1943)

Jeff Jacoby can be reached at jacoby@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @jeff_jacoby.