On the beach: a bonfire of monarchies in Melbourne

Tom Nairn
15 November 2005

Melbourne, November 2005

When I got to the party last week, instructions were being imparted (in Strine) to the Viking archers on Beaconsfield Parade beach. This is a surfer-free walking strip between Port Melbourne and the little harbour at St Kilda’s, on Port Phillip Bay. Bowpersons were told to be careful in lighting up their brands, as a mild onshore wind was blowing up: they shouldn’t stand too near the simultaneous bonfire.

The showers of fire were to mark the recent birth of an heir to the throne of Denmark, though it felt more like that of Australia. Between 500 and 600 Melbourne natives turned out to celebrate, ice-colds in hand from the Danish Club just across the Parade. As yet unnamed, the lad is offspring of Frederik of Copenhagen and Mary Donaldson of Hobart, Tasmania. Australia has fallen in love with them both. Was it Gerald Durrell who wrote that all love is at first sight, and thereafter incurable?

The Crown Prince & Princess of Denmark

But isn’t Australia married to Windsordom? This is what makes the affaire so sweet. How long can it continue? If Charles and Camilla follow their recent American tour with one here, it might be forever. No Canberra government is likely to switch monarchies; but formality isn’t what this is about. What is it about? Informal passion – elective democracy of the heart.

‘The problem with the Windsors is that they’re just too much like us”, wrote Christopher Scanlon in Melbourne’s daily, The AgeThere’s something about Mary and Frederick that we like”, 14 March 2005). Glamour expired with Diana, leaving braided boredom in control: Pommy stodge, braying racist jokes, wearing hopelessly wrong things to fancy-dress balls, Mum not turning up at her own son’s wedding, sneering intellectuals and tabloid hysterics. No episode of Neighbours could be so awful. Next-generation redemption might be possible; but it already feels dodgy, as well as a long way off.

Tom Nairn is professor of globalisation at the Globalism Research Centre, RMIT University, Melbourne, Aus-tralia

Among Tom Nairn’s articles on openDemocracy:

“Pariah Kingdom” (May 2001)

“The party is over” (May 2002)

“America vs Globalisa-tion” (a five-part essay, January-February 2003)

“Britain’s tipping-point election” (June 2005)

“After the G8 and 7/7: an age of ‘democ-ratic warming’” (July 2005)

If you find this material valuable please consider supporting openDemocracy by sending us a donation so that we can continue our work for democratic dialogue

And on the other hand? “A dashing ex-special forces soldier, marathon runner and Arctic adventurer ... with a softer side” (Australian Women’s Weekly, November 2005). And he chose one of us. Which somehow makes us all special. Hello and the other mags agree on the main romantic points. In Sydney for the 2000 Olympics, he introduced himself as “Fred” in a pub, and she heard about the rest only half an hour later; by which time, presumably, incurability had had its way. Even from a bicycling background, few princes are likely to encounter the Australian welcome thing in this way (“friendliness” is the tourist guide code). Mary’s father is a Scottish maths teacher, who disembarked in the 1960s, and quoted Robert Burns at the Copenhagen wedding (inglenook and good cheer pages).

As Scanlon goes on to remind readers, Australia is founded on an aspiring commoner mythology – something not so easily realised politically, and always seeking compensatory fulfilment in alternative, imaginary ways. Hence being blessed in this way by decently attractive monarchs – ultra-presentable, yet distant and unthreatening – feels curiously like a confirmation of “the fair go” and egalitarian mateship – as if blood royal were healing some wound of the collective soul.

The beach party coincided with the Channel 10 series Australian Princess, a competition where viewers choose an ideally ordinary girl to be crowned next year in London. It is presided over by Diana’s ex-butler Paul Burrell. Last week he was explaining to contestants how to get into and out of a limo without undue splaying of lower limbs, and also how you eat a banana with a fork and knife. In both cases turning or “rolling” it at just the right instant turned out to be crucial.

