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William Baeck: Writing & Photography


The Lord Mayor’s Show

for the San Antonio Express-News

Cold days. Short days. We’d seen plenty of public events in London during the spring when the days were warm and long. But now my wife and I were here in November, and the cool, dark clouds overhead seemed ready to smudge the rooftops and settle like dust on our enthusiasm. It would take a significant event to move us from our morning tea on the sofa and back onto the chilly London streets.

     In early November, this could only mean The Lord Mayor’s Show.


The newly inaugurated Lord Mayor greets

the crowd from his golden coach.

     When I first visited London, I was puzzled by the fact that there is both a mayor and a lord mayor. My confusion was only increased by the explanation — there are two Londons. There is the original, roughly square-mile City of London that had been enclosed by a stone wall soon after the Romans founded Londinium in A.D. 43, and there is the Greater London that slowly grew from it. Being so much bigger, Greater London gets most of the press, and it's the one with a mayor.

     Meanwhile, the City of London (known simply as the City) is the historic and monetary heart of London (it brokers half the world's shipping, for instance). At its center is the triangle of St. Paul’s Cathedral, the Bank of England, and the Guildhall, representing the religious, financial and municipal triumvirate that directs the life of the City. But almost no one lives there.

     More than 7 million people live in Greater London, and a third of a million of them work in the City of London. Yet, fewer then 10,000 actually live in the City. So although it’s vibrant during the day, at night the lights go out and the City of London becomes a ghost metropolis. But it does have a lord mayor, and has had a new one each year since 1189.

     For roughly 800 years, the first official act of the new lord mayor has been to travel to Westminster in Greater London, where he has pledged allegiance to the monarch. Over time, this governmental journey has grown into an improbable ceremonial procession known as The Lord Mayor’s Show, in which the strict pomp of the lord mayor and his retinue is preceded by a rowdy flotilla of groups representing a cross-section of Londoners.


Giant puppets join guild representatives and centuries

of tax protesters in The Lord Mayor’s Show.


     Arriving at the St. Paul’s Underground station around 11 a.m., we took a spot along nearby Cheapside, just as the procession was about to begin. Luckily, the skies had improved, brightening from mottled gray to mottled blue, and the crowd was smaller than I’d expected. Reports had said that half a million people would be watching in person. But they were spread along a nearly two-mile route from the Guildhall to the Royal Courts of Justice, so it was easy to get up front for a good view.

     While we waited in the morning chill, I watched with envy as two middle-aged women next to me drank hot Scotch from a thermos. I turned away to buy a Remembrance Day poppy from an elderly veteran and began looking for the parade over his shoulder while he showed me the proper way to pin the poppy to my coat (“bend the pin first and he won't slip out”). According to my watch, the new lord mayor had just been sworn in. Now the parade would begin.

     For the next two hours, servicemen and women marched, bands thumped and blared, cars drove, steamrollers, well, steamrolled, horses trotted, kings and queens in their pearl emblazoned outfits shimmered, boats were rowed majestically from atop station wagons, and children in their best school costumes danced around and atop floats. It was big city, but it was also small town. Which isn’t surprising, considering The City of London is a small city within the big city of Greater London.

     Eight hundred years has given the Lord Mayor’s Show a long perspective on Londoners, and nowhere is this as obvious as in the different viewpoints represented by the show’s participants. A military brass band in blue and gold, precisely articulated like musical clockwork, was followed by a bedraggled platoon of tax protesters in period costume complaining about every tax in English history. Signs decried “Candle Duty Tax (1710-1832),” “Female Servant Duty (1172-1792),” and the comparatively recent “Playing Card Duty Tax (1711-1960),” all the way back to “Danegeld (871-1163),”proving British taxpayers are among Europe’s best grudge-holders.

     The hot-Scotch drinkers next to me agreed, adding “whoop-whoops!” as they toasted the protesters. These were shortly followed by businessmen in bowler hats gliding along on roller skates. By now it seemed that two of every kind of Londoner were passing by, as if they were processing toward a kind of Noah’s Ark of the eccentrics waiting for them in the River Thames.


Admiral Horatio Nelson, England’s greatest naval hero, floats by.


     But the show contained its more formal elements, too. Distributed throughout the procession were floats representing the City’s hundred-plus guilds, collectives of merchants and artisans who since medieval times have protected their particular trades in a kind of precursor to modern unions. They had elected the lord mayor, and this was their day as much as his. Some guilds had their own floats and the ability to identify each guild separated City natives from mere Londoners.

     Most important were floats from the dozen guilds known collectively as “The Great Twelve,” which represents merchants such as grocers, fishmongers, goldsmiths and tailors, and includes those whose trades are still plied in the City today. Other guilds have adapted over time as their trades became less productive. Typical of such guilds was the esoterically titled Worshipful Company of Tallow Chandlers. These were candle makers whose fortunes have suffered a gradual downturn since the import of whale oil in the 17th century, yet who continue their existence by making investments and carrying out charitable work in the City. Meanwhile, one of the most recent guilds (number 105, formed in 1993) was The Worshipful Company of Management Consultants. The tail of the procession was marked by greater ceremony, as one horse-drawn coach after another passed containing aldermen of the Great Twelve guilds. Here was the chance for the governors to remind the governed that behind all the different voices, the various classes of society, and multiple political viewpoints was the continuity of a regal institution that had been in charge since medieval times.

      Finally came the lord mayor’s resplendent carriage.

     Built in 1757 specifically for this occasion, the coach’s entire exterior was covered in gold, and it’s unlikely Cinderella rode to the ball in anything as lavish. And just like Cinderella’s carriage turned back into a pumpkin at midnight, the lord mayor’s coach would return to the Museum of London that night, where it would spend the next 364 days. But today, the new lord mayor rode happily inside, leaning his velvet-robed figure out the window to wave down at us.

     His procession had started at 11 a.m. with a swearing-in ceremony at the Guildhall. It had then threaded through a series of places evocative of old London — Cheapside, to St. Paul’s Cathedral (where the lord mayor received a blessing from the dean), to Fleet Street and the Temple Courts of Justice. From there it returned along Victoria Embankment and Queen Victoria Street, ending where it had begun, at the Guildhall.

     We realized that 800 years had trooped past us in just two hours. We had gotten an assembly-line view of London's history, from its early guilds, to its protesters, to its defenders, to its government. I once remarked to an English friend that London has so much history.

     “Sometimes,” he replied, “I think we have too much history.”

     For us it was like living in a time machine, while for him it was like living in his grandmother’s attic.

     History is evanescent. Each moment bubbles to the top of our consciousness and disappears into memory. But in the Lord Mayor’s Show, history repeats itself annually, for free.


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© 2010 William Baeck. All Rights Reserved