Tag Archives: London traditions

Bankside Twelfth Night

When it was quiet, as it often was during January, I would set-up on Globe Walk hoping to get a fare from tourists.

On more than one occasion, on this day, being Twelfth Night, I saw a very unusual tradition, as a man shrouded in a green suit emerged from the River Thames in a rowing boat accompanied by a merry posse. This was the extraordinary Holly Man, the Winter guise of the Green Man (from our pub signs, pagan myths and folklore), decked in fantastic green garb and evergreen foliage, piped over the River Thames, with the devil Beelzebub.

By Shakespeare’s Globe, led by the Bankside Mummers and their London Beadle, the Holly Man ‘brought in the green’ and toast or ‘wassail’ the people, the River Thames and the Globe (an old tradition encouraging good growth).

It was the ceremony of the traditional beginning of the Twelfth Night celebrations that marked the end of the Christmas period before people return to work.

The ‘Mummers’ then processed to the Bankside Jetty and performed the traditional freestyle St. George Folk Combat Play, featuring the Turkey Sniper, Clever Legs, the Old ‘Oss and many others, dressed in spectacular costumes.

The play is full of wild verse and boisterous action, a time-honoured part of the season. Cakes distributed at the end of the play have a bean and a pea hidden in two of them. Those from the crowd who find them are hailed King Bean and Queen Pea for the day and crowned with ceremony.

The King and Queen then lead the people through the streets to the historic George Inn Southwark, for a fine warming-up with the Fowlers Troop, Storytelling, the Kissing Wishing Tree, Dancing and Mulled Wine.

Whether this performance, recorded since the Crusades, will take place today I doubt.

Parliamentary peculiars

Tomorrow will see The State Opening of Parliament, and although our political masters have promised it to be the last for two years, the political commentators are predicting it won’t even be the last one this year, as we could have another election in the near future.

The State Opening has many traditions, Black Rod knocking on the door to gain admittance, the speech which is referred to as ‘A Humble Address’ or the ‘Loyal Address’.

[M]any other anomalies are to be found in the Palace of Westminster. A snuff box is situated by the door of the Commons. Smoking has been banned since the 17th century, so a full box if snuff is provided should Members require.

Hooks are provided in the cloakroom so one may hang one’s sword, they were barred from the Chamber.

The mace, which once was a weapon is carried before Black Rod. The last time the ‘weapon’ was used in anger was by Michael Heseltine. On the 27th May 1976, the government was attempting to steer the hotly contested Aircraft and Shipbuilding Industries Bill through the Commons. The vote on an amendment had been tied and was lost on the Speaker’s vote, Heseltine had to be restrained from using the mace presumably upon the Speaker’s head.

The colours of green (Commons) and red (Lords) are denoted on the carpets, benches and Westminster and Lambeth bridges, although no-one quite knows why those colours were chosen.

The expression ‘in the bag’ comes from a rather worn velvet bag, called the Petition Bag, which hangs on the back of the Speaker’s chair. Where, if you believe, shy Members could leave petitions to be considered.

Emily Wilding Davidson (who would subsequently die under the King’s horse at Ascot) hid in a cupboard on census night, so she could give her address as ‘The House of Commons’. The late Tony Benn would show his guests the stationery cupboard.

In a kind of quasi-religious icon worshiping, Members touch the statues of their favourite dead politicians when passing, they say Margaret Thatcher is particularly favoured.

The Commons Chamber can only accommodate 427 for the 650 members, Churchill was reputedly in favour of keeping the seating to a minimum after bomb damage necessitated rebuilding, so he wouldn’t have too much opposition to his speeches.

Two red line along its floor of the Commons Chamber, which are 8-foot apart, just over two sword lengths, just in case Members flout the rule of ‘no swords’ and don’t hang them in the cloakroom.

There is the talk of moving the whole of Queen Elizabeth II Conference Centre while 5-years of maintenance takes place.

Capital courtesies

Have you ever stood waiting for a cab to have it pass you by? Assuming you weren’t hanging from a lamppost with a kebab in your free hand, it might be that the driver was being courteous to his colleague behind.

A curious courtesy in the trade is that if you’re let out into a moving stream of traffic by another cab, should a job materialise, you ignore the punter allowing the courteous cabbie behind to pick up the job.

Probably unique for London are a number of other quirky courtesies.

[S]tanding on the right of an escalator allowing others to pass on one’s left is well known. Apparently it derives from the original at Earl’s Court station. Unlike today one couldn’t walk off the moving stairs, rather users were shunted off to one side by a diagonal partition, while the moving stairs disappeared under the partition. By standing on the right allowed for the right foot first so standing on the right made sense. Also those fewer travellers on the left who chose to walk could join fellow travellers on the right easier when preparing to alight.

Recently I’ve noticed that some considerate drivers will sound their horn just as the traffic lights turn, reminding the driver in front of the need to accelerate away the moment the light show red/amber. I first observed this courtesy, that of sounding one’s horn at the slightest opportunity when I was travelling in the Middle East.

