The Columns on the Road to Timbertop

First published

Why did Prince Charles come to Australia? At first sight it seemed a splendid idea. Here was a grand plan for the young prince to get to know the Commonwealth and for the Commonwealth to get to know him. But there were some inexplicable factors. Great lengths were taken not to show him to the general public and he was sent to Timbertop.

Timbertop is a division of Geelong Grammar School in the Australian Alps, 140 miles from Melbourne. It provides a blending of serious study with the ‘Outward Bound’ style of life — running, skiing, hiking, bush lore. Geelong Grammar boys go there for one year in the sub-intermediate grade. In other words it is for fifteen-year-olds. So why was Prince Charles going there? He was seventeen. Even members of the Geelong Grammar School council were mystified. Geelong Grammar School itself was not exactly in the centre of a city. It was at Corio Bay, where also there was much outdoor activity, including running, sailing and hiking. Why not send him there, where he could mix with seventeen-year-olds who were studying at the same level?

No, we were told, Prince Charles at Timbertop would have a supervisory status. Whatever his status, an artificial situation had to be created for him. Boys who had already left school came back to Timbertop to be his companions. And although he was to live with the boys he had his special guard and technicians put in a direct link from Timbertop to Canberra.

The result of all this was an intense curiosity about Prince Charles and about Geelong Grammar. The school began to suffer with all the publicity, and the school magazine Tempo printed what was virtually a Prince Charles issue. There was half a page devoted to ‘fallacies shown in the Australian Press, and others’. It said (1) there is no fagging at the school, never has been any and never will be any; (2) only five boys, the school and house captains, are allowed 'the privilege of caning incessant trouble-makers; (3) Prince Charles - will not be treated as a typical boy at Timbertop; he will be - subordinate to the masters only and will be supervising the boys; (4) He only has to get up for breakfast at 7.30; (5) he doesn’t have to perform any menial tasks, and cannot undergo an initiation ceremony that has never existed; (6) Timbertop boys do two three mile cross-country runs a week and a seventeen-mile marathon at the end of the year; (7) the meals are far above the standard of incessant mincemeat and eggs.

Many an old boy raised an eyebrow at the statement that never had there been any fagging. Perhaps they meant Timbertop only. But the line that really hurt came from an unnamed Old Geelong Grammarian which appeared in the Londoner’s Diary page of the Evening Standard. 'Within two seconds of a Geelong boy coming into a room at a party in Australia you can tell that he went to Geelong largely because they’re so very arrogant. I know I was. They’re very distinctive, and often not much liked. All of the parents have to be loathsomely rich to send their boys there. Except mine, of course,' the old boy said.

Tempo replied: ‘It is hoped that the report from an unnamed 0GG in London is already known to be untrue from the reports of work in New Guinea, in the Church, in the arts and the thousands of other little things that OGG boys have done. There are very few "rich” boys here, some families are well off, others are sacrificing a lot to send their sons to a place that has Timbertop.’ Nobody, particularly the Palace, quite estimated the curiosity value of the visit to Australia by Prince Charles. A jolly popular song even came on the market. It carried no mention of Geelong Grammar or Prince Charles, but there was no question regarding the source of the inspiration. The song depicted life at Timbertop as pure bliss and described it as ‘a bush-like paradise beneath the skies’. It contained such lines as:

Life is gay and free
Full of harmony
Everyone is so kind
You will find peace of mind
Here at Timbertop.

One could imagine poor little Geelong Grammar boys singing it to themselves somewhere around the sixteenth mile of their marathon through the bush.

Even Paris Match despatched a reporter and photographer to Australia to cover the tour. No doubt the French sensed some sort of a plot. There had to be other reason for Charles’ banishment to the Antipodes: une affaire du coeur, or with the departure of Sir Robert Menzies was the monarchy in jeopardy? The arrival of Prince Charles was timed perfectly to cement Commonwealth relations with the new Prime Minister, Harold Holt.

Paris Match did not find the assignment an easy task. Nor did I. After spending twenty years trailing after three generations of royalty never was it so tough to get a story. Perhaps one day Buckingham Palace will appoint for an Australian tour an aide who is not a retired serviceman, but someone who knows newspapers, radio and television, who understands the strange behaviour of these people, who understands even more what publicity can do and can not do, for the monarchy ...perhaps.

