At the Lord Mayor’s Show
One of the highlights of November is the Lord Mayor’s Show, and each year I walk over to London Wall early in the morning where this extraordinarily multifarious parade gathers, to observe the elaborate preparations at close quarters, before it all moves off at eleven with the new Lord Mayor in his gleaming fairytale coach at its head. I cannot think of a more vibrant image of the diversity of human social endeavour – in all its paradoxes and contradictions – than this three mile long parade which takes over an hour to pass by. The City is closed off to traffic on the day and you walk through streets where a dreamlike hush presides to reach the assembly point where glorious chaos reigns as six thousand overexcited participants, both military and civilian, all take the opportunity to mingle and show off their gorgeous outfits.
Ever since I saw her remarkable photograph Girl on the Kingsland Road, which was shown as part of Taylor Wessing Portrait Prize at the National Portrait Gallery, I have admired the work of Ashley Jordan Gordon and so it was my pleasure to invite her to join me at the parade on Saturday as Spitalfields Life’s newest contributing photographer. In the time before the parade moves off, a curious photo party takes place when everyone wants their photograph taken and Ashley did her best oblige as many as she could. There was a pervasive surrealism to this situation where all were in costume and it engendered a joyful camaraderie of equals in which the boundaries of normal life dissolved. I saw a platoon of soldiers dancing with a rock band, children climbing on a tank and, among so many braided uniforms, it was only upon second glance that I realised two were toy soldiers from Hamleys.
Meanwhile down at the Guildhall, in an atmosphere of high seriousness, the berobed dignitaries of the City of London were gathering, the Aldermen, the Sheriffs and the former Mayors. For these people the parade is one event in an entire weekend of formal dinners and arcane rituals that attend the inauguration of the next Lord Mayor of the City of London. And in the surrounding streets, their transport awaited as it has done each year since the event was transferred from the river after a drunken flower girl unseated the Lord Mayor in his barge in 1710. An array of immaculately preserved historic carriages were poised with magnificent horses and freshly shaved coachmen in uniforms to match – perfect in every detail as if they had just travelled through time to be here that morning.
I stood at the junction of Lothbury and Moorgate, at the rear of the Bank of England, to see the parade pass by. Even here the parade outnumbered those in the crowd, enforcing the sense that this was an event for the participants, not a performance for an audience but a moment of glory for those involved, in which our role was simply to be their witnesses. A costume implies an assumed identity, yet for many in the parade their clothes exemplified their roles, carrying a reality established over centuries. It took me a while to accommodate to this notion that I was not witnessing a reenactment of an historical event but the event itself. The outfits were not fancy dress they were real.
When a marching band in ceremonial uniform comes marching straight towards you, with a hundred musicians with playing simultaneously, looking sharp and displaying perfect focus, and the loud music echoes through the narrow streets, then the vivid intricacy of the spectacle is overwhelming. Here we were in the heart of the ancient City of London. Soldiers who returned from recent conflict were met with cheers, and respectful applause was forthcoming for the nurses and firemen too, public services that we all value, now facing cuts. Among all the carnival animals, the puppies on leads, the seven man bicycle and the veteran trucks, it was sobering to see a bomb disposal robot in the parade, rolling along with the innocence of a remote controlled toy.
From the playful to the grim, from the charitable to the corporate, from the raucous to the majestic, all the pageantry on display fused with an inescapable emotionalism into a wondrous vision of humanity. From the dignified seniors to the young crazy ones dancing on floats, and from those who take themselves alarmingly seriously to dumb clowns with painted faces, there were so many different proposals of what it means to be human.
Photographs copyright © Ashley Jordan Gordon