I did but see her… the Queen and me

Queen Elizabeth greets people in Canberra, 1963. Photo from ACT Heritage Library

Eye to eye, smile to smile, DON AITKIN recalls a private moment shared with the Queen on the streets of Canberra.

HER Majesty is making what I am being assured is her 16th visit to our shores. Those of the doom-and-gloom persuasion say confidently that this will be her last.

That seems to me unkind. Why shouldn’t she make more visits? After all, we are always being told that Australia needs more tourists. And her mother lived to 101, so she could have another 20 years or so.

Where should we go to see her progress on the lake? Someone asked where I would be going, and I had no answer. It hadn’t occurred to me that my presence would be required. After all, I once had what amounted to a private, though rapid, experience with HM, and why would I want to supplant that?

I should point out that I am best described, in this context, as a “tepid republican” – someone who thinks that Australia might well be a republic, and that it will happen in due course, but that it is an issue well down on my list of current priorities.

My special experience happened quite a while ago. In fact, the other person involved, my daughter Lesley, who celebrated an important birthday milestone recently, was only 18 months old at the time. It happened like this.

In 1963, the Queen came to Australia to open the Menzies Library at the ANU. That is my firm understanding, though she doubtless went elsewhere in our great country as well. As a student representative on the council of the university, I had a good seat at that event, and can report that HM wore a peach-coloured dress and possessed a fine set of ankles. The Duke told those wearing academic dress that they looked like “a lot of bloody cockatoos”, though I think he probably meant parrots.

The next day the royal pair went for a drive through the streets of Canberra, and I was on baby-minding duty in our university flat in Forrest. One of the streets on which the drive was to occur was ours, and I knew the time, so a few minutes before I gathered up Lesley from the floor where she was absent-mindedly chewing a book. She was into books at an early age.

“Let’s go and see the Queen,” I offered.

“Queen,” said Lesley, who was into repeating any word you said.

We went downstairs and out into the world, and on to the nature strip between our flat and Canberra Avenue. We were quite alone. No other denizen of the Forrest Flats had felt the same urge. Suddenly I saw what might well be the Rolls up near the Presbyterian Church.

Someone walking a block away turned into the Hotel Wellington, completely ignoring the significance of the scene.

But Lesley and I were ready. I hoisted her on to my shoulders. Where were the cheering crowds? We were the only loyalists in sight.

“Here comes the Queen,” I said to my daughter. “You need to wave.”

“Wave,” said Lesley, but did nothing.

I did the only honourable thing. Holding her firmly with my left arm, I held her right hand with mine, and as the royal car arrived we gave an enthusiastic joint wave.

Her Majesty smiled, and returned our salute. My memory is that the Duke looked impassive, but perhaps that is only how he seems to look most of the time.

I did but see her passing by, as our then Prime Minister had said at the time of the first visit, and that will be enough for me. Crowds now would only spoil the memory of what, after all, was a very private experience.

Don Aitkin, political scientist and historian, served as vice-chancellor of the University of Canberra from 1991 to 2002.

More photos of the queen in Canberra here.

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