With the death of Queen Elizabeth II, the question of whose birthday we now celebrate with a public holiday is once again being discussed. In Queensland, the Australian state where I live, we mark the Queen’s Birthday with a holiday on the first Monday of October.
The date has always been problematic because, of course, Her Majesty’s real birthday was April 21.
The monarch’s birthday has been celebrated in the United Kingdom since 1748, during the reign of King George II. Queen Elizabeth II’s official birthday was originally celebrated on the second Thursday of June, the same day that her father, King George VI, celebrated his Official Birthday during his reign. In 1959, that changed to become the second Saturday in June. In Australia, states and territories differ, with most celebrating on the second Monday in June. Queensland did that until 2016, when the state government decided there were too many holidays in the first half of the year and moved it to October. Every Commonwealth country seems to have a different date to celebrate. So it’s confusing, and now we have to get used to calling it the King’s Birthday (although we are a bit closer now, as Charles III was born on November 14).
In the wake of Queen Elizabeth’s death, many people have shared their personal memories of encounters with her. On the occasion of her last official birthday (as we know it), I’m going to share mine.
While I’m a republican at heart, like many I admired the Queen’s stoic sense of duty and I love the pageantry surrounding the monarchy. It’s a terrific tourist attraction for the UK, hauling in 2.5 billion pounds for the economy, according to some estimates. My mother, born just three years and three days after the Queen (and still going strong), is an avid monarchist (although not so keen on King Charles), so I was brought up with a healthy fascination for the royals.
Imagine my mother’s excitement when, as a cadet reporter on my local paper, I was chosen to cover the visit to our town by Queen Elizabeth and the Duke of Edinburgh during their 1977 tour of New Zealand. My memory of it is hazy, but I do recall that there were lots of police checks involved and that I bought a new dress to wear (red and white candy stripes!), as if somehow the Queen might notice me. I still have the media pass issued by the New Zealand Department of Internal Affairs and the yellowed front page coverage of their fleeting visit.
About 10,000 people – roughly a third of the town’s population – turned out to welcome the Queen and Duke for the 25-minute walkabout. They arrived on land after travelling up the Whangarei harbour on the royal barge from the spot where HMV Britannia lay at anchor. The barge was accompanied by a flotilla of about 30 small craft and a few escorting tug boats. At the jetty, welcomed by about 500 more people, the royal couple hopped into a limousine and were taken to the airport, where the crowd – including eager young journalists – waited. As part of a small team of reporters, my job, as I recall, was to trail a respectable distance behind the Queen and ask those favoured what she had said to them. We were not allowed close enough to eavesdrop!
On that summer day, the Queen was wearing “a pleated dress of periwinkle blue and white crepe de chine, printed with a white trellis design at the hemline and on the bodice and sleeves”. The front page colour photograph showed a blue and white hat, a triple string of pearls (and pearl earrings) and a pristine pair of white gloves. And there’s a story to the photograph too.
This was the first same-day full-colour newspaper photograph ever published in New Zealand – and all the stops were pulled out to achieve this milestone. With only two hours and 40 minutes between the Queen’s arrival and deadline for the printing press, a jet-boat was employed to whisk photographer Warren Spiers from the wharf to the office to make this “mission impossible” happen. It was quite a feat at the time.
My only other encounter with Queen Elizabeth was a few years later, when I was living in England. On a weekend away with friends, we chanced on a flag-waving crowd and wondered what was going on. My memory has faded and I’m not sure of the town – I want to think York, but perhaps it was Windsor. Anyway, the flags were for the Queen and suddenly there she was – right in front of me, in the back of the royal Bentley. I snapped, and miraculously the photo came out (if somewhat blurred by the motion of the car). One of my friends cheekily ran behind the car and brushed an imaginary piece of dirt from the back of it with his handkerchief. Today, he’d be instantly pounced on by security guards and hauled off to explain himself, at very least. Those were gentler times.
Queen Elizabeth may have departed this world, but there are memories of her everywhere. She featured strongly in my childhood stamp collection and on the postcards I’ve been sent over the years. Now a new monarch reigns and other collectors, more dedicated than I am these days, will begin anew.
Meanwhile, today’s a holiday in Queensland – the last Queen’s Birthday we will see in my lifetime. If you’re marking that day too, enjoy it! I’ll be at my desk.