Rebellion in the grains

On the beach, dark clouds were piling up westwards. “Where’sshaboat?” inquired the awakening recumbent form on the sand next to me. He was one among many recuperating bodies (the party had been going on all day) and the original idea was to have a Viking galley (i.e. a large row-boat) landing warriors to light the fire. That onshore wind had ruled it out, I was obliged to explain. While he stumbled back over the road for more stubbies, however, the bonfire – an elegant construction of gumtree boughs – was nearly ready for the deepening twilight. Lights were coming on over in Port Melbourne, aboard the great, dark shape of the night ferry to Van Diemen’s Land.

As the archers lined up, someone appeared from the Danish Club, speech in hand: young family, bygone classes, happiness of nations better via monarchy than boring republics. The blaze took off with a heartlifting whoosh.

Robert Manne wrote recently:

“There was a time – I remember it vividly as a child growing up – when the majority of the Australian people were still deeply attached to the British monarch and when they still dreamt of Britain as a kind of second cultural home. This time has passed. To yearn now for an Australian republic is not for a moment to scorn that past ... It is, however, to acknowledge that for most of us the symbolism of the crown has died”
(Left Right Left: Political Essays 1977-2005, Black Inc 2005).

Bonfire on Beaconsfield Parade beach, Melbourne

Yearning for a republic received a severe rebuke in November 1999. Every poll had shown (and still shows) majority preference for a republic. So why did the majority not support what was offered in that referendum? Because the proposed divorce from Windsordom was not democratic. A popularly elected presidency was simply not on offer: the new icon of Down-Under identity was to be appointed by parliamentarians, those already empowered by the curious rules of the Australian Federation (1901). He/she would therefore reinforce an existing élite, rather than representing anything alternative, colourful or possibly dissonant: in Christopher Scanlon’s sense, Windsordom minus the Windsors. Is there any wonder they said “no”?

Or that the same essential impulse now shows itself in surrogate enthusiasm for an alternative royal show? There are of course tut-tutters who can’t stand such levity, like John Dunn of Cambridge, England. He has been rapping knuckles in the openDemocracy kindergarten recently, reminding converts that only the “terminally muddled” bestow too much importance on “democracy as an idea”. “Popular rejection of autocratic effrontery” may be exhilarating at the time, yet prove “in retrospect a transitory pleasure” (“Getting democracy into focus”, 20 October 2005).

The gathering outside the Danish Club

Hey, stop throwing wood on that bonfire! (not that there was much to find on Beacons-field beach). Too late, the warmth was by now in everyone’s capillaries, and the archers were lined up for more transitory pleasure, occasionally tripping over their sheepskin rugs (the vital ingredient in Viking apparel). Quite a creditable arc of fire went over our heads into the bay. “Gawdbleshem!” roared in my ear, it was my acquaintance returned from the club bar. He turned out to be Oz-Danish of relatively recent extraction – 1950s assisted passage, rather than the goldrush gang who set up the original club (one of Melbourne’s finest) in 1889.

Before On the Beach, Nevil Shute published – a month before the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II in June 1953 – a less well-known romance called In the Wet. Ruined by its evil first-past-the-post voting system, Britain has come under the sway of socialist tyrant “Iorweth Jones”. This thinly disguised Nye Bevan – the rhetorically extravagant Labour politician and architect of the national health service in post-war Britain – makes life intolerable for the royal family, who decide to quit London and make Australia HQ of the commonwealth. Rebellion then grips the shocked Old Country: they overthrow Jones, adopt the Australian constitu-tion, and “England’s on the right road now, at last” – murmurs Rosemary, the Queen’s aide (who then goes on to wed the part-aboriginal airman hero, David “Nigger” Anderson). There was – this epic makes one concede – a bit more to White Australia than most now willingly recall. Shute’s “Author’s Note” reminds readers he is defending monarchy in advance, by “giving warning of the strains and tensions that in thirty years may come upon that very human link”.

Fifty-two years later, Windsordom is still in Buck Palace, and Australia remains loyal, though only just. But in other ways, reality has far outpaced the wildest forecasts. On the beach where post-Armageddon radioactivity was imagined as ending civilisation, people halfway to emancipation are imagining the rest of the journey, in their own way – making use of old clothes, sure, but (more importantly) to express a different spirit. Democracy is more resourceful than many of its protagonists (and professors) have realised.

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