Prince Charles was due to arrive on Australian soil on Sunday, 31 January 1966. It was made very clear that there would be no formality, no speeches, no interviews, just a shake of the hand and straight to Government House. This imposed great problems. How were we to get an even half reasonable story for Monday morning’s newspapers? The Sun decided there was only one thing to do: fly me to Fiji, board the same plane and get a story on the flight out. Watch the young Prince in action. It was a prospect that one could contemplate with some embarrassment, but it was the only answer.

Prince Charles, we were told, was flying through on a normal flight via the United States, across the Pacific. Because of this it was no trouble to book in the first-class compartment of the same aircraft. Yet when I arrived at Nandi airport, Fiji, I discovered that the ‘ordinary passenger’ had certainly frightened all Fiji officials. Before the arrival they put on ties and even blue suits, the sort of clothes that were packed away only for those occasions when they went home to England or Australia on leave. So they sweated in the eighty degree heat.

Just in case of trouble the name of Prince Charles was erased from the Fiji newspapers. There was not a word to local citizens, who may have wished to wave a flag, that he was passing through during the early hours of 30 January. A team of security men travelled the 150 miles from Suva to Nandi, and they were placed in, out and around the terminal. There was a security check of all luggage, freight and mail, something which Nandi had not seen in years. Fijian Customs officers with security men standing by, went through luggage, item by item, almost completely unpacking every case. They peered into typewriters, scrutinized transistor radios, looking for telltale ticking noises. Some American travellers who had four or five cases each were only faintly amused. The aircraft, the Qantas 707 City of Adelaide arrived at Nandi at 5 a.m. The only real excitement on the way out was the grand arrival at Honolulu. There was a little ensemble at the airport and an Hawaiian girl threw a lei around Prince Charles’ neck. It is absolutely traditional in Hawaii that if a girl puts a lei around a man’s neck she has to kiss him, and she did just that. The startled Prince did not know what to say. Actually he said: ‘Er — thank — you.’

At Nandi I had my first chance to look at this heir to the throne. I think I shared the opinion of many others. I rather expected to see a dull, chinless man. Always in England he had been dreadfully photographed. But he was not chinless, he was a tall, good-looking young man. He was wearing a single-breasted suit with twin vents and he was well turned out. Tailor and Cutter would have approved. His hair was, perhaps, slightly long, but so well brushed that it was everything the headmaster of Geelong Grammar could have desired. His complexion was very much English Public School, the sort of complexion that was desperately sought after in the Victorian era, milk white with rose pink cheeks. One hoped that for a week or two he would not have to do any marathon runs in the sun at Timbertop.

In the aircraft he took off his jacket and wore a pale grey lambswool pullover. He had seat 1a and the equerry, Squadron Leader Checketts, had seat 18. They were up front on the port side. From that day 1a on the City of Adelaide gained for all time the reputation of being the ‘Prince Charles’ seat! Inspector D. N. Sharp of the Commonwealth Police, his eternal man Friday, sat immediately behind.

There were ninety-nine passengers aboard, twenty of them first class, and not one at any stage exchanged a word with the Prince. He was tucked in a corner and the only way to get a good look at him was to make a foray up forward to the wash room and walk back. Admittedly about thrice the number of journeys as were really necessary were made to the wash room, but the passengers were really very good. They did not stare.

The Qantas crew was told to address the Prince simply as Prince Charles rather than ‘Your Royal Highness’. They thought that maybe the best menu served to him was the dinner between New York and San Francisco. There were such items as Tortue des Isles du Cayman, Truite sans aretes Ruisseau au citron, Filet de boeuf rots Crecy, Supréme de poulet Princess, all followed by various sweets, cheeses, fruits, coffee and mints. For breakfast there was a thick charcoal broiled Virginian ham steak with scrambled egg washed down by grape juice. The steward was most careful to point out that the grape juice was unfermented. One hoped that after all this the cook at Timbertop was able to maintain the pace.

The Royal arrival in Sydney was uneventful and the arrival in Canberra was even more so. The Governor-General, Lord Casey, was there and so was the Prime Minister, Mr Harold Holt and so were their ladies, but the ceremony was all over in several minutes and the airport crowd was less than 200.

There was no chance to hear Prince Charles, no chance for a word with him. His guardian, adviser and friend, Squadron-Leader David Checketts, made sure that the protection was complete. For other members of the Royal Family there was always the little informal get-together with the Press so that they could get to know each other. This time they were kept utterly apart, not a word was to be exchanged. He was treated as a boy who was completely lacking in self assurance. Yet judging from his manner this was anything but the case.

