MON 11 March was the Modern Companies Dinner at Insurance Hall, one of the best such I have attended. Good food and good company. The principal guest was Sherriff Nigel Pullman, who unburdened his soul about the difficulties in obtaining suitable tights for the Shrieval Formal Dress (which he will be wearing at the WCCA Banquet: Modern Companies being ‘informal’ ie. Black Tie). This was an introduction to the heaviest schedule for a week so far. On Tuesday I was let off so drove to Northampton for an evening of planning CPD; mercifully the snow was light. On WED 13 the Vintners’ Company celebrated the 650th Anniversary of their first Royal Charter with Evensong at St Paul’s Cathedral, followed by a Reception at the nearby St Paul’s Grange Hotel. I’m running out of epithets for St Pauls: suffice it to say that the usual high standard was maintained, and that this was A1 on the scale of importance, attended by the Duke and Duchess of Gloucester (in substitution it was said for The Queen, who was in hospital for two days). The Reception was not a comfortable affair, with the cloakroom facilities overwhelmed so much that we had to stand outside in the cold for 20 minutes, and then made our way into the sub-basement to a vast room with acoustics so poor that I found it difficult to converse. The Vintners didn’t stint: Tattinger champagne flowed freely, but I had to be wary of driving the seven miles home from Letchworth station.
Next day THU 14 I put some serious thought into avoiding over imbibing when driving. It all started well as I left my car at a friend’s house in Letchworth, white tie and tails ‘neath my black overcoat. I arrived outside The Mansion House in good time for THE LORD MAYOR’s BANQUET FOR MASTERS. Ann arrived and we made our way through security into the Crush Lobby, which was heaving. I queued for the Cloakroom, while Ann changed in the Ladies. Many familiar faces were greeted. Then Ann had to insert herself in the Cloakroom queue, which had grown (she’s very good at that and nobody ever seems to mind). David and Mary Cole-Adams passed and joined the queue for the stairs and reception, which was very long – we never saw them again. Then we inserted ourselves in the queue, and slowly progressed to be received by The Lord Mayor and Lady Mayoress and Nigel Pullman, again. Then into one of the heaving ante-rooms before being summoned to take our seats in the Egyptian Hall for the Banquet. From then on it was Cloud Nine, pageantry, the Pikemen on guard, brazen fanfares and the mix of the slightly absurd by the hand of tradition. The speeches were serious, and in the case of the Master Grocer reminiscent of bygone attitudes. The timing was somewhat awry, and as we were seated close to the doors, we refused a stirrup cup, and made our way to the cloakrooms (blissfully uncrowded). I hailed a taxi outside the front on The Mansion House (never before achieved and relieving Ann of a long cold walk to Moorgate – but that’s another story) and off we set for our respective termini. I hopped out at King’s Cross just in time for the 10.45, only to find all through trains to the Cambridge branch cancelled due to emergency trackwork. A slow train terminating in Stevenage didn’t connect with the announced substitute buses, so I took a £40 taxi ride home, worth every penny on a freezing night.
On FRI: 15, I clocked up a threesome (in the best possible taste). Happily the travel plan – minibus to Ashwell Station for the 0718 to King’s Cross worked like a dream, and in good time I strode confidently from Faringdon Station to Stationers’ Hall for Chester Boyd’s Champagne Breakfast. This is really a hard sell to Clerks (I was Ian’s guest) for the Caterer and the Hall. It was one of the best such I have been to, a good quality breakfast, with a witty and informative talk from one of the best known wine correspondents (so well known that his name escapes me as I recall the event two weeks later) about changes in the wine trade and drinking habits over the past 30 years. We have all become more sophisticated in our tastes – I am old enough to remember the days of Blue Nun, Piat d’Or and Mateus Rose 50 years ago – without regret. St Paul’s again for the UNITED GUILDS SERVICE, only the big 12 and selected younger Companies process. Finally, a decent Lunch at Plaisterers Hall rounded off the day.
MON 18 hotfoot to Basketry Arts, Dutch Church, 11.30 for demonstration and buffet lunch. As with the Turners’ Wizardry in Wood, this was a craft display and sales opportunity: I acquired an elegant, robust and hopefully cat-proof waste paper basket, and nibbled on the buffet, chatting to Gillian Scahill, wife of the Master Engineer, who had been called to the launch of the Queen’s Prize for Engineering, billed as the Nobel Prize for invention. Then I discovered that my new, warm, black woollen overcoat had been purloined from the unattended cloakroom (and a worn one of a different size was left next to where mine had been hung). Mercifully I had left nothing in the pockets – at least I still had the scarf and hat that I had placed in my bag, but after having reported the matter, I hurried along Austin Friars through the freezing drizzle, clutching the basket to my bosom and gritted my teeth for the 1/3 mile walk to the car from Letchworth Station at the other end. The Basketmakers Company emailed all the companies they had invited to the event, but 10 days later nobody had reported taking the wrong coat (which there had been ample time to discover) and the Dutch Church still held the other coat (which nobody had bothered to claim). I can only conclude that the disappearance of my coat had been opportunistic theft. Checking people in and out of the event had been hit and miss. I hope that a Liveryman was not responsible: even so it leaves a bitter taste.
By sheer coincidence, my next event on THU 21 took me back to Austin Friars for the Furniture Makers’ 50th Anniversary Court Dinner at Furniture Hall, opposite the Dutch Church. John and Sylvia Reid, architects who were active in the Furniture Makers Company in its early years were founders of WCCA, and Sylvia was our first Lady Master in 1996, and more recently we had held joint Carol Services. The Hall resulted from a purchase in a fine Edwardian Building, and was aptly scaled for a dinner of 35, with a menu which included the best venison I can recall. It was a very pleasant occasion, intimate enough to engage in conversation, and I left with a feeling of warmth and bonhomie. Then the curse of Austin Friars struck again! The bitter wind caused me hastily to reach into my bag for the hat with earflaps, and in so doing I dislodged my spectacles. Actually I heard a noise, and looked downwards – Austin Friars is not well lit and I didn’t see anything obvious, and only discovered the loss of specs when I reached home. Not perhaps too disastrous since they were from the eye test before the last, after which the strength was increased, but I had always liked those half frames….
March ended on the highest possible note (C in altississimo, only audible to a passing bat!) On TUE 26 the WCCA Banquet was held at Carpenters Hall. Ian had planned everything meticulously – the order of procedure, timed down to the last minute is attached. However, it was up to me to match up to this. My driver, Lee, collected me and 2 guests – the Murrays, Sheila had been my PA/ Secretary for 21 years – and we reached Carpenters’ Hall spot on 18.00. My son Sam had travelled from Yorkshire that afternoon and was staying at the St Pancras Hotel. He collected Ann from her hotel and they too arrived on time. Ann was wearing a very becoming dark red gown which emphasised her trim figure. We posed for official photographs before the Reception. The Orpington Sea Cadets in their smart sailor suits provided the ‘carpet guard’ at the foot of the steps (a first at this event). Not that anybody would have stood much chance of making away with the carpet, given the eagle eyes of the Carpenter’s Beadle who seemed to be fussing around. The Reception line assembled, with Wardens and ladies, and the gladhanding and greeting went like clockwork. My personal guests included family and friends from schooldays in 1953 and professional colleagues. Livery support was excellent: the lesser number 122 reflected the omission of winners from the Company’s architecture award (which had not run this year due to lack of entries) and the ‘outmess’ support of Aldermanic guests: Sherriff Nigel Pullman was out top level guest who came ‘unencumbered’. Photographs were hurriedly taken with Guest Masters, then the procession into the hall, to the strains of ‘See the Conquering Hero Comes’ – I had suggested tongue-in-cheek that it be played ‘with irony’.
Carpenters’ Hall grows on me. Its exterior is late 19th century classical with an arcaded front and Corinthian columns to London Wall (1876-80 by W. W. Pocock). The interiors were reworked after gutting by firebombing in 1941 which ignited the gas main in London Wall. Whinney, Son and Austen Hall redesigned the restoration in 1956-60, who including the stark bridge over Throgmorton Avenue to contain the extended hall, which includes at least 18 varieties of timber. The interior of the hall was by Clifford Weardon of Basil Spence’s practice. As I mused on the hall, sympathetically lit with modern glass candle holders on the tables and dimmed ceiling lights, I noted a family resemblance of the ceiling to the contemporary treatment at the new Coventry Cathedral). