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Mythologising the Queen


Born three years after the accession of Queen Elizabeth, my memory is coloured by events, punctuated by sub-clauses, and swayed by the influences of this woman's life. In this regard I am no different from any other Australian over the age of say 40. How exactly to understand these traces in memory is more difficult to discern.

Those brought up with the Book of Common Prayer each Sunday of their childhood were asked to pray in intercessions for the Queen and all the royal family.

It was never explained then that we had the prayer book because we had the Queen, that the English Civil War had left scars on the English psyche which argued for centuries of monarchy. Australian hesitancy to adopt a republic is, I believe, explained in part by this British refusal ever to go back to the disasters of Cromwell.

My parents' generation  were avid followers of the young Elizabeth. Teachers and elders read me A. A. Milne's poem about Christopher Robin going 'down with Alice' to Buckingham Palace, as though it were an everyday occurrence. That they themselves had never been to London was beside the point. They were in a constant state of going to watch the changing of the guard, even if it was only in their own minds.

A similar statement about the barriers between us and them, subjects and royals, was made by that defining artistic phenomenon of Elizabeth's reign, The Beatles. John Lennon sang about the miserly Mean Mr Mustard who 'goes out to look at the Queen, only place that he's ever been, always shouts something obscene', a warning to Little Englanders to get real and expand their horizons.

One curate in our parish was the complete royal watcher. He knew every twig of the family tree, could quote quintessential quips from court history and knew more about Mrs Simpson than was proper. He claimed to dream about the royal family regularly and believed everyone had dreams about them. It was pointed out to me once that he had no family of his own and the royal family was a helpful substitute.

This easy familiarity with an idealised dream family collapsed for me at the impressionable age of 20, when I had to absorb the dismissal of the elected Australian government by her majesty's representative.

When Sir John Kerr handed Gough Whitlam the papers indicating that he was sacked, Whitlam's first question was, 'Have you notified the Palace?' Kerr's reply apparently was, 'It's too late for that now.' It is ironic that the republican movement was kickstarted not by a bushranger like Ned Kelly or a suave politico like Paul Keating, but by an industrial lawyer who late in life developed vice-regal pretensions.

To this day it is not clear what Elizabeth thought. As historian Geoffrey Blainey observed at the time, Kerr's actions revealed not how close the nation's relationships were with England, but how far apart they had become.

There is a saying that the French are republicans when there is a monarchy and monarchists when there is a republic; many Australians enjoy a similar two-mindedness. Malcolm Turnbull is persuasive when he says that in Australia there are now more Elizabethans than monarchists. For most people of my parents' generation this would have been heresy. Meanwhile the mythic reality of Elizabeth's reign is only enhanced and remade.

Like all the monarchs of England, Elizabeth is a literary creation as well as a human being. The majority of her subjects know about her through words and images. Most everything I know about Elizabeth is only through artificial means: newspapers, films, books. This hyperreality is intensified by decades of opinions and stories, ranging from the inexpressibly effusive to the effectively unprintable.

The code of not repeating what the Queen says in private is well kept, such that the myth will blow out of all proportion when she dies and the 'full story' goes public. Elizabeth is supposed to be highly informed and witty, but I cannot instantly think of one witty thing she has said in the 60 years of her reign.

The curate was probably right when he said we have all dreamt about the Queen. These traces of memory blur into our unconscious, which is why I finish this reflection with two other works of popular period art.

In 1982 an intruder to the palace was found sitting at the edge of her majesty's bed. He was harmless, the alarm was called off, and questions were raised about security.

This incident inspired the alternative Manchester band The Smiths to write their black-humoured classic 'The Queen is Dead'. There is nothing innocent about the intruder in this song, who claims to do something very nasty with a rusty spanner. He commits the crime on the grounds that he feels lonely and needs someone to talk to.

The song plays to the shadow side of our relationship with people in positions of power. Assassination, or the imaginary possibility of ridding ourselves of those with influence over us, towards whom we are jealous or angry, is a possibility there in the unconscious. How we choose to counter that temptation is another matter.

A more positive person from the world of the unconscious is The BFG. Queen Elizabeth, or a person precisely fitting her description, is one of the main characters in Roald Dahl's wonderful children's story.

Sophie gets to know the Big Friendly Giant, a benevolent character who collects good dreams and distributes them to children in the secrecy of the night. All the other giants are going out eating people and to stop this vicious destruction Sophie and the BFG go to the one person who will be able to help.

Breaking into the palace they freak out the staff, but the Queen remains completely well-mannered and attentive, calling for breakfast to be served and making the BFG feel at home.

