by John Clare
Aware of the aching void they leave in the hearts of loyal Aussies; of our despair at having nothing to watch now on the TV, and with the heart-rending plaint ‘I’ll never be Royal’ still quivering in the air, the Royal Couple might well be tempted to make a mercy dash back to our shores. To their Gracious Majesties I most worshipfully say: Don’t do it! Cold hearted as it may seem, you must say, ‘Nix nix!’ to these pathetic colonial appeals. Also ‘Let them eat cake. We’ve seen Taronga Bonga Park and Tony Blair’s Rock and now crave a different kind of berz. Let them drive Cadillacs in their dreams.’ For Godsake, let them live that fantasy! For if you come back too soon we will kill you!
There is a precedent.
Watching the arrival of Captain Cook, on a craft of supernatural size with huge white sails, the awe-struck Hawaiians naturally took this to be the realisation of a long foretold visit by the god Ono, on a great bird with tremendous white wings. They feasted him and bowed and curtsied before him everywhere he went and they wailed as he sailed away. And that was that. Polynesian girls could stop practising the curtsy and get on with the hula hula. Also the wickey wacky woo no doubt. Unfortunately Cook returned. But this was not foretold! This was not meant to be! They killed him of course. And unless you give us time to forget your devastating departure we will kill you!
You may be surprised to learn that I have a special interest here. In 1954 the recently crowned Elizabeth II waved at me directly in Centennial Park. She waved from the back of an open car and the Duke, standing beside her, remarked, ‘I like the cut of that boy’s jib’, snapping off a crisp naval salute in my direction. An account of this, and of the profound effect it had on me can be found in my book Take Me Higher (Extempore). This is the one and only time I will mention a book of mine here, but this incident is surely of historical significance. Some may attribute my near-collapse in the Royal presence to having stood in the sun too long, waiting along with other boys from Sydney High for the Royal appearance, but it was something far more profound. Truly Inspired, though wobbling at the knees and seeing double, I wrote these lines with my Platinum fountain pen in my school exercise book (now worth a fortune if only I had kept it): ‘I did but see her passing by / and knew I’d love her till I died.’ These words were later addressed to her by Sir Robert Menzies, soon to be Lord Of The Cinque Ports. The Queen winced and with a cringing half-smile tried to hide her face between her hunching shoulders. Some scribes reported that she was embarrassed. No, she was outraged by the bare-faced plagiary of my work by the Hon R. G. M. and it was only absent-mindedness that prevented her having him beheaded. She simply forgot him. But not that brave boy swaying and wobbling in the antipodean sun as he penned his immortal words.
You may scoff, but some of the above is true, including the part where Her Majesty, noticing my ashen countenance, had the Royal Car drive back so she could comfort me and press cold wet cloths to my face, having dispatched motor cycle escorts off to fetch them. Some may dispute this. Why it was not reported remains a mystery of that curious age when Pepsi Cola came to Australia to do battle with long-established Coke.
Another forgotten fact – and this is definitely true – is that the Duke had visited Australia shortly before marrying Elizabeth. My aunt Joan then worked on the reception desk of Valentine’s restaurant, owned by Charles Valentino, a serviceman from Queens who later married her, making him my uncle in law. Surprisingly, he was given the option of being discharged here by his commanding officer who knew he had fallen in love. He was given a week to decide, after which they would all be shipped back Stateside. He decided immediately. Many celebrities of the time, including radio people (Jack Davey, Bob and Dolly Dyer for instance), actors and actresses, sports stars, etc, frequented that famous restaurant in Pitt Street, where Johnny O’Keefe’s band later practised between trading hours. The O’Keefe furniture store was upstairs at street level and Johnny called my aunt Aunty Joan, as of course did I. She once sewed up his split pants before he went on stage. Valentines was also ‘Home Of Chicken In The Basket’, believe it or not. It was, in case you are wondering, in the basement of an arcade just uphill from Liverpool Street. Paddy’s Market was further down the hill in China Town, and I sometimes went there with Charles at dawn to get the freshest produce. It felt like New York at that hour. The Duke also appeared at Valentines, and the gossip was that he was making full use of his remaining freedom. There was indeed an article that implied as much on the front page of one of the tabloids, with a photo of Phillip running out of a small surf, displaying a pair of very skinny legs.
On the front pages every day through that period was a map of Korea, where a war, now largely forgotten but then almost as troubling as Vietnam, was being fought between the communist north and the capitalist south. The north had invaded and a consortium of allies, including America, Britain and Australia had moved in to ensure a victory for the south. This map was a daily graph of advances and retreats across the 38th parallel, which became the official border between North Korea and South Korea when the war ended in 1953. There was a heart-stopping moment when the Chinese communists came down over the border from the north, but they created a sort of buffer zone and advanced no further. The establishment of Israel had recently been accomplished (1948), following more warfare. And of course this followed soon after the end of the Second World War (1945).
These recollections and ponderings were of course triggered by the synchronicity of Royal Visit and Anzac Day. Royals and wars. I remember flashes of World War 2, but more vividly recall the immediate post war period, when barbed wire still lay tangled on the sand at the south end of Maroubra Beach and a Tiger Moth trainer – a bi-plane that looked as if it belonged in the Great War and should have been piloted by Biggles – still occasionally towed an orange thimble-shaped target over the sea, beyond the long south headland with its gun positions in the cliffs, followed by black puffs of ack ack on the sky, like the ink released by octopusses and squid. I remember taking rationing tickets when I was sent to the shop and when somebody showed me a wad of these a while ago they were exactly as I remembered them. My Uncle Len did not come back. He disappeared in one of the American Kittyhawk fighter-bombers of which Australia had a few. It was almost certainly his body that was seen floating in water so cold he would have lasted no more than seven minutes, if he was not dead already. My uncle Bob accidentally avoided death by falling down a bomb crater, where he lay still as a detachment of Germans or Japanese (forgotten that one) passed close by. I was too young or too old for all the several pertinent wars of my lifetime. I leap-frogged them all, thank God; but I remember what the shadow of war felt like, its profound gravity, its deep unpleasantness, yet also its fascination. There were times when a small boy could almost feel the gaze of a hostile God examining him microscopically, as he in turn peered through glaucous or sometimes frighteningly clear air at the creation around him. God did not seem to like me and nor did my father. Not that I heard anything of God from my parents or friends, or indeed their parents. None of us went to church. As the shadow of war lifted, God seemed to go away, colours became brighter, the sea was blue, the sun shone, and in came the joy of those who knew nothing beyond the heaven of here and now. And the war became no more than another source of adventure stories and hair raising enactments, and the sea became more real than any war.
Curiously, though my parents never went to church in my childhood, nor ever spoke of God, my late Aunt Joan recently told me that my mother’s side of the family was Baptist. As a very young girl Joan had seen her older brother Bob being baptised in a tank that seemed to lie beneath the wooden floor of the church, several of whose planks were lifted aside on such occasions. Stricken with panic and grief, she wailed, ‘They’re drownding him, they’re drownding him!’ and had to be taken out. My grandfather, a bushman and sometime boss of shearing sheds went overseas in the First World War with the Light Horse. He led horse and mule teams drawing artillery. My father drove ammunition trucks between Alice Springs and Darwin, and though these men went into legend he saw himself as less than a man because he had not been sent overseas. Someone told him that if he joined the hated military police they would send him immediately. He did and they didn’t. I think it explains a lot. In a rare and curious exercise of fatherly magnanimity he taught me some rather diabolical holds, strikes and throws. Later, at Essendon High in Melbourne I used this knowledge when a large Russian boy charged at me. I rolled backward, gathering his hands and propelling him overhead with my feet in his belly. Incidentally breaking his arm as he fell.
I personally could not give two shits whether we have a monarch or not. the Queen can do nothing adverse to me unless bidden to by our own politicians. the possibility of her doing anything contrary is so remote that her existence is virtually irrelevant in this regard. You may be too young to remember this, but there was a period when most adult women of the working classes said of Elizabeth, ‘She looks so sour. She never smiles.’ But after the Princess Di crisis, after Prince Charles’s most peculiar tampax fantasy, the year of horribleness, the toe-sucking minor princess and so forth, she was still standing. You had to admire her dedication to duty. And I for one have no real desire to deny the masses the comfort and ecstacy the royals bring to them. Along with the Spice Girls, the Beatles, Johnny Ray, Abba, Paris whatsername – Hilton – and all the rest of the passing cavalcade. Each of them passes, usually leaving abundant evidence that they are just people. As it happens the current Royal tourists are likeable and even funny, but so are most of my friends. Fortunately for them and for me, we do not have to queue or wait in the sun or sleep on the pavement to see them. As if they were going to give us an exciting concert or dramatic game of football or cricket.
Why then the sarcasm?
Because too much is too much: too much observance, too much obeiscance.Because I am sick of the solemn, reverent voices of politicians more often given to bellowing, sneering and gloating. Once many veterans of that war did not march They met surviving old mates and played two up and were mocked as they staggered home drunk. Ray Sutton wrote a compassionate article about them for Sydney City Monthly and some people began to reconsider. Now it has swung too far the other way in my view.
Here is another memory that crystalises muchl. One day I was walking along The Strand toward Oxford Street where it rises past Australia House when an elegant, small carriage of dark brown wood, highly polished or varnished, was drawn past at a spanking trot by two beautifully conditioned bay horses. Minor royals, I assumed, there being no motorcycle escort. Suddenly my arm was seized in an iron grip by a scarcely believable Australian woman whom I briefly worked with. She was from a country town and her accent went beyond parody. That is to say it was impossible to exagerate. Now this woman hated the poms and complained all the time about the weather and the inferiority of Marmite to Vegemite etc; yet she was a royalist to her bootstraps as Sir Robert Menzies would have it. Suddenly I was pretty much airborne as she reefed me along with her toward the Royals, whover they were; but, strong as she was, she soon became exasperated by my dead, indifferent weight and shouted, ‘What’s up with ya?’, finally releasing me to bob about in her wake.
Canadian-born Tod Sampson, sitting in on The Project desk one night, watched the bizarre behaviour of Aussies during a Royal visit to the zoo and finally shook his head and said, ‘It makes you look stupid.’
I can take it, but only just.