11.05am, Melbourne Airport
I arrived at Gate 39 with a Footscray football for the Queen to sign. I wasn’t expecting an audience with Her Majesty, just the opportunity to deliver the ball to her media people, and then pick up the signed pill a day or so later.
My theory you see is this. The fortunes of the Footscray (now Western Bulldogs) Football Club are inexorably linked with a royal visit. To put it plainly, if the Queen doesn’t come to Melbourne in a given year, the Doggies will not win the flag. Think of last season. Her Majesty didn’t come and they bombed out in the finals. In 1954, she came and Footscray celebrated its only ever AFL premiership.
I explained all this to a photographer from London’s Daily Mail as we prepared to be led to the media vantagepoint. He listened with interest (not much has happened on this tour) and then mentioned that the ball was the same colours as the Union Jack.
‘And bulldogs are British too,’ he added.
Of course they were. The theory was rock solid. This was one of those rare years when it was actually possible for the Bulldogs to win the flag. And I wanted a ball signed by Elizabeth R and all listed players to commemorate the occasion.
‘She signed a soccer ball in Malaysia two years ago,’ said a reporter from the London Sun. ‘So you’re not without a chance. Ask that chap over there in the grey suit.’
The chap in the grey suit was the Palace Press Secretary, and he greeted me with an officious handshake. ‘Look I can introduce you to Her Majesty’s Personal Secretary when he arrives, but he will almost certainly tell you what I’m telling you now – which is an almost definite no.’
The plan was now to hold ball and pen aloft, and see if I could make the package appear sufficiently attractive that Her Majesty would offer a spontaneous signature. In my perfect fantasy, her Personal Secretary would be there trying to stop her, saying, ‘This one hasn’t been approved Madam.’ But the Queen would still take a gloved grip on the pen. .
‘It’s for the ‘Scrays,’ she would say in her regal tone. ‘They were frightfully impressive in ‘54’
But back in the real world, things weren’t going quite so well. A large man in a black suit who appeared to be from the Premier’s Department stepped behind the media barricade, summoning me from my daydream.
‘We understand you have a football sir,’ he said. ‘Please put that in your bag and don’t take it out. The last thing we want is a football to go flying across the tarmac.
‘But I’m just going to hold it up,” I stammered. ‘I’m hardly going to try and hit her on a lead.’
There are times to protest against a decision made by a member of the public service, and these are generally when you’ve got about five or six months to spare. On this occasion, it was just a few minutes until the royal jet was due to touch down. In the end, the realities of the situation and the blackness of the man’s suit encouraged me to quietly put the ball away.
From the Premier’s body language it appeared he was speaking welcomes and asking whether the royal couple had enjoyed a pleasant flight. At that moment, I felt a little sorry for the Queen. Always stuck in ‘pleasant flight’ conversations and with everybody around her in a permanent state of fawn. Never tasting burnt toast.
I found myself willing Bracksy to talk long and hard about himself, and give the Queen a taste of what women usually get from Australian males. Something like – ‘You know, Your Majesty, there was this bloke called Jeff Kennett blah blah blah we won this impossible election blah blah blah and ended up staying up until 4.00 am singing Hunters and Collectors songs.’
But the Premier was bent almost double in his dotage, bowing and shaking hands and doing everything a humble leader should do.
Meanwhile, the Queen nodded and smiled serenely, our best indication yet that her flight was indeed pleasant.
Not the Bionic Ear Institute, 12.06pm
I drove along Mount Alexander Road, reliving the historic journey Her Majesty made into Melbourne in 1954.
Unfortunately, the motorcade took the freeway and Citylink, so I was in traffic in Flemington when the royal tour reached the Bionic Ear Institute. Etagless, I was surprised they arrived there so quickly, obviously receiving the Royal Treatment at the Bulla Road Service Centre.
Government House, 12.35pm
‘You’re the one with the football, aren’t you?’ a thickset, red headed policeman said to me at the gates of Government House.
‘I want you to know that if you move out in the way of that car, I’ll tackle you myself.’
For policemen, the royal tour gig can get pretty boring, and this copper looked keen for the tackle. I tried to picture it – me and an angry seargent being run over by ten police chase bikes and a Rolls Royce. The Footscray footy rolling haphazardly down Government Drive. Fellini would probably do a slow-mo on the football, but the only people around me were members of the British tabloid press. They’d film our carcasses for sure.
‘I’ll definitely be staying behind the barricade,’ I assured the seargent.
‘With the footy?’ he asked.
‘With the footy.’ I replied.
The Queen flashed past as a half-second glimpse of yellow and the crowd erupted. It says something for either the aura of power or the Palace’s public relations machine that everybody seemed extremely happy with the glimpse.
‘It was well worth waiting. I would have waited another hour to get a glimpse of her,’ said Ray Robbins from Essendon.