Dahl makes Queen Elizabeth the centre of calm, the person inside us who is rational and conciliatory, the problem solver. Not only is she not afraid of the BFG, she believes what he says and acts on his information. She is the way out of our present crisis. Without her, who knows what we might have to do next? 

Philip HarveyPhilip Harvey is Eureka Street's poetry editor and head of the Carmelite Library of Spirituality in Middle Park, Victoria. 


Topic tags: Philip Harvey, Queen Elizabeth II, Jubilee



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Existing comments

Your curate, Philip, in his attitude to the monarchy, reminds me of the fawning approach taken by Mr Collins to his patron, Lady Catherine de Bourgh, in "Pride and Prejudice". These were the days when some Anglican clerics here adopted a faux "English" accent. I remember them well. Were these "elevations by (vague) association"? Quite possibly. I think there is Elizabeth Windsor, a real person and the persona she has to wear as Queen. Of course, with the rise of "celebrity" journalism, where millions of bored people follow the banal lives of film stars and sporting "heroes", she and her family are always "relevant" and their lives, in minute detail, are scrutinised in the press. Did those who - like my sister-in-law - "grieved" over Princess Diana's death really "care", or was she merely a peg to hang their dreams on? Dreams which ceased at her death? You are, I believe, raising an interesting question about people who "identify" with the monarchy.

Edward F | 01 June 2012  

Our 'elevation' of the Queen is a quirk of human nature. Dare I mention in the same breath Mary, mother of Jesus. Both the Queen and Mary are human but elevated by State and Church. And when ordinary women are viewed as either 'Queen' or 'Mary' the misogynistic State and Church are shown in gory detail. The Queen is Elizabeth Windsor, a person placed in a position by fate/ birth (what you will) and instead of walking away which would have been extremely difficult, she has performed her 'duties' to the best of her ability. Mary, an ordinary young woman, was chosen by God for a unique task. So Mary was unique but when women are viewed as substitute 'Queens' and 'Marys' then real 'identities' are swept aside. And the people who sweep the real identities aside, lose their own identities.

Pam | 01 June 2012  

Philip, you say "I cannot instantly think of one witty thing she has said in the 60 years of her reign." Can anyone think of anything she has said at all other than platitudes written by palace speechwriters? Apart, of course, from "I myself prefer my New Zealand eggs for breakfast."

Alan Austin | 01 June 2012  

I suspect "annus horribilis" was not the product of of a palace speech writer. The present system works o.k. would it be improved by electing a president. I doubt if Australians if asked to vote on republic would come at our wildly respected parliament appointing a president.

Brian Poidevin | 01 June 2012  

To be honest, the way things stand in the church today, if we ever did become a republic, I dread the pressures placed on any Catholic presidential candidate. At this point in time, for me it's "Long Live the Queen".

L Newington | 01 June 2012  

A thought-provoking piece and a joy to read. It recalls the tale of the Curate's egg. On a practical level, the de facto situation is that Australia is a crowned republic; it is a system that actually works well but which time and tide will eventually wash away. I believe that time will be soon, but it should not be accompanied by vacuous rudeness on one side or sentimental tears on the other. The issue for Australians is what we choose to replace what one might call the Present Fiction. A popularly elected President is not an option. It would create rival political leaderships and require - certainly it would lead to - constitutional change that might well be invidious. So there's a lot of work to be done there. I don't believe that narrative has yet truly begun. I do think that Elizabeth is our last British monarch; so time is necessarily short.

Richard Laidlaw | 01 June 2012  

Thanks Philip, I share your journey in many ways and l loved the way you put it.

jean Sietzema-Dickson | 01 June 2012  

Much of the comment seems to have moved little in my seven decades from the English propaganda of empire we were all raised to believe in.
One day, hopefully very soon, we might all get over the maudlin elevation surrounding this good woman.

Brian Larsson | 01 June 2012  

Here are some responses to comments. To Edward F.: The curate is the subject of much humour in English literature, in part because in English society (especially in the time of Austen and Trollope) to be a curate was to have settled on a role in life that was secure but not prestigious. Many curates become influential people in our own society after they have their own parish, but you don’t read about them in newspapers so they are ‘invisible’. The curate in my essay did not affect a faux English accent. His favourite novelist was Evelyn Waugh and his favourite singer was Judy Garland. As you can imagine, his sermons were an unpredictable surprise. To Pam: ‘The Catholic imaginary and the cults of Elizabeth, 1558-1582’ by Stephen Hamrick is but one book that shows how the Protestants transferred Catholic worldviews and practice onto the Queen, when they no longer had a cult of Mary. To Brian Poidevin: the Annus Horribilis speech was certainly a drastic shift from “My husband and I …” By using Latin she was speaking to history. The speech placed herself and her role up against the collective media of the time, but also distanced herself and her established role as Queen over against the indulgent, dimwitted behaviour of some of the younger royals. You will notice “My husband and I…” was dropped about the same time as the rise of feminism in England. To Brian Larsson: it is in the nature of things that one form of propaganda will inevitably be replaced by the next form of propaganda. Propaganda is a symptom of political power. On inspection, I would say the hoopla surrounding the diamond jubilee is infinitely more benign than some other kinds of present day propaganda we could mention.

