Life & Culture

The prince who knew my father

In his Window on the World column, Jonathan Shalit looks back at his memories of the Duke of Edinburgh


WINDSOR, ENGLAND - JULY 22: Prince Philip (C), Duke of Edinburgh takes part in the transfer of the Colonel-in-Chief of The Rifles at Windsor castle on July 22, 2020 in Windsor, England. The Duke of Edinburgh has been Colonel-in-Chief of The Rifles since its formation in 2007. HRH served as Colonel-in-Chief of successive Regiments which now make up The Rifles since 1953. The Duchess of Cornwall was appointed Royal Colonel of 4th Battalion The Rifles in 2007. (Photo by Adrian Dennis - WPA Pool/Getty Images)

Last weekend saw the beginnings of a return to our pre-Covid lives as we celebrated at Soho Farmhouse. The precious gift of family generations being together is now even more appreciated after our forced separation.

Nick Jones, one of the world’s great hoteliers,founded Soho House 26 years ago — in Soho, not unsurprisingly! Nick was rightly awarded an MBE in 2017 for services to the hospitality industry. By the end of this year there will be more than 30 clubs worldwide including Soho House, Tel Aviv located in a former convent in historic Jaffa. My favourite is West Hollywood with views over Sunset Boulevard from its 17th floor tree-filled rooftop garden. The Hollywood Reporter called it “the most important club in Hollywood — a magnet for A-listers and dealmakers.

I have been reflecting on memories of the Duke of Edinburgh whom I was lucky to meet in 2012 when he visited Henley Business School with the Queen for a garden party we hosted as part of her diamond jubilee celebrations. As an honorary professor at Henley, I was in the welcoming party.

Inevitably, there was a slight air of tension before they arrived. While the Queen was charm personified, it was Prince Philip who immediately broke the ice with his affability. I spoke with him about the Variety children’s charity of which I am a trustee and he was a longtime supporter.

I mentioned a lunch, famous in Variety history, attended by both the Duke and the brilliant comedian, Tommy Cooper. He smiled, enjoying the memory, before telling me: “You are too young to have been alive then!”

Royal visits are preceded by contact from the Palace machine which issues guidance to ensure smooth running of the function. Our Dean, Professor Board, was given the following guidance. Keep the welcoming ceremony under five minutes to hold the royal attention span. Don’t waste money on expensive catering as no-one ever remembers what they ate the day they met the Queen. Finally, after his advance briefing from the Palace, he went to B&Q to buy new toilet seats, having taken the hint about the royals and the preferred condition of those particular “thrones”!

My father, David Shalit MBE shared a passion for carriage driving with the duke. Both competed at Windsor. He invited Prince Philip to join his Coachmakers’ livery company and be on their carriage driving awards committee with both invitations accepted with enthusiasm. They subsequently met many times at lunch and dinner when the duke kindly hosted my father’s committee meetings at Buckingham Place for seven consecutive years.

Reflecting on the Duke’s amazing life makes me think that we should perhaps pay more tribute to people for their achievements when alive, rather than waiting for their obituaries and eulogies.

My father started out with nothing. He built a very successful career in banking through hard work and determination. I still remember him going to work in his smart bowler hat. In the 1970s he was elected a member of the City of London local government, known as common council. There he was influential in the opening of the Barbican Centre and the relocation of the historic Spitalfields Market.

In the 1960s he was awarded the Freedom of the City of London and admitted to The Worshipful Company of Coachmakers & Coach Harness Makers as a Liveryman. He later went on to become ‘Master’ of that historic guild which remains a part of the fabric of the City of London.

He was also a champion fencer, prevented only by an unfortunate injury from representing Britain in the 1952 Olympics. He had previously, in the 1948 Olympics, been a finalist judge just before his eighteenth birthday.

More recently, he served as a Trustee of Age UK London, also leading a committee on positive ageing. His incredible service in “giving back” has also included holding trusteeships of the local Mental Health Authority, managing three Sussex cottage hospitals and Chichester Festival Theatre. In 2016 he was recognized for his work for the City of London and the London elderly by being awarded an MBE.

My mother, Sophie Shalit had a privileged upbringing as the eldest daughter of Henny and Sigmund Gestetner, whose father had invented the stencil duplicator. Both her parents were enormous philanthropists, something she has selflessly continued in her life. Her work in building a presence for leukaemia research in Sussex is epic, a charity for which she single handed raised millions of pounds. Her support of the Royal National Theatre, Chichester Festival Theatre, Royal Academy, Save the Children, the Weizmann Institute of Science and World Jewish Relief have been significant . She also chaired the general committee of Bosham Sailing Club, an important focus for her local communit and served the community as a magistrate and JP.

It has always seemed to me unjust that while her mother, husband and son were recognised with honors, my mother, the most deserving, has not.

So, inspired by memories of the Duke, my shout out this month is a different one from usual. To all lucky enough to have elderly parents from that most remarkable generation, please appreciate them for all they have done for community, country and family.


Professor Jonathan Shalit OBE is chairman of InterTalent

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