Today’s Australia is a land of extraordinary ethnic diversity. 27% of us were born overseas, in dozens of different countries, from Malaysia to the Mediterranean to the Middle East. Our land is a cultural cornucopia, where different languages and skin colours bond over the values that unite modern Australia, like sport and The Voice and – other sports.
Despite being Australian-born, I’m proud that my own DNA is also a rather tasty genetic smorgasbord, because my ancestors hail from extremely diverse parts of… well, the United Kingdom. My origins are English, Scottish and Welsh, with a twist of Cornish for good measure. (As far as I’m aware, I’m 0% Irish, regrettably, although this does free me from any obligation to participate in St Patrick’s Day parades.)
Once upon a time, my British background would have rendered me a member of an exclusive club, giving me the inalienable right to take tiffin beneath the gently rotating ceiling fans at genteel establishments like the Raffles. In the outposts of Empire from Bombay to Burma, we Britons would have talked about how successfully we were civilising the rest of the world, even though the blighters didn’t appeciate it.
That is to say, I would have been able to assume a position of cultural superiority while wearing khaki shorts, long socks and a pith helmet.
(Did you know that ‘pith’ is a kind of plant material, by the way? I didn’t. It still doesn’t explain why they wore it in the form of a helmet.)
Now, I’m not yearning for the days of Empire, far from it. My point is that the days of Imperial yore seem a long way removed from modern Australia, in both time and place. But if you tuned into the coverage of the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee over the weekend, and saw all of the pomp and circumstance, the gleaming gilded barge and crimson velveteen thrones, the stiffly formal uniforms and the fluttering Union Jacks, you could be forgiven for wondering whether the sun had ever set on the British Empire.
Alternatively, you might have found yourself wondering whether the sun had ever risen on it, at least in weather terms.
(I’m allowed to mock British weather because I’m British. So there.)
Now, we Poms don’t get many opportunities to celebrate the delightful quirks of British culture here in the land formerly known as Terra Nullius, not least because there aren’t that many of them that don’t simply involve drinking. We Anglo-Australians have neither lunar new year dragons nor Ramadan fasting nor Vishnu statues. Our only thoroughly quaint custom, in fact, is cricket. Which, come to think of it, very much involves drinking.
But if ever there was an event to get my British heart a-fluttering and celebrating my proud heritage, surely it would have been the Jubilee flotilla. (Well, it might have been the royal wedding, except for that whole business where the Palace cancelled our TV show.) And yet, I was left approximately bemused by the whole thing as Jon Stewart.
Don’t get me wrong – I found the flotilla spectacular, impressive, picturesque and even rather sweet. I just felt no connection to it, no cultural ownership. My primary reaction was “well, they all seem a tad overdressed” – which, to be fair, is a highly British observation, except in David Beckham’s household.
Now, I have been talking about the pageantry of the Diamond Jubilee as the embodiment of British culture rather than Australia’s, even though I’m fully aware that Queen Elizabeth II is simultaneously also Queen of Australia in her own right. And I recognise this even though she’s British, speaks with a British accent, lives in Britain, and celebrated her Jubilee by sailing a British barge down a British river while people waved the Union Jack. She is nevertheless equally Australian, even though the website I just linked to, her official site, has the domain “royal.gov.uk”, and even visits here occasionally.
But I don’t mean to go off on a republican tangent. The feelings I had watching the Jubilee aren’t really anything to do with that issue, not least because it seems an uncouth moment to raise it. One does not discuss a prospective divorce in the week of one’s spouse’s 60th birthday party – although I suppose if one did, it might make one feel a great deal better about leaving one.
Furthermore, I admire the Queen very much, because she has discharged an almost impossible job with grace, dignity and even humour. Sure, the rest of her family disgrace themselves regularly, with the possible exception of William, but she seems a good egg.
My point is not so much about her being the Queen of a realm 10,000 miles away from hours, but her inhabiting a world, as we saw on Sunday, which has only the scantest connection with the one I inhabit in 2012. That didn’t feel like my culture up there, my heritage. It felt like watching a beloved grandmother and her eccentric family run amok in a costume shop specialising in garish miltary garb.
And the hats! I assume the designers looked at wedding cakes like this one, and thought “no, that’s too subtle”, and then “hmm, maybe if you dropped it?” What’s more, I would have gently convinced the men to leave their swords at home.
It’s not just the clothes and accessories, though – the majority of British royal tradition is almost impossible for me to relate to. Nobody in Australia has crowns and sceptres and lives in palaces, except perhaps John Symonds. The coaches, the elaborate formal titles, the protocol, the ladies-in-waiting – it seems no more familiar to me than the peculiar bubble surrounding Japan’s emperor. I feel far more at home navigating the grandeur of the West Wing than Buckingham Palace. (Perhaps an Sorkin-scripted TV series would help?)
And that’s because I’ve grown up in a country where ostentation is shunned. In Australia, it’s a social taboo to suggest that your wealth or background makes you better than anybody else, whereas that is the founding principle of a monarchy. Our tall poppy syndrome is sometimes criticised for inhibiting excellence, but I find it comforting much of the time. It keeps us for getting a big idea of ourselves.
And it’s a million miles – or at least 10,000 miles – removed from a world where people are called Your Majesty, and have to be curtseyed to. Can you imagine our Australian leader – our modern equivalent of the rulers who invented these courtly traditions of deference, back before the constitutional monarchy devolved some of their power to parliament – being referred to in those terms? I’m sure Julia Gillard’s relieved whenever she meets somebody and doesn’t get shouted at. She certainly wouldn’t expect a curtsey. And yet she, not Quentin Bryce, essentially reigns here. That is, she has the role in our society closest to the monarch’s traditional role in Britain. It’s a rather stark comparison.
Like the Australia that’s evolved since European settlement – and like America, what’s more – my origins are British, but we’ve developed in a markedly different direction. And that’s why when I watch hundreds of boats proudly sailing down the Thames, I appreciate the spectacle, but I don’t feel part of it.
On one level, this is a source for sorrow – many people I know get enormous pleasure from their cultural traditions. But on another, it’s a source of satisfaction. I’d rather be part of a society in which pomp and circumstance seem bizarre and even a little surreal. On Sunday night, it was hard to remember that I was watching a live telecast in 2012, not outtakes from The King’s Speech or Downton Abbey.
Whether or not we formally become a republic, we are already a great distance from the tradition and splendour of the monarchy – and so is most of Britain, as a matter of fact. In effect, the lack of bother about the republic probably reflects how little the institution already has to do with our lives – it seems pointless to go to the trouble of dropping something that causes so little inconvenience.
And as for the Queen, I did but see her sailing by, but I will find her both extremely admirable and somewhat alien until I die.
This piece originally appeared at Daily Life.