Saving Ming’s bacon at royal Do

How one of Australia’s most respected political minds saved Prime Minister Menzies from an embarrassing faux pas at a royal dinner.

This year Australians have enjoyed a veritable avalanche of right royal events. In May we saw the wedding of the Duke and Duchess of Sussex and in October they visited our fair land.

We have also seen the wedding of Princess Eugenie — one of the daughters of the Duke and Duchess of York — to some very British chap. In April we were all agog when a baby boy, Prince Louis, was born to Prince William, the Duke of Cambridge, and his wife Catherine.

Yes, the royals have certainly cemented their role in our nation and its future. There can truly be no more convincing evidence of their indispensable role in Australians’ lives than royal marriages that as we have seen in the past are symbols of permanence and continuity, just like the monarchy itself.

Yes, this year we have seen the cementing of the love affair all Australians have with the British Royal family, from Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II down to the newest arrival, Prince Louis. And as we know the Royal Family itself is a living symbol of love affairs.

Watching TV coverage of the royal tour by Prince Harry and his wife I was reminded of the strength of the love affair we have with the royals. It was when I was serving on the staff of then Prime Minister Sir Robert Menzies when our Queen made a royal tour of Australia in 1963.

Back then, just as now, the tour dominated the news and every move the Queen made was carefully reported as were all of her important landmark speeches, although I cannot recall right now the deep and insightful messages they contained. But I am sure they were message for the ages.

That royal tour went off without a hitch, or almost. Luckily I was there to avoid what may have been a somewhat embarrassing incident. Before a state reception in Canberra on that royal tour, I suggested to the then Prime Minister that he recite a stanza or two of poetry to express his feelings for the Queen.

I thought no more of it until he told me he had chosen some verses from There Is a Lady Sweet and Kind by 17th Century British poet Thomas Ford. That information was delivered to me by Sir Robert just moments before he took to the stage to deliver a speech in the Queen’s honour.

As he walked from the royal table to the stage, Sir Robert stopped briefly, bent down and whispered in my ear. “It’s all up here Rufus,” he said pointing at his head. “I’ve memorised every line.” As I was seated just near the head table I could clearly see the Queen’s face as he recited the first verse.

There is a lady sweet and kind,
Was never face so pleased my mind;
I did but see her passing by
And yet I love her till I die.

I could see the Queen blush when Sir Robert finished the verse. Then he drew breath and continued on to the second stanza.

Her gesture, motion, and her smiles
Her wit, her voice, my heart beguiles
Beguiles my heart, I know not why
And yet I love her till I die.

As he drew breath again, I had a vague feeling of unease, or foreboding, more accurately. I suspected something was not quite right with the as yet undelivered third and fourth verses. I ran through them at lightning speed in my mind, muttering the words to myself at low volume, which caused some others at my table to stare in my direction.

Her free behaviour, winning looks
Will make a lawyer burn his books
I touch’d her not, alas! not I
And yet I love her till I die.

Had I her fast betwixt mine arms
Judge you that think such sports were harms
Were’t any harm? no, no, fie, fie
For I will love her till I die.

I simply could not allow those racy words to be uttered on such a royal occasion. It would be unthinkable that, despite the Prime Minister’s best and innocent intentions, some people present and the media there to cover the event could easily misconstrue his words. In particular, I was worried what the Duke of Edinburgh might think. Would he feel pressed to protect the Queen’s honour? Would he demand satisfaction from the Prime Minister? Perhaps His Royal Highness might challenge Sir Robert to a duel.

So before the Prime Minister could utter a word of the poem’s third verse, I pushed my dinner plate – heavy with an untouched roast of lamb and vegetables – off the table. The shattering noise it made clearly distracted Sir Robert. Others around me – including the Royal Couple – jumped. I knew by his furrowed brow and the fiery look he shot me, that the Prime Minister was angry. But I was happy that my actions had caused him to completely lose his train of thought.

Once again I had saved the day and prevented a right royal ruckus, even if Sir Robert didn’t appreciate it at the time.

Rufus Badinage MBE, now retired, is one of Australia’s leading experts on politics and public administration having worked as a senior bureaucrat for various state and federal governments.