‘She’s one person and she can’t be with everybody,’ remarked an understanding Anne Brewer from Malvern.
‘She done the right thing and smiled at us,’ trembled old Bill Casey of the Gordon Highlanders.
I hoped those scientists who promoted Halley’s Comet to us in 1986 were here to witness this. They too were people who had been in the glimpse business, but they didn’t make the glimpse work for them. Today, punters were walking away as though they’d eaten a four-course meal.
I walked back up to the gates of Government House and read my press release. Her Majesty was currently enjoying a few courses herself at a State Luncheon hosted by the Governor and Premier. Preparing no doubt for Box Hill, while Box Hill prepared for her.
Crawford Studios, Middleborough Road, 2.50pm
I found blonde dreadlocked Matt and his mother Jill sitting on deck chairs outside their property on Middleborough Road. ‘G’day Queen!’ read the whiteboard leaning against Matt’s chair.
‘Did you ever think the Queen would visit you here in Box Hill South?’ I asked them.
‘Actually this is Blackburn South,’ Jill corrected. ‘The other side of the road is Box Hill South, and that’s where she’s visiting the television studio. But she’s got to drive along the Blackburn South side of the road to get there.’
The reality of course was that when the motorcade did arrive, traffic was adjusted to allow the convoy to straddle the centre of the road, making the Box Hill South versus Blackburn South royal presence calculation a very difficult proposition indeed.
I didn’t even bother taking the football out in Box Hill, mainly because four policeman approached me in the lead-up to tell me that they ‘knew about the football’.
Immigration Museum, 6.30pm
The young bloke in the green pants had exactly the opportunity I was looking for. All I needed was a minute of Her Majesty’s time to put my case. To quickly mention Whitten and Sutton and maybe that Simon Beasley goal against Collingwood in the mid-eighties.
I couldn’t hear what Green Pants was saying, but you could tell from the angle of the Queen’s head that she was a good listener. After a couple of minutes, she and the Duke moved slowly out of the museum courtyard, and we in the media pack called Green Pants over to ask what they’d talked about.
‘I was really keen for her to pray for more people in Australia to turn to Jesus,’ he said enthusiastically, ‘I was really keen to share with her my love for Jesus. I understand that she’s a Christian and I just wanted to encourage her as a Christian.’
‘How did the Queen respond?’ one reporter asked
‘She said, ‘That’s interesting’, or words to that effect.’
I suppose the one consolation for the Queen is that she is rarely door stopped at 9.30 on a Sunday morning for discussions like this.
Sovereign Hill Main Street, 12.33pm
The Queen was only fifteen metres away and I had the football out! This was it! Surely when she saw the Union Jack colours and the ‘BULLDOGS, GO FOR IT’ lettering on the side, I’d receive that Elizabeth R moniker.
But then, while the Queen was outside the general store receiving some of those boiled lollies that can end up in your pantry for the best part of the next decade, disaster struck.
‘You’re not to speak to her mate,’ whispered a voice from in front me.
It was a black suit. Not the same one as from the airport, but just as menacing and disapproving. I tried to say that I wasn’t interested in a confrontation, that the football would work it’s own magic, but the black suit was not to be swayed.
‘I reckon you are going to confront her. Otherwise there’s no point.’
It obviously wasn’t enough that he wanted to wreck my article, now he wanted to write it. This time though, there was no request to put the football away. It was just quietly and efficiently confiscated by a policewoman behind me. If the ghost of Teddy Whitten were to intervene, now was the time.
On Main Street hundreds of lucky invited guests basked in what had been the best opportunity of the two days to really sit back and gawk at Her Majesty. Of course, 20-30,000 members of the general public were on the streets outside, still making do with glimpses, but equality is not one of the hallmarks of monarchy. Let them eat novelty Sovereign Hill damper.
I made my way out through the admission office and bumped into the policewoman who had confiscated my football. ‘Would you like this back?’ she asked warmly.
With some surprise I took the ball from her. I really hadn’t expected to have it returned, at least until Her Majesty completed her two remaining engagements in Ballarat that afternoon.
‘You won’t try to get it signed any more,’ the policewoman said.
‘No I won’t,’ I replied.
Ballarat Road, 2.45pm
As I drove back down the Western Highway and into the shadows of the Whitten Oval, I changed my mind. The dream would merely have to be readjusted. Just because I couldn’t have the words ‘Elizabeth Regina’ scratched modestly next to the words ‘Jose Romero’, shouldn’t mean I forget about José altogether.
So the plan now was this. Instead of securing the Queen’s autograph and the Bulldogs players following, the key was to ask the Bulldogs players to sign first. Then, if my theory holds and they secure the premiership in 2000, we’ll send Buckingham Palace the football, and maybe a video of the Grand Final. A bit of Doggie hype, and I reckon she’ll fall into line.