Tuesday, October 25, 2011
Hail Victoria! Long May Melbourne's Royal Reminders Reign
Doing away with monarchy's monuments would be madness - even for a republic.
WHEN the Queen arrives this morning on her visit to the state named in honour of her great-great grandmother, it is worth recalling Queen Victoria's profound influence on a place she never visited, but probably thought of occasionally.
India may have been her jewel in the crown - this at a time when the crown was clustered with imperial gems - but I am sure little old Melbourne, tucked down among the garnets, below the diamonds and sapphires, warranted an occasional look through the royal loupe.
Melbourne is really Queen Victoria's town. Not perhaps as much personally - even if her majesty had visited, it would have been hard to imagine her taking the No. 8 tram down St Kilda Road - but more in terms of civic heritage and the very formation of this great city. Melbourne's beginnings were more or less contemporaneous with Queen Victoria's: our settlement began two years before she ascended the throne in 1837. Our inner-suburban terrace housing, along with the parks and gardens that allow the city breathing space, evolved with stately enterprise and care, providing grace and dignity.
The apogee of Victorian Melbourne was William Wardell's Government House, which surmounts the Royal Botanic Gardens like the topmost tier of a wedding cake. I think of William Delafield Cook's painting of the house's belvedere tower poking up through the foliage of the surrounding gardens - a view now destroyed, in modern actuality, by the Eureka building, whose erectile presence would not have amused Queen Victoria.
The present Queen will be at Government House today for lunch. Although the menu, fashion and guest list might have changed, the architecture itself remains absolutely of its period. Even though it is Italianate in style, the house is a prime example of mid-Victorian splendour, as outrageously dignified in its own sedate way as the Royal Albert Hall, in London's Kensington, is a monument to the more adventurous realm of arts and sciences. The difference is that while the hall is a public venue, frequently jammed up to the last letter on its rooftop frieze, Government House is still a vice-regal citadel; it should, as I have said before, be open more to the public.
Thank heavens, though, that other parts of Victorian Melbourne are more accessible: in fact, this city is Victoriana personified. The name - her name - is part of the way we are. Think of Victoria Parade, Victoria Street, the Queen Victoria Market - these are names engraved in the memories of Melburnians, never to be effaced by even the most zealot-like republican. Nor should they be. If, in time, we become truly independent, it would be a form of revisionist madness to rid ourselves of such poignant and meaningful remembrances of things past.
Not that we are always conscious of such provenance. We drive down Royal Parade or Queens Road or King Street or Elizabeth Street without thinking of the origins of their names. We go to the Princess or Her Majesty's theatres not out of monarchical respect but simply to see a show. In the same way, we might run through Royal Park or the Alexandra Gardens, walk across Princes Bridge, or marvel at the Royal Exhibition Building, taking their names for granted yet still extracting infinite pleasure simply because they are there.
Yet, in some other areas of life, we have shown independence and common sense. It was not that long ago that Sir Robert Menzies unilaterally decided to call Australia's unit of decimal currency the Royal; just as well the dollar prevailed. Maybe that was the tentative beginning of republican sentiment. But the Queen still appears on our coinage and on the $5 note - which is correct, as the Queen is still our head of state.
When I last checked, Australia was still a constitutional monarchy, and, whatever one's views on how long this should continue, proper respect and traditions have every reason to be upheld as well as preserved. That, in the end, is the whole point of maintaining heritage rather than feeling compelled to reinterpret it or, worse, deny it.
Monuments, it should be remembered, serve a double purpose: to remind as well as enlighten. Such reminders, though, are not always pleasant. In Moscow some years ago, I visited the Graveyard of Fallen Monuments, a cemetery without a single human body. This hybrid of necropolis, playground and sculpture park is reserved for the detritus of the Soviet era: the statuary, symbols and signs of the once-feared, now disgraced people who ruled back in the USSR. Thus a statue of Stalin, on its side, rubs stony shoulders with a chipped bust of Brezhnev. Not so far away, there stands in brooding isolation the statue of Felix Dzerzhinsky, founder of what became the KGB, which was toppled outside the Lubyanka in the revolution 20 years ago.
For all its doom and gloom, this graveyard was encouraging as it represented a sense of cultural preservation essential to remind generations of terrible times as well as the good. For the same reason, this is why a goodly chunk of the Berlin Wall still stands where it was first erected, in 1961.
In this part of the world, it is also crucial to keep our heritage intact. Not to remind us of despotic rule, but, conversely, of a system that has held us in good stead and enabled us to reach this stage of self-determination.
Read more: http://www.smh.com.au/opinion/society-and-culture/hail-victoria-long-may-melbournes-royal-reminders-reign-20111025-1mi0t.html#ixzz1bq4Fhpfb