At Canberra the Press was advised in advance of only one function: the visit by Prince Charles to the rotunda at Regatta Point, overlooking Lake Burley Griffin. This is now a ritual that has to be done by all members of visiting royalty; it is like planting a tree in the Botanic Gardens. The Queen and Prince Philip did it, King Phumiphon and Queen Sirikit of Thailand did it, even the Duke and Duchess of Gloucester did it. It was a function that was all over within three or four minutes and after that the great Press corps had to spend the next forty-eight hours wondering what the devil Prince Charles was doing.

An old hand who understood the rapacity of dedicated royal tour reporters would have said: ‘Look, fellers, the Prince will do this and this and if you leave us alone we'll give you pictures A and B.’ However, the message relayed back from the Squadron-Leader was that no arrangements had been made. So the battle was on.

The Press corps, en masse, camped outside the gates of Government House, cars pointed the right way, ready to give chase should the royal car come out. The more crafty ones went round to the back of Government House and watched with binoculars. There one could gain a prime view across the swimming pool to the G.H. landing stage on Lake Burley Griffin. In the early afternoon they were rewarded. They spotted the young Prince with a girl. Together they came down to the landing stage, boarded the Gwen class yacht, Nicque, and went off sailing. The girl was Leone Tyrrell, twenty-five, a daughter of Mr Murray Tyrrell, secretary to the Governor General. They were out on the water together for an hour and a half.

The Prince handled the Gwen very nicely, always tacking well away from the shore, where they would not be seen. Nevertheless the royal tour photographers mounted their big telescopic lenses and they managed to get some just useable photographs. The best picture of all was taken by the enthusiastic gentleman from Paris Match.

Of course nobody out there on the water knew that the Prince was sailing, but with a pair of binoculars it was possible to see some most interesting things. A Melbourne reporter spotted a girl lying down in a boat, on her own, sun-bathing. She was lying face up and topless, looking very contented. Suddenly that Gwen bore down within twenty feet of her. There was a desperate struggle for a bra.

Meanwhile a sight-seeing boat loaded with tourists chugged its way toward Government House. As it went past the landing stage all the sight-seers moved to port, and peered into the G.H. grounds hoping to get a glimpse of the Prince. They did not realize he was only yards away on the starboard side, sailing the Gwen. And all the time the faithful Inspector Sharp was trailing after the Gwen, ready to ward off all dangerous fanatics, spies, intruders and enemy agents. We felt for him deeply. It was hard work. For one and a half hours he trailed the Gwen, hauling at the oars of a rowboat.

The next day was entirely free; the Press corps gathered outside the gate once more. He would hardly try the sailboat stunt again, so most of us remained at the front. Only one team took up position at the very rarely used rear gate, and that was exactly where he came out. But the Press car was facing the wrong way. By the time they had turned around the powerful Humber was vanishing into the distance. As he went past the Press car Prince Charles turned around laughing in triumph. Later, by roving around Canberra, the photographers tracked him down to the Wild Life Research Station on the Yass road, where he looked at kangaroos and eagles.

In the afternoon the Royal party changed its tactics. The Press now had Government House thoroughly covered on three sides and the reporters were keeping in touch with each other via a tick-tack system. However, they came straight out the front gate at high speed aboard a Triumph 2000. Nobody was expecting a Triumph and just that few seconds’ hesitation was enough. The elderly Holdens, Falcons and Volkswagens of the Press corps were no match. The Triumph, at close on 80 m.p.h., went off into the distance.

It was the chance remark by the wife of a senior minister later in the afternoon that gave us the tip that he was riding, and the photographers won some excellent pictures. Furthermore Prince Charles was most pleasant and happy to be photographed. ‘How did you fellows get here so quickly?’ he said. Then we had the first recorded conversation between Prince Charles and the Press.

“That’s a fine horse, Prince Charles,” said the pressman.

‘Yes,” he said.

Our next main encounter with Prince Charles was at Timbertop on 3 February. There was a special agreement. For an hour or more the photographers would be given an open go, and after that the Prince would be left alone, unharrassed for the rest of his time at Timbertop. This was fair enough, and it was all that was wanted. The Press, at last, was treated with great courtesy. Geelong Grammar went out of its way to plan a programme that supplied radio, TV, everybody, with the best material of the tour. I drove to Timbertop in the early morning. It was a case of having to know the way. Geelong Grammar very carefully had removed all the road signs to discourage the tourists and rubberneckers. It was as bad as the days when we were worried that the Japanese were going to get us. I had my instructions: drive to Mansfield, keep on going along the Mount Buller road, the familiar route for all, the skiing fraternity. Then, soon after passing the Merrijig pub, take a sharp turn to the right and up the hillside.