PHILIP HARVEY | 02 June 2012  

Thank you for your response, Philip. It sounds like your curate had literary taste and wasn't a stereotype. I found many Anglican clerics of yesteryear stereotypical. Many were, I suspect, living up to expectations. Others didn't and were magnificent.

Edward F | 03 June 2012  

A majority of voters in all States votes against a republic . The Queen ( and by parity of reasoning , the monarchical syatem of government) is probably even more favoured now than at the time of the referendum. The system works well . It coped well with the Whitlam/Kerr/Frazer matter in the 1970s >There is no impetus for change .An ideosyncratic view ( as with the writer of the article ) does not make for a general view.
Long live our Constitution and the sovereign who is part of it .
And hands off the flag- which some republicans want to change.

Barry O'Keefe | 04 June 2012  

Any evidence for your claim that the republican movement was "kickstarted by" John Kerr? I don't recall any significant sudden rise in republicanism just after 1975. Republicanism had bubbled along as a rather small minority opinion in Australia from the mid-19th century until Keating gave it a kick along, it reached its peak of a near-majority in the late 1990s and has since fallen back to its historically usual position of a minority opinion sponsored by a few high-profile enthusiasts. You claim "To this day it is not clear what Elizabeth thought" about Kerr's dismissal of the Whitlam government. The Queen's spokesman made it publicly clear at the time that the Queen intended to take no action because it was a matter for Australians to sort out amongst themselves. A consequence of the independence granted to the Australian government by the Statue of Westminster in 1932 (which Australia was so unenthusiastic about it didn't bother to ratify until 1941). If Kerr's actions only "revealed" Australia's independence to some people at the time, it just goes to show the level of public ignorance and/or apathy about our constitutional arrangements.

Peter Kennedy | 04 June 2012  

You call Kerr "an industrial lawyer who late in life developed vice-regal pretensions." Kerr did not pretend to be a vice-regent. He actually WAS one. Appointed to the position by Whitlam who thought that with his solid ALP-supporting background he would be a useful puppet who would do as he was told to promote the ALP and its agenda at all costs. Then Kerr decided he was going to actually do the job, not just be Whitlam's puppet. Rather reminiscent of Henry II manoeuvring to get his best mate Thomas Becket appointed Archbishop of Canterbury to get the church's blessing for his political actions, only to find that once he had the job Becket decided to actually do the job without fear or favour.

Peter Kennedy | 04 June 2012  

I thought her unscripted reply to Paul McCartney, when he suggested another concert/party in the grounds of Buckingham Palace, "not in my backyard" was witty.

john fox | 04 June 2012  

To Peter Kennedy: well yes, of course John Kerr was Governor-General. It was after he advanced to that square on the chessboard that it all went to his head, with behaviour that could only be caused by individual pretensions. His second wife had a lot to do with it, to believe the histories. Kerr’s dismissal of the government was an act of extraordinary political pretension, meaning it was out of all proportion to the role of Governor-General as understood by practice and precedent. Kerr was deluded enough to believe he was the equal of Whitlam and that his job was as vital to Australia’s future as that of the Prime Minister. He is the only Governor-General who has ever thought that. As was revealed after Sir Zelman Cowen’s death this year, Malcolm Fraser knew he had to appoint someone as Governor-General who was universally liked, who could undo the damage to the office caused by Kerr. Unlike Thomas Becket, Kerr was not a saint. Patrick White predicted accurately that Kerr will be a footnote.

PHILIP HARVEY | 04 June 2012  

I'm certainly not claiming Kerr was a saint! I was comparing Whitlam's actions to Henry II's. Please explain by what process you have read the thoughts of every Governor General living or dead and are able to state definitively that Kerr is the only Governor-General who has ever thought that he had the power to dismiss a government. On the contrary I would say it is likely that most if not all other G-Gs would have done the same in the same circumstances (not necessarily in exactly the same way). Of course Fraser had to appoint someone as Governor-General who was universally liked. That was nothing new. It just became more necessary then because of the campaign the ALP had conducted against Kerr for, as they saw it, becoming a "Labor rat" and deserting the ALP cause after the ALP had placed him in high office in return for his lifelong devotion to it.

Peter Kennedy | 05 June 2012  

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