Now London drivers are, through the medium of sound, telling fellow road users to go first. Those same drivers are want to inform pedestrians of the need to transverse pedestrian crossings swiftly, or risk being run over by the impatient driver.

Now I don’t expect to be thanked by every punter who alights from my cab, a simple tip suffices; and I’ve never seen anyone expressing gratitude to a train driver when safety reaching their destination.

So why do passengers thank bus drivers as they disembark? The first mention of gratitude at the beginning of their shift might be heart warming, but after a few hundred ”Thank You Driver” it could become tiresome.

It has also occurred to me that the Perspex partition between the driver and passenger might be to stop grateful passengers vigorously shaking the driver’s hand on the his achievement at stopping at the correct bus stop.

Leap Year London

The leap year’s extra day is necessary because of the “messiness” of our Solar System. One Earth year (a complete orbit around the Sun) does not take an exact number of whole days (one complete spin of the Earth on its axis). In fact, it takes 365.2422 days, give or take.

This extra day, not to mention those few extra nano-seconds, give rise to some unusual traditions.

[I]n tradition of giving the opportunity for ladies to propose to their beau (if he hasn’t already done so, don’t bother girls) gave Harry Craddock at the Savoy Hotel the idea to make the proposal more amenable to the recalcitrant lover. First available at the bar on 29th February, 1928 the Leap Year Cocktail was said to have spurred many a marriage proposal:

2 ounces gin
½ ounce Grand Marnier
½ ounce sweet vermouth
¼ ounce fresh lemon juice
Stir and strain into a chilled cocktail glass
Serve with a twist of lemon

[B]ear with me on this one. The Queen sent no centenarian birthday telegrams on 29th February 2000, because there was no 29th February in 1900. A person born on 29th February 1896 would have celebrated their first birthday in 1904. The year 1896 was a leap year, thus February had 29 days. The next leap year was not until 1904. Leap years, which have 366 days instead of the common 365, are those years divisible by four, except centesimal (those ending in 00) years unless they are divisible by 400. Therefore, three of every four centesimal years are common years, including 1900. No, I can’t get my head around that either.

[O]n 29th February 1977, two members of Lynyrd Skynyrd were knocked unconscious after a scuffle broke out- between the band and members of the metropolitan police boxing team, who were holding a dinner at the Royal Lancaster Hotel in London.

[I]n an attempt to assist the ladies endeavouring to catch their man, on 29th February 2000 the London Aquarium offered a quirky service for women who wish to take advantage of 29th February. First there was a guided tour (it’s very dark in there so that should have given a more romantic ambience), then when the man might have suspected that something fishy was afoot a diver emerged in the tank clutching a personalised sign that pops the question.

That’s all for new, watch this space in four years time.

About Time

The last time any major work was done here was the remedial repairs after World War II and for a building more than 160 years old it’s showing its age.

This Grade I listed Enesco World Heritage Site is in urgent need of some repairs – in fact £3 billion. The proposal is to relocate to another London premises, but if MPs refuse to move home the work could take 50 years to complete.

[L]eaking roofs, ancient electrics and plumbing, asbestos, badly-damaged stonework and subsidence are among the problems at the Palace of Westminster identified recently. If its incumbents are forced to leave the premises while the building work is in progress will they take with them some of the curious and frankly bizarre practices and traditions?

Although as with most places of employment smoking is banned, a snuffbox is positioned at the front door of the House of Commons, it’s been there for centuries and apparently is still full of snuff. Apparently this is because smoking has not been allowed in the Chamber since the 17th century so the snuff box is there instead.

Unsurprisingly Members are forbidden to carry a sword within the Palace’s confines, and so hooks are provided which to deposit them. In the cloakroom wags have hung several plastic replicas as a nod to this archaic rule. Two red lines 2.5 metres apart are also to be found on the Chamber floor. They are intended to be just over two sword-lengths apart, should Member not hand their swords in upon entering the Palace of Westminster.

The door the House of Commons bears the scars of the hundreds of times Black Rod has knocked upon it, only to have it slammed in his face, to symbolically show the Monarch that he or she is only allowed in by consent. One hopes the door will not be repaired in the forthcoming makeover.

The Speaker has a rather worn looking velvet bag hanging from the back of his chair. Incredibly it is there for petitions to be deposited by Members who are too shy to talk about the topic in public – some hope with the present incumbents. From this tradition comes the saying ‘In the Bag’.

The Commons has green carpets and benches and the Lords have on their side of the Palace red, but there are also corridors with a mixed carpet but no-one is very sure that that means.

In the Members’ Lobby are statues to some of England’s greatest Prime Ministers: Churchill; Atlee; Thatcher; Lloyd George; Disraeli and others. Members will touch the statue of their favourite PM before they give a speech for good luck; if they move out what will they touch in their new home?

You can’t die in the Palace of Westminster, because it is a royal palace. Anyone who died there is entitled to a state funeral. If they notice you looking even the slightest bit sick, they carry you out of the building immediately.

Taxpayers spend £247,000 per MP, when all the costs of Parliament are taken into account. That is bound to rise when the building work commences, and if it is like any other project instigated by MPs, the Olympics is just one example, the original figure to be multiplied many times over.