The first time I met the Queen, I was eight years old and she was visiting my school, in Brentwood, a pleasant English country town now infamous for its noxious night club featured on the hit reality TV show The Only Way Is Essex. Relatives tell me not to knock it because it brings in so much cash to the old place via the coach tours, drinking parties and lurid souvenirs (don’t ask). The school was celebrating its 400th anniversary, and I was at a desk set up on a lawn, with others recreating a typical learning day. I was deployed to do long multiplication, not my strongest suit, and just as the royal couple peered over my shoulder I was blushing as I crossed out a mistake. The Prince whispered consolingly, ‘Don’t worry lad, I was no good at sums either.’
Twenty years later, I had shifted to Papua New Guinea and gained an invitation alongside a few PNG journalist colleagues to meet the royal couple for tea on the verandah at Government House in Hanuabada, overlooking Port Moresby’s beautiful, deep water Fairfax Harbour. They appeared especially relaxed, following a challenging first tour Down Under since the Dismissal, and the Queen told me my question about which team she supported for the Ashes – being head of state of both – was ‘very naughty.’ When the naval ship accompanying the Royal Yacht Britannia semaphored a message about an England loss, she said, ‘they thought I couldn’t read the flags because they used a rude signal. They were wrong!’ The Prince relished my bringing the latest copy of a newspaper I was involved in editing, Wantok, then as now the world’s only weekly Pidgin publication. What was his favourite Pidgin phrase? he asked, answering himself: ‘Gras bilong as bilong kakaruk.’ Chicken feathers.
A few days ago, came a close encounter of a third kind with royals, a visit inside Buckingham Palace to receive, to my immense surprise, an OBE. Others’ Bloody Efforts, the disgraceful saying goes. The award came via the honours committee of PNG, where I worked for 11 years, for service to the training of PNG journalists and to the Anglican Church there. It may have helped, that I have in recent times also challenged the semi-racist stereotype that has emerged in some Australian circles since the Manus asylum seeker processing centre was established – from PNG’s perspective, mainly to help out Australia, a friend seeking such support – that the country is a ‘hellhole.’ It certainly has its challenges, its corruption and developmental failings and crimes. But it is also a lovely country, with warm and welcoming people. Princess Anne, the ultimate professional royal after her mum, presented 102 awards that morning, in the palace ballroom while the Countess of Wessex’s String Orchestra played everything from Handel to Porter. She chatted with all the recipients, who included TV veteran Esther Rantzen, made a Dame, and – queued up just behind me – the hugely popular comedian and actor James Corden, now hosting the Late Late Show on CBS in America. I had made an idiot of myself by asking him in my then ignorance, if there were any well-known folk in our ranks. Fortunately, that was swiftly forgotten as attention was diverted by another recipient leaning back in his chair with its ornately carved ‘ER’ motif – and breaking it clean off. An equerry smoothly ushered him to another seat, not even hinting at taking his award away. The relatives and friends – we were each allowed to invite three guests, so my wife and two children were able to accompany me – waited in the ballroom while the recipients mingled beforehand. I met among others the mayor of Grimsby, who had come as a 17 year old migrant from Guyana and made his fortune in business, and a woman also of West Indies ethnicity, living in London’s tough East End, who won her award for her achievements in karate. Her focus now is on her political career, she told me – as a Conservative candidate. Lyse Doucet, the BBC ‘s chief international correspondent, was among the eclectic range of recipients. Despite the criticisms made of the BBC in recent years, I found, listening to its various channels as I drove around the sun-drenched countryside of England (where the roads were said to melt once the temperature reached 30, which it did for several days), that it was less politically obsessed than much of Australia’s media, led by its counterpart.It was a great relief to spend whole evenings in diverse conversation with family and friends without suffering that invective that infects swathes of our inner cities. None of the folk I know happen to live in London, another bonus. London based worthies, activists or commentators, tend to be shrugged off in the wider UK. The range of recipients of honours – mostly for lengthy community service of many kinds – underlined the value of a neutral head of state. Countries with politically appointed presidents find it harder to provide this type of societal glue, which we also offer through our Australian honours. I am a dual citizen, and it would seem a dual speaker. Many Australians ask me where I come from in England, but back there people told me they could only identify an Australian accent.But while I am Australian in the most important way, by choice – admiring so much of what I saw in the Aussies who became friends in my 11 years in PNG – I haven’t entirely eschewed my upbringing. While two of our last three PMs have had strong British backgrounds, though, it’s one culture that in Australia doesn’t usually dare speak its name. My previous visit to England had been to bury my marvellous mum, who was a classic Royals-loving Cockney, who would have turned in her grave – which we visited, in a beautiful country church yard back in Brentwood – if I’d have knocked the Palace back.
Rowan Callick is Asia-Pacific editor of the Australian