World

The islanders who met their god – Prince Philip

17 April 2021

3:00 PM

17 April 2021

3:00 PM

Some time around 2006 my then flatmate, a filmmaker, had a good idea: why not make a programme of reverse anthropology? Instead of going to the jungle with some square-jawed presenter to marvel at the natives, he decided to bring the natives here, to England, to see what they made of us.

The islanders who arrived one drizzly day were from Tanna, in the South Pacific, and their particular interest in coming here was to meet god, aka HRH Prince Philip.

Before they arrived, I felt a certain amount of patronising anxiety. They believed that Prince Philip had emerged from a volcano on Tanna. Would I be able to keep a straight face? My fears were unfounded. Everyone who met them agreed: Chief Yapa, Joel, Posen, Albi and J.J. were significantly more enlightened than us: joyful and direct.


When word came from Windsor that Prince Philip would meet his followers, my anxiety transferred itself: would he disappoint them? How could he not? Never meet your heroes, they say, let alone your god.

When the great day dawned, the islanders were ready. Prince Philip had decided cameras were not to be allowed, so the final episode of my friend’s series Meet the Natives showed them walking through the royal door, as if into a church sanctuary, all five in their Sunday best. Chief Yapa had brought a question with him from Tanna that he said Prince Philip would be sure to understand: ‘When will the pawpaw tree be ripe?’

As we waited for them to emerge again, I imagined Prince Philip making some awful joke; the disappointment in Chief Yapa’s eyes. But when Chief Yapa came out, he was grinning. They’d had a long, respectful conversation, he said. Prince Philip had thought about their question seriously and replied in a very satisfactory way. As my filmmaker friend remembers it, the Prince said: ‘The pawpaw tree is not yet ripe.’ The BBC reports that he said: ‘When it turns warm, I will send a message.’ Whichever it was, god played a blinder.

This is an extract from Mary Wakefield’s column in this week’s Spectator. Click here to read the whole piece.

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