Timbertop actually turned out to be much more impressive than I expected. There in the bush it looked a well-heeled alpine village. The hut assigned to Prince Charles and his companion was rather more than a hut. There was the bedroom, bathroom, living-room, sundeck. The outside timber was freshly stained, the overhanging eaves gave it an elegant line and there was a TV aerial on top.

The boys at their first day of school wore exactly what they wanted to wear — jeans, sandals, shirts flopping over their trousers, tight pants or loose pants, scarlet skivvies. One character had shorts that looked suspiciously like bathing togs. The competition in casual dress was extreme, yet Prince Charles also on his first day, had to be given high marks. His slacks were anything but slack and they had the fashionable saddle pockets. Furthermore the cuffless bottoms ended just after midshin. He showed an utterly correct three inches of sock. Those trousers were very pale and they went rather well with his scarlet shirt.

Geelong Grammar had organized a grand tour with Prince Charles, designed to show all the activities of the school in less than forty minutes. With masterly precision something different happened every two minutes. The curiosity amongst the young Geelong Grammar boys was intense; there were faces in every window. As we set out I heard two fourteen-year-olds talking:

Ist Boy: Wouldn't it be awful, all those cameras and everything.

2nd Boy: I dunno. I reckon I wouldn’t mind it.

Ist Boy: He doesn’t look seventeen, though, does he?

2nd Boy: Ah, what you've got to realize is that no seventeen-year-old English kid ever looks seventeen.

Prince Charles looked at a series of rugged activities. He watched one boy do a Tarzan act swinging from one long rope to another. With his companion Stuart McGregor he went to work with a bush saw and together they started to saw their way through a log. Here he took some steady banter from the photographers.

‘Look up, Prince Charles.’

‘What?’ (Puff, puff.)

‘Look as if you'’re enjoying it, Prince Charles.’

‘You can have a hot shower now, Prince Charles.’

And the Prince being infinitely patient, said: 'What, now? I think I might.’ |

Next there was the fire fighting demonstration and the Prince asked if he could work the hose. As he handled the spray it brought back so many dear, cherished memories. There was the time at the Chelsea Flower Show in 1959 when the photographers were drenched by the electronic sprays and they blamed Prince Philip. There was the time at the Commonwealth Games at Perth in 1962 when the photographers tried to get their revenge.

At Timbertop it seemed to be in the grand tradition. Prince Charles not being a fire hose expert let the spray wash across the feet of the photographers. ‘Watch your feet,” he cried. Another few inches higher and it would have been a first-class story. Even so it went around the world and in some U.S. newspapers it still had a touch of class. A Los Angeles newspaper described him as ‘A chip off the old faucet.’ Indeed to all of us it seemed just like old times.

The Prince looked at the swimming, at the skiing arrangements, at the hiking gear and the overnight tents. Nothing was spared. He was even shown the Timbertop fly traps. These were kerosene tins which contained pieces of meat. The flies flew inside to the meat, then, unable to get out again they were caught in a large glass jar. The obvious question was: Who gets the hideous job of cleaning out the fly traps?

The headmaster of Geelong Grammar, Mr T. R. Garnett, said with splendid understatement: ‘We give that to the boy who behaves least well. Anyone who is late for roll call or something like that.’

It was interesting to note that for the next roll call Prince Charles was magnificently on time.

Soon afterwards our morning at Timbertop came to an end and the young Prince was left alone to become a schoolboy boarder. There were many rumours after this. We received calls that he would turn up at the Fifth cricket Test against England, that he would have a privileged position to watch the grand procession at Melbourne’s Moomba Festival, that he would go to football practice. But there were no public viewings for Prince Charles. All journeyings that he made were kept very quiet.

There was criticism. Some said that the newspapers hounded the Prince, that they swamped him in far too much publicity. I don’t agree with this. Already with large migration it can be argued and argued well that only half the population had any interest in the monarchy. It needs all the publicity and all the skilful public relations it can get. The day that the newspapers cease to take an interest in visiting members of the Royal Family then the monarchy is done for.