The Lord Mayor’s Show is a mix of traditional buttoned-up pageantry and hilarious carnival. A bit like the State Opening of Parliament without all the MPs and Notting Hill without the jerk chicken.
I’m a freeman with the Worshipful Company of Merchant Taylors, one of the City of London‘s ‘Great 12’ livery companies. The Lord Mayor’s Show is an event where the city’s car hire companies – there are around 110 in all – have a prominent place. In addition, as a member of the Company’s Court, the new Lord Mayor has a special connection to the Merchant Taylors. Which is all an awkward way of saying: I was harnessed to tonight’s show to ride a camel.
I read Justin Marozzi in hopes of finding tips on how to tie said camel, but to no avail. On a positive note, the weather appears to be dry and sunny, which is as close to Saharan conditions as one could hope for in November. Nonetheless, I haven’t been on a camel since I succumbed to the advances of an enterprising Bedouin in Giza as a teenager, and brace myself for a bumpy ride.
There are different considerations. I had particularly wondered about camel droppings. Am I expected, like any considerate townsman (no less than a Freeman!), to pick up my pet’s poop while we walk on? I’ve now been told to concentrate on staying upright on the camel’s back and that another notable townsman has turned up to collect droppings. After the Lord Mayor’s Show comes the garbage truck, as the saying goes.
The roots of the show are ancient. This year, Alderman Nicholas Lyons is set to become the city’s 694th Lord Mayor. In an attempt to win over the City of London, in the early 13th century the ill-fated King John allowed the city to appoint its own mayor (‘loyal, discreet and able to govern’) rather than having a sheriff appointed by the king , on condition that they come to Westminster every year to swear allegiance to the Crown. The procession that arose around the Mayor to accompany him on these annual trips to the Royal Courts of Justice became known as the Lord Mayor’s Show.
As the chief cheerleader of the city’s businesses and residents, international ambassador for Britain’s financial and services sectors and head of the City of London Corporation, the Lord Mayor has – all ceremonies aside – quite a hefty modern role. Lyons, who is taking time off from his position as chairman of insurer Phoenix Group, will focus his tenure on stimulating investment and growth, and improving London’s global productivity, under the motto “Financing our future”.
But the more esoteric parts of the role are certainly not neglected. One of the many of these ancient duties and privileges is to lead the annual sheep drive across London Bridge. Another is the right to assist the royal butler in serving drinks at the coronation banquet (the Mayor of Winchester is now entitled to assist the royal cook). In general, however, the Lord Mayor is the grand host rather than the staff: at the Lord Mayor’s Banquet (on the Monday after the show), the Prime Minister traditionally delivers the keynote speech, while the Chancellor delivers the “Mansion House Speech”, the bankers’ dinner in June and the Foreign Secretary steps up to the lectern at the Easter banquet. Certainly the host with the most.
The same mix of ancient and modern is manifested in the show. This year there are more than 130 floats in total – from cadet forces and corporations to ancient guilds and modern day charities. The locations specifically related to the new Lord Mayor (such as Wells-next-the-Sea, his hometown) are also included. It’s all delightfully eclectic. Bands of the Scots Guards and Welsh Guards come first, and not far behind are Gog and Magog, basket giants (made by the Worshipful Company of Basketmakers) who are the town’s traditional guardians. The Lord Mayor himself rides in the state carriage that was put into service in 1757 and is said to be the oldest regularly used ceremonial vehicle in the world. It has gilded bodies and side panels painted by Cipriani “representing London’s majesty, piety and global reach”.
The liveries that form the heart of the procession are a reminder of the city’s history and its modern purpose at the same time. Most maintain ties to their original craft. Originally a tailors’ association, Merchant Taylors, for example, is now primarily a philanthropic and educational organization – although it still proudly maintains its Savile Row ties and nurtures the next generation of British tailors through the biannual Golden Shears competition, the Oscars the tailoring world.
And the paint shops are not too quick to shed their old heritage. The Merchant Taylors’ Company is listed on the show’s website in both sixth and seventh place in the procession – a fitting tribute to the Company’s centuries-old rivalry with the Skinners for their respective places in the paint company hierarchy. In 1484 the then Lord Mayor, Sir Robert Billesden, settled the issue by decreeing that the two companies should swap places annually, an episode which is widely believed to have been the origin of the phrase ‘at six and seven’.
This year has given us no shortage of ancient rituals and pageantry for reasons of joy and tragedy, reminding us that these public spectacles—simultaneously solemn and frivolous—embody the very best of our country. The Lord Mayor’s Office – and the show that celebrates it – is an example of an institution that has simultaneously moved with the times to serve an important purpose while preserving the best of its history. The show has been immortalized over the years: in Shakespeare, in art – from Canaletto to Hogarth – and in pantomime (by Dick Whittington, of course). Samuel Pepys thought the 1660 show was a great day, where he met Lady Sandwich and all the children and drank a “strange and incomparably good Clarett”. You could and should do the same. To a triumph of British pomp and ceremony today.