Mark Steel: Everyone should watch these medieval antics

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The Independent Online

The postal workers, like the workforce in every other institution, have been told they must modernise or be overtaken by forces who are prepared to be modern. And to set an example, the Government that insists on this laid out their plans yesterday in the modern setting of the state opening of parliament.

So presumably they're demanding the Post Office adopts similar methods. Postmen will only be allowed to deliver a letter while wearing an imperial postman's cap, their blue shirt dragging 16 feet behind them, as a man in garters bangs three times on each door, which must be slowly opened so the postman can announce "From my sack I will introduce a leaflet for a take-away curry emporium, and a bill for payment to the water board," before handing them over on a velvet cushion, but even then you won't be allowed to open the letters, until its delivery has been approved by a second, unelected, sorting office that's made up of descendants of 17th-century postmen with an average age of 106.

And instead of Post Office vans, each sack will be carried by a team of equerries, who will still bomb down side streets at 60 miles an hour, running over cats.

"Well we can all agree that's a beautiful sight," said commentator Huw Edwards as the Royals began their stagecoach journey surrounded by hundreds of old men in bright red jackets. But it's not true we all agree. Because some of us are thinking "IT'S BLOODY MENTAL." This far outweighs the pretty colours, just as if you saw a madman committing Hari-kari in Woolworths your first thought wouldn't be "Oo doesn't the dark red blood match the purple wrappers of the pick 'n' mix fudge selection."

Yet the medieval antics of Black Rod, the Queen's hostage, men walking slowly backwards carrying cushions, cabinet members in unfeasibly kinky regalia, is all described as if this behaviour is perfectly normal. But it's not.

If there was no such thing as the State Opening of Parliament and you watched people behaving like this on your computer, within an hour the police would be round to confiscate your hard drive.

But no matter what antics take place, the commentators calmly inform us this is all part of our glorious tradition, and they wouldn't change tone if they had to say "And now the Leader of the House must kneel before the valet's bare buttocks and warble like a jackdaw. And there he goes, quite a shrill warble this year, and here's the leader of Her Majesty's opposition masturbating the squirrel (Anthony Eden of course was renowned for being particularly adept at this), and now Black Rod covers him in semolina, which symbolises the hanging of the Earl of Semolina in 1667 for playing badminton with a Catholic."

So everyone should be made to watch this ceremony. Because then no one would take anything the Government said seriously. It would be the same as if someone in an office came in dressed in garters and spent the day walking backwards, then tried to tell you their plans for the next year. You'd politely nod and say it was a terrible shame, possibly connected to the disaster at Chernobyl, and not bother trying to take in their intriguing plans for housing.

But it would be unfair to ignore New Labour's efforts to change the procedure. Because in recent years Lord Irvine had dispensed with the practice of walking backwards from the Queen, considering that an archaic ritual too far. But yesterday Jack Straw re-introduced the backwards technique, which is designed to display the humility of not turning your back on the Queen.

So there we are. Jack Straw went into politics to make a difference and didn't disappoint – because he's the man who transformed the State Opening of Parliament from being not subservient enough to the Queen. Instead of that, he ought to be true to his party's obsession with modernisation.

In which case, he'd be deploring the vast overmanning in the state opening industry, complaining that in a global economy it was uneconomical to pay hundreds of equerries in red jackets to stand around for hours when it only takes one to open a stagecoach door.

So unless they accept flexible working methods, such as Black Rod doubling up as the Queen, the whole institution will be taken over by private competitors, who could introduce innovations such as selling off the throne to make way for a leisure centre, allowing several Queen's speeches, to provide customers with a choice as to which set of laws they obey, and ending antiquated working practices such as being Prince Philip – which is simply too impractical and inefficient to tolerate in a modern competitive environment.

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