Wednesday, October 31, 2012

A Defining Moment

The 29 July 1981 is the anniversary of the wedding of Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spencer at St Paul’s Cathedral. Where were you back in 1981 when Prince Charles and Diana married? If you’re anywhere approaching 45 or over, you can probably recall exactly where you were and who you were with. For me it was the night of my Charters Towers State High School formal.

As we were such a small Year 12 group we customarily shared the event with the private schools. The main hall in the north Queensland country town was called the Horticultural Hall, which brings up all sorts of rural images. The other main dance hall in the town was where we learnt and practiced all our dance moves for the big night. The name of this hall reflected the interesting divisions in the old goldfield community. The Miners’ Union Hall was referred to by its abbreviation: MU Hall. But, in a collective loss of memory, townsfolk did not seem to remember how important and influential unionism had been on the goldfield in the nineteenth century and it was known to all and sundry as the ‘emu’ hall. However, for the Year 12 girls, the evening was to become a conflict of almost irreconcilable proportions — do I go to the Formal or watch the Royal Wedding on TV?

Charters Towers was a country town of conflicting and clashing ideas. There were townies and bushies; small businessmen and workers; rural conservatives and Labor supporters. A Marxist scholar could have had a field day defining class lines and divisions. For me though it was the egalitarianism of the goldfield that seemed to absorb me growing up in Charters Towers. Probably came from my family’s mining heritage. Whatever way, I always had the strong feeling that 'jack is as good as his master'.

In 1977 I remember seeing for the first time Star Wars. For me it was the Empire verse the Republic - with the rebels being the good guys fighting against the evil Empire. My first republican moment was played out within the confines of the aptly named Regent Theatre with a working-class community cheering on the successful overthrow of the Empire by the rebels within the grand flourish of a space opera.

Built during the gold-rush era of the late nineteenth century, the Regent Theatre stood firm on the periphery of the British Empire. But now it held a republican people cheering on the rebels struggles to overthrow rule by an evil Emperor. A few years later the Regent Theatre became a skating rink. Still the people attended although oblivious to the edifice of monarchy surrounding them. Years later it became a Crazy Clark’s emporium. How this must have embarrassed the old royal. Finally it became a storage building.

Leading up to our big event it was all about cakes and long trains and dresses. This was all the girls could talk about. For us boys, it didn’t seem to matter. For me though, the only princess that mattered was to be at the Horticultural Hall.

While all this was going on in Charters Towers, audiences worldwide paused as the fairy tale coach, replete with its Cinderella, rolled up to St Paul’s Cathedral steps and the ‘Queen of the People’s Hearts’ emerged in the crushed cream creation. Everyone gasped, and winced, and laughed when Diana repeated her bridegroom’s name incorrectly.

Our school formal didn’t quite match the 2,000,000 people lining the streets of Britain, but for us it was a defining moment. That night the girls declared for us. They came rather than watch the Royal wedding on TV.

Thirty years later we have had another generation of royal weddings. It feels like it’s time for Australians to ask themselves when are we going to stand up for ourselves and become an independent nation. Commit to all of us rather than a privileged few on the other side of the world. Just like the Year 12 girls did in 1981.

And as for my princess? Well, it may have taken her several more years to see me as her prince but all I can say is, “Three cheers for the republic”.