Friday, November 8, 2013

Move over Mrs Queen - Philip is our king


Like a surreal sitcom or a movie Ealing never made is the island in the South Pacific where Prince Philip is worshipped as the ‘son of the local mountain god’.

In the jungle there are bamboo tabernacles ‘filled with royal mugs and Jubilee cake tins.’ A mouldering pile of newspaper clippings about Prince Charles’s organic farms is a Holy Relic.

The locals who pray to His Royal Highness on ‘telephones made of creeper vines’ expect him any day to appear from the clouds, bringing forth a ‘huge shipment of fridges, guns, trucks and washing machines,’ says Matthew Baylis, like ‘some messianic version of Sale Of The Century.’ Is it truly Prince Philip they want or the TV show’s host Nicholas Parsons?

It is easy to mock. Baylis, who because he’d joked: ‘I’ve brought English weather with me!’ was taken by the natives for a witch-doctor, thus the one personally responsible for the endless unseasonal rain, tries to portray himself throughout this book as: ‘a clumsy clown blundering into that frail, delicate mountain society.’

He certainly has a hard time keeping a straight face when he outlines the pidgin dialect, where ‘bugarup’ means broken and ‘rubba belong fak-fak’ is a condom.

Prince Philip’s private secretary, Brigadier Sir Miles Hunt-Davis, is Big Ass Dear Summer Lance Daisies. If HRH didn’t know that before, and is reading this over his breakfast egg, I don’t want to be responsible for his choking to death laughing. But it could happen.

The cult began, it seems, when the Royal Yacht sailed around Polynesia about 40 years ago. The good natives on Tanna, ‘a kidney-shaped isle of 18,000 souls,’ 18 km in extent, which cost the Empire £23,362 annually to run and which yielded £10,719 in sandalwood sales, liked the sound of this man of French, German, Russian and Danish descent, who’d operated a searchlight during the Battle of Mattapan and had diverted enemy shells away from HMS Wallace in the war.

Prince Philip was ‘an all-action chap, the very kind they admired on Tanna,’ and, furthermore, he ‘didn’t belong to France or England or America, or any of the other nations the Tannese knew.’

They saw him as a foundling or changeling out of mythology, a baby who’d been taken from Corfu in 1922 in ‘his orange-crate bed,’ distinguished himself as a fighting hero, married a princess and lived in a castle. Covered with his medals, he looked made of metal.

This is no nuttier, in fact, than Germanic myths about Siegfried or the Vikings and Beowulf.

A theme in Baylis’s book, indeed, is how religions evolve, the combination of imagination, fancifulness and wishful thinking.

The Tannese believe Buckingham Palace, ‘a big house with soldiers around it,’ means ‘back-e-g-home-paradise,’ because the prince ‘is sick with longing for Tanna.’ Like Siegfried yearning for Valhalla.

Good sport that he is, HRH has sent ceremonial clay pipes and signed photographs to the islanders, two in 1978 and another in 2000, ‘veritable icons’ kept in a hut on stilts.

In gratitude and reciprocation, Prince Philip has been promised ‘three virgin wives’, if only he’d return to his village.

Kwin Lisbet, his current wife, could come, too, they added.

Were he to get Big Ass Daisies to dispatch, on his behalf, an autographed copy of his gripping book, Competition Carriage Driving, I have no doubt that Siko Nathuan, the current chieftain, would extend the islanders’ warm invitation even to Fergie, who could be allowed a job in the kitchens.

As Baylis acknowledges, it all sounds ‘barking mad’, the product of ‘mud-bespattered tribesmen, deluded by their home-grown drugs’. Baylis has had experience of the latter.

‘Kava’ is a lethal brew, made from a fibrous root, milled in a mincing machine and mixed with rainwater and spit. It is drunk straight from a coconut shell and makes you collapse and have visions. Baylis also knows what it is like to spend months eating nothing but yams: ‘My stomach began to boil with angry gasses.’ So he has done his best to be as the Tannese are, and he fell in love with them.

The touching brilliance of Man Belong Mrs Queen is that the ‘machete-wielding cultists’ are taken seriously. Like a professional anthropologist, Baylis comes to appreciate how a society that seems at first so alien is nevertheless ‘inherently sensible and logical.’

For example, if Prince Philip is ‘unpopular, misunderstood and mocked’ at home, the Tannese can see that his belief that ‘rising populations lead to epidemics and food shortages’ is not an ‘attack upon the poor and hungry’ but makes utter common sense.

How weird, in fact, Europeans must seem to the South Seas islanders - pale ghosts appearing on floating houses, killing people with ‘exploding sticks.’ When Westerners took their shoes off, it seemed that they had no toes - the Tannese hadn’t seen socks before. The maddest thing the natives ever heard was the story of wives in England and the U.S. who go out to work in order to earn money to pay for the women who look after their children. Indeed, what kind of topsy-turvy world is it that has nannies?

And what about taps installed by well-meaning missionaries? The tribal elders destroyed them, because otherwise what would women do all day, if they couldn’t spend three hours walking to the well and three hours walking back? With time on their hands they’d gossip and squabble, that’s what. There’s wisdom there.

If the Tannese exchange vegetables and daughters with neighbours at festivals, don’t we do that at the Royal Welsh Show in Builth Wells?

Furthermore, if young tribesmen, at initiation ceremonies, are ‘starved and fed rotten food, beaten and deliberately bewildered,’ how does that differ in essence from a traditional English public school education?

The only thing that worried me was the National Dress - ‘a cover for the penis made of a dried palm-like pandanus leaf and secured in place by a belt around the waist’ - because you’d not get away with wearing that in Windsor Castle, though you probably could in Balmoral.

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