BOOK REVIEW / The Botany Bay factor: Jan Morris on Tom Keneally's insights into the forthcoming Australian republic; 'Memoirs from a Young Republic' - Tom Keneally: Heinemann, 16.99 pounds

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The Independent Culture
I'M NOT at all sure I am the right person to review this book about the forthcoming (and I use the word advisedly) Australian republic. For one thing, I agree with almost everything it says, only arguing with its description of the ever- fascinating Queen Victoria as 'dreary'. For another I am of the opinion that, whatever impression the media give, very few people outside Australia greatly care whether it becomes a republic or not. For me, reading this book is rather like coming up against one of those crude old-school Pom-bashers, now mercifully rare, to whom the proper retort is a frigid 'Frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn.'

Not that the kind and cultivated Tom Keneally is anything of a Pom-basher. He is at pains to assure us that the sort of republic he conceives will be formed not in bitterness or reproach, but in a spirit of magnanimous emancipation. He does not want the old loyalties of Anzac, Tobruk and royal tour expunged, only succeeded by more pertinent modes of patriotism - a new start for a young country, to coincide happily, no doubt, both with the Olympic Games in Sydney, and with the centenary of the present Australian federation.

That's the theory, anyway. In fact, of course, hardly anything is accomplished in Australia without bitterness or reproach, and the advent of the republic is certainly going to be no exception. Far more formidable than any boozer Ocker is your whole-hog, true-blue, bemedalled and pearl-necklaced Australian monarchist, in whom the ferocity of the dispossessed survives at least as viciously as in any layabout of the pubs. Nor are the republicans themselves all as gentlemanly as Keneally might have us think. Do Paul Keating or Malcolm Turnbull (of the Spycatcher trial) strike you as the kind you would like to cross ideologies with? I would rather take on a couple of cannibals.

Even the author's own restraint strikes me as being maintained with some difficulty, and sometimes the old Irish in him breaks through. Various eminent Australian conservatives, none of whom anybody outside Australia has ever heard of, will not be pleased by passing references in this book, and my guess is that as the great denouement approaches, and High Australia finds its prerogatives growing ever closer to extinction, even Tom Keneally may find it hard to keep his cool.

As it is, all he says sounds sufficiently sensible and temperate. I cannot vouch for his invariable accuracy (the town of Churchill is distinctly not above the Arctic Circle, and Aer Lingus flights do not leave from Heathrow's Terminal 3) but I cannot fault his arguments. Who can seriously maintain the citizens of a young multiracial nation of the southern hemisphere, bound by no particular ties of interest to Great Britain, should be subject to a hereditary monarch resident on the other side of the world? Psychologically it can only be debilitating, historically it is no longer necessary, and Keneally properly pooh-poohs the flaccid objections of those who claim that 'constitutionally' the Queen cannot be replaced by a home-grown elected president, a classic illustration of the nursery rule that 'can't' too often means 'won't'.

For those of us outside the fray, whether republicans or royalists, the most interesting part of the book is its insight into the origins of the debate. One realises from reading these pages, which are part polemic and part reminiscence, what confusions still plague Australia. It may look enviably assured to the outsider, but it is evidently racked still by self-doubt and indecision, feeling itself neither fish nor fowl, haunted by ancient grudges. Even its all but universal obsession with sport - what Lloyd George once characterised as 'morbid footballism' is a kind of neurosis: where else in the world would an immensely distinguished historian (Manning Clark) emerge, as Keneally describes it, in a state of 'Paulian, thunderstruck transcendence' merely from an encounter with a well-known practitioner of Aussie Rules?

Keneally is understandably anxious that we should not suppose every Australian republican to be of Irish blood, but he cannot hide a natural line of succession from the original Irish republicanism of the 19th century, and the rancorous iconoclasm of its organ The Bulletin, which once described our own dear Queen Victoria as a fat old lump of sauerkraut. Within the republican movement there are indeed many New Australians (as until lately they used to call Greeks, Italians, Lebanese et al) but I have a feeling all the same that what really drives it, if only subliminally, is that powerful old engine of Australian emotion, the Botany Bay Factor.

All the more reason for a fresh start. The historical resentment is justifiable, the solution seems to me unimpeachable, and I have no doubt that within a generation there will be a Republic of Australia. Perhaps Keneally will be its first President. Perhaps he can fix me a job in the Welsh Embassy.

(Photograph omitted)

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