At the age of 14, the future Leader of the Labour Party “was wandering around Dartmoor in a small team, with just a compass and a map in the pouring rain, frantically trying to find our way”.
A delightfully self-deprecatory touch as Sir Keir Starmer, as he has since become, paid tribute to the Duke of Edinburgh. He did not, however, go on to say that this had prepared him all too well for his present role as Labour Leader.
Sir Keir instead generalised his experience into the safer, but less amusing, “If that doesn’t prepare you for coming into politics, nothing will.”
Since the press would have quoted against him any suggestion that he and his small team are the ones “frantically trying to find our way”, he was perhaps right to play it safe.
But here is the dilemma of politics: does one sound dull and responsible, and get next no coverage, or go for one’s shots, and risk wilful misrepresentation on the front page?
Prince Philip used to take the latter course. Peter Bottomley, the Father of the House, recalled that the Duke had “a keen appreciation of the value of anti-seriousness”, a phrase coined by the Duke himself.
Ian Blackford, for the Scottish Nationalists, recalled another of the Duke’s dictums, applied to the length of speeches: “What the backside cannot endure, the brain cannot absorb.”
Blackford himself is sometimes accused of being long-winded. Today he was not.
But there were another 132 MPs yet to speak. Was this altogether wise?
For the eulogy is a difficult form, and as the Prime Minister had earlier remarked, the Duke “might be embarrassed or even faintly exasperated to receive these tributes”.
Boris Johnson had already touched on much of what needed to be said. He remarked that the Duke’s shipmates on HMS Wallace remembered how, during the invasion of Sicily, Prince Philip had improvised a decoy, “complete with fires to make it look like a stricken British vessel”, which was sunk by the enemy while the Wallace slipped away.
The Prime Minister also described, with relish, the Duke’s ability to drive “a coach and horses through the finer points of diplomatic protocol”, and offered a short catalogue of examples, including telling a British student in Papua New Guinea “that he was lucky not to be eaten”.
Fifteen years ago, in the pages of The Daily Telegraph, Johnson himself made a similarly tactless reference to Papua New Guinea.
Johnson today took pleasure in observing that people did not object to the Dukes’ gaffes:
“On the contrary, they overwhelmingly understood that he was trying to break the ice, to get things moving, to get people laughing and forget their nerves.”
It is difficult, when composing an eulogy, not to bring oneself into it, and many of those who spoke today quite rightly did so, by describing how the Duke had touched their lives.
He had a wider reach, and there is now more to say about him, because he had the courage not always to play it safe.