The Sheriff and the Wakeman

In 1941 George  Orwell wrote an essay about the British character called 'The Lion and the Unicorn". I was reminded of this yesterday when I attended a service in Ripon Cathedral for the Blessing of the Leeds Nepalese Community Flag. That was extraordinary enough with the Blessing conducted before the high altar by  an ecumenical trio of the Bishop (Christian) , Guru Chewang Gurung (Tibetan Buddhist) and Pandit Attmaram Dahal (Indian Hindu) . George Orwell would never have witnessed that. But what caught my eye was the front two pews filled by local dignitaries holding traditional offices that required the wearing of fancy dress you rarely see outside the Coronation or a pantomime at Christmas. I liked the High Sheriff of North Yorkshire (female) who wore a white feather round her  hat, a jabot round her neck, a small black bag to carry her wig over her shoulder and York rose buckles on her shoes. She told me that she was on duty at least 70 days of the year attending Lord Mayors and Circuit Judges as they performed their duties. The Lord Mayor of Leeds was more restrained wearing his gold chain of office over canonical dress for, uniquely I wager, he is a councillor, a canon and Lord Mayor all in one. The Deputy Lord Lieutenant of the County was straight out of a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta with mock 18th century military dress including ceremonial sword. Various Lord and Lady Mayors wore Victorian chains of offices and big floral hats if they were Ladies. The Bishop, Dean and Minor Canon of Ripon cathedral seemed restrained in comparison. Everyone eligible wore medals and only the cognoscenti could distinguish between a Member of the British Empire (?) civil and a Member of the British Empire, military. George Orwell would not have been surprised that these costumes and titles conferred great social authority. We  stood as the dignitaries entered and exited their pews. I noticed afterwards that several commoners bowed before speaking to them. Their authority seemed the greater when upheld by the Church of England at prayer and the flags of the British Legion and Gurkha regiments carried proudly for display before the altar. Would Orwell have found this parade of the county establishment in traditional dress ridiculous or offensive? I hope like me he would have found it entertaining; more than that, a link with the past that goes towards being British.

And the Wakeman?  He is the Hornblower who stands at the four corners of the town square at 9 pm and blows his horn to remind the town of the authority of the Mayor.   As it says above the Town Hall "Except Ye Lord Keep  Ye Cittie Ye Wakeman Waketh in Vain". Last Sunday he would have succeeded the Nepalese dancers who filled the square with their Gorkhali dancing. That's a Yorkshire town in the Year of our Lord 2011.