Close-ish encounters with two queens


Queen MaryIn March 1954 my parents took me to see the visiting Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip as they whizzed past in the back of their limousine. I remember seeing a white gloved hand at the window and that was about it. The experience, to which I had gone under duress — having even at that young age vestigial, half understood republican tendencies — turned out to be the one time in my life so far when I saw the Queen 'in the flesh'.

I knew that the two royals were heading to the MCG and perhaps they were running late and this explained the speed of their passing which, while not of Formula One quality, defied even cursory observation.

The MCG, in those days before it became a genuine world class stadium, was much given to performances by schoolchildren on ceremonial occasions. Sure enough, when the Queen and Philip arrived, they saw the word WELCOME spelt out on the sacred turf by hundreds of carefully arranged, colourfully dressed and remorselessly drilled schoolgirls and boys.

I know all about this, not because I have studied the matter, but because, unbeknownst to me, as they say in the romances, my wife-to-be was helping to form the bottom leg of the L, just where the right angle begins.

A few weeks ago, accompanied by that same vital component of the L, I went with some enthusiasm to see another Queen pass by. During the previous week a notice on a blackboard in the Queenscliff information centre had announced that the Queen Mary would be passing through the Port Phillip Bay Heads — the Rip, as it is known — at about five in the morning and would be departing again at about nine that evening.

Though living almost in sight of the Rip, we passed on the early morning tryst but, along with most of the population of the Bellarine Peninsula, nearby Geelong and even visitors from Melbourne, we lined up on the Point Lonsdale foreshore with a couple of hours to spare rugged up and ready for the show.

At about seven, a bloke in the crowd said, 'Here she comes.' He had a huge pair of binoculars that he must have inherited from a long gone relative who might have found them useful on the Somme. He sounded authoritative.

Sure enough, far across the bay and approaching through the channel was a ship with a couple of lights showing on the mast. 'She's low in the water,' says the bloke. 'You can see the Plimsoll line on the black hull.' Now he was showing off. Any minute I expected him to shout, 'Right standard rudder!' and other nautical instructions.

But he had the crowd's attention and his pronouncements spread quickly. A tremor of expectation ran through the crowd in the way it does when Black Caviar hits the front again. Children were sent running to dig their fathers out of the pizza and fish and chip queues. The elderly were jostled and manhandled into better positions.

For my own part, though not at all nautically gifted or well informed, I couldn't help wondering why 'she' should be so low in the water and why the vessel, now becoming more distinct, had a black hull whereas the Queen Mary was white. And how come a state-of-the-art cruise ship, a miracle of precision and planning, was running two hours ahead of schedule? Did half the passengers get stranded in Port Melbourne?

I kept quiet, except to murmur to my wife, 'That can't be it.' Others too were doubting, but the man with the binoculars was having his moment and was not to be denied. 'Any minute now she'll turn', he said, 'and we'll see the lights in the portholes.'

Well, soon enough, the truth became brutally clear, as it so often does. The ship everyone was craning to see came up the channel and turned towards the Rip. No portholes, just a jet black hull with 'ITALIA' in large white capitals. Her load of about 200 red, blue and green containers explained why she was 'low in the water'.

Perhaps the captain realised he had inadvertently fooled thousands of spectators crammed on both sides of the Heads because he sounded his klaxon as he sailed through.

If it's possible for a ship's horn to be ironic, this one was.

Temporarily disappointed but undaunted and with a couple of hours to wait, people straggled back to the queues where some unsuccessfully tried to reclaim their original places and were given some pointed, very Australian but amiable advice.

Dead on time, the real Queen Mary, like a city of lights, lit up the horizon and slid majestically towards the Rip under a full moon. As she passed between Point Nepean and Point Lonsdale, the captain sounded the horn, a deep bass note with no irony in it at all.

Much better and more moving than a waving gloved hand. 

Brian MatthewsBrian Matthews is the award winning author of A Fine and Private Place and The Temple Down the Road. He was awarded the 2010 National Biography Award for Manning Clark — A Life

Topic tags: Brian Matthews, The Queen, republic, Queen Mary



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Existing comments

I think both the Queen Mary and our Queen Elizabeth, are regal ladies. Another small, but important point for myself - on any sort of sea conveyance be it dinghy or luxury liner I succumb to violent seasickness. Not so with Her Maj - her waving gloved hand elicits only admiration.

Pam | 30 March 2012  

Personable, closely-observed, understated, hilarious! Thank you, I needed this pick-me-up on a Friday morning :)

Barry G | 30 March 2012  

A really lively, humourous way to start the day! Thanks Brian, Maureen

Maureen Keating sgs | 30 March 2012  

Great piece.Iliked "that same vital component of the L".....I bet she has made an L of a difference.

Chris | 30 March 2012  

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