John Walsh: Tales of the City

After 790 years, is the Lord Mayor's Show the least loved public event in the calendar?
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The Independent Online

Last week, amid the palaver about things British people allegedly do or don't do, the Evening Standard ran "10 Things Londoners Never Do." One thing was "Visit the Lord Mayor's Show." It took me a minute to conclude that they were right.

Is the annual mayoral procession - it's coming up this Saturday at 10.55am - the least-loved public event in the calendar, trailing even behind the Pearly Kings' 'Arvest Festival in October? But why? It's obviously far from cool to like marching bands, but this has been going since 1215 (no I don't mean lunchtime, I mean 790 years ago) and its virtually unbroken continuity with the past (it was dropped only seven times, on account of plague, fire, war and blitz) deserves respect.

It has seen 600-odd aldermen over the centuries, mostly from banks and businesses, climb into the big golden coach, festooned with chains of mayoral office, and process the mile and a half from Mansion House to the Royal Courts of Justice, there to swear allegiance to the crown, before setting out on a 100-day world tour, jointly sponsored by the City and the Foreign Office, selling the excellence of the British financial services industry to cowed foreigners.

I think it's rude that, despite 790 years of mayors swearing allegiance, no monarch has ever turned up for the show, let alone thanked the new guy for his support. And it's a shame the Lord Mayor is usually a faceless (and powerless) financier who will never be seen again after his moment of glory in the State Coach. But that's no reason to ignore it.

"Because it's been around for ever, it's hard to interest the Press in it," said Dominic Reid, the Show's pageant-master. "But it... is a wonderful thing. We have 5,000 people coming on Saturday. I think, since the Jubilee, people have got back into the habit of going on the streets to celebrate old traditions." I think Mr Reid must be a stranger to something called the Notting Hill Carnival, which regularly features people in the street displaying markedly little reluctance about celebrating traditions.

Among the floats that will feature are a 27-foot dog, representing the Dog's Trust, a working smithy, to evoke the Worshipful Company of Blacksmiths, and a show-jumping camel, to give visiting hacks something hilarious to write about. There is a faint air of desperation about all this. But an obvious solution is at hand. Would it perk things up if Mr Livingstone were to be seen gliding around St Paul's in grandeur, alongside his mayoral alter ego? Hordes of Londoners would surely gather instinctively, to greet him with gifts of condemned fruit, flour and bathroom tissue, shortly after raising a cheer for the Extended Congestion Charge float, as it gets completely stuck on Ludgate Hill.

Literary shaman

Poor John Fowles. I've seldom come across a writer who so little enjoyed his own success. And his success was phenomenal. In 1966, when The Magus was published, rave reviews greeted it, academics rapturously pressed their ears to its echoland of classical and Tarot allusions - and teenage secretaries and waiters read it on the No 19 bus. He played metafictional tricks in his novels - dual endings, silent-movie captions, court depositions, plot appearances by a character resembling John Fowles - and when the world came and asked him to explain, he turned them away with lofty dislike.

For years he suffered from writer's block, apparently brought on by the disobliging onset of perestroika when he was halfway through a dystopian novel about the future of the Soviet Union. He was a slave to paranoia and guarded his privacy to the point of reclusiveness. When I visited him at his home in Lyme Regis to talk about his last novel, A Maggot, he was charming, courteous, soft-spoken - and convinced the literary world was out to get him. "I know exactly who my enemies are and where they are," he seethed. "At the TLS, and The Observer, and The New York Times ..." But my favourite memory was his parting namaste gesture - hands pressed together under his chin, sidelong bow - as I was leaving. This most English of writers really saw himself as a magus, a shaman, a high priest of the mysteries.

Trimming the borders

A million tales are told about the stratagems used by poor Mexicans to cross the border into the United States by desert or across the Rio Grande.

Cormac McCarthy's All the Pretty Horses trilogy brings a quasi-Biblical gravity to the crossing. Bruce Springsteen's gloomy Ghost of Tom Joad album is full of poignant stories from this disputatious hinterland. But where is the prose stylist equipped to evoke recent events on the edge of two even bigger countries? I mean the border of Russia and China, and the recent attempt by two Chinese men to nip across it on a motorised lawnmower.

The setting was Khasansky County, at the eastern extreme of China and Russia, where few people from either country feel much yen, so to speak, to go and live in the other. These chaps were enterprising. They dressed like gardeners, powered up the mower, headed for the Slavyanka grasslands, acted all nonchalant - and when stopped by border guards, they could plausibly claim: "We got lost while cutting the grass."

As excuses go, it has a nice innocent ring to it. Like saying, "Look, we're absolutely fine when we're doing an ordinary suburban lawn. But when you have to mow the whole of Khasansky County, it's hard to get your bearings." I hope they have another go - perhaps with a wheelbarrow this time. ("My friend and I were looking for a compost heap, right, and we seem to have got lost ...")