Trish Arnott, an Australian Baby Boomer and one of Downsizing.com.au’s much-valued editorial team, shares her experiences and memories of Queen Elizabeth.
“The Queen is dead!”
My sister and I were spending a few days together, the first in five years. That morning, she was enjoying some sun outside while I checked my emails. And all my news feeds carried the same headline. ‘Queen Elizabeth dies aged 96.’
On the phone to one of her English friends, my sister relayed the news as I interrupted.
“THE Queen, your queen”, as if there were another queen we’d bother to mention.
That day, we both teared up as we remembered seeing the newsreel of a young woman promising to dedicate her life to the service of her people.
“I declare before you all that my whole life, whether it be long or short, shall be devoted to your service and the service of our great imperial family to which we all belong.”
She was 21 years old.
Do you remember when you were 21 years old? I certainly do and I wouldn’t have put myself in charge of the school tuckshop let alone a crumbling empire. But in her 20s and early 30s, the Queen oversaw the dismantling of the Empire as many former colonies gained their independence and transitioned into the Commonwealth of Nations, an organisation of 56 countries working towards shared goals of prosperity, democracy and peace.
The Queen and Australia
Although Australia is so far away from Britain and its customs, it wasn’t until waves of immigration that saw us depart from English-style food, traditions and rituals, one of which was, of course, the Queen’s speech on Christmas Day.
Back in the 1960s and 1970s, Christmas Day was family, food and the Queen’s speech; no businesses apart from the occasional service station were open. The one thing you could count on on Christmas Day was the Queen’s Speech ‒ and we all watched it.
The death of the Queen has left many of us with a profound sense of loss. Parents died, families moved, partners changed, we endured bushfires, floods, cyclones, a pandemic; through it all, the Queen was there, immovable and resolute.
Maintaining a monarchy
In Australia, our relationship with the Queen wasn’t always smooth. Her early visits, from her first in 1954 when she travelled to most states and territories and was welcomed by eight million people to the 1970 tour for the bicentennial of Lieutenant Cook’s landing to the opening of the Sydney Opera House in 1973, were met with admiration and, from many, love.
Friends in Swan Hill vividly recall the Queen’s visit in 1970 and treasure their memories, as do so many others from the many towns and cities the Queen visited in her 16 visits to Australia.
The disastrous events of 1975 when the Whitlam Government was sacked by the Queen’s representative, the Governor-General, soured relationships for a time and from this came the first rumblings of Republicanism.
Not destined to be Queen
Born in 1926, the Queen was the same age as our mother, who had a similar work ethic and continued working until just a few weeks before her death at 72. It must have been a good year for strong women.
We could take pride in knowing that our Queen was a fully trained motor driver and mechanic, signing up with the Auxiliary Territorial Services to learn how to service, maintain and drive heavy army vehicles. Although her service was brief, she ended the war with the equivalent rank of Captain ‒ and she proved she could get the job done.
Stoic under pressure
The years of Diana mania put the Queen into the background as all eyes focused on the Wales’s marriage, children and eventual divorce. Princess Diana’s death in 1997 polarised monarchists in Australia, with too many blaming the Queen for her apparent lack of empathy, feeling she was out of touch. However, the Queen has never set out to win a popularity contest; she has been a constant, a source of emotional stability in a world of rapid change.
Millennials’ perceptions of the Queen
Younger Australians, many of whom are immigrants with no sentimental attachment to a British Queen and British customs, don’t particularly care about the British monarchy and are appalled at the scandals. They do love the subtle hints the Queen gave without words ‒ like the time she drove a Saudi Crown Prince around Balmoral in her Land Rover at a time when women in Saudi Arabia weren’t permitted to drive.
Covid-19 and its deprivations hit home as we saw the Queen at the funeral of her beloved Prince Philip, her companion for 75 years and husband for 73. The image of the Queen sitting alone due to social distancing will haunt us forever.
Grieving as a nation
The death of Queen Elizabeth II is the end of an era not just for the British but also for her many admirers throughout the Commonwealth, the institution of which the Queen was most protective during her life.
For Australians of our generation, the Queen gave us a sense of continuity. Even those who don’t support a monarchy and desire equality for all can feel sad at the passing of this woman who held the Commonwealth together, who championed many women’s groups and remained dignified to the end.
We’d love to hear what you remember most about the Queen and what if any significance she has played in your life. Please leave comments on the Downsizing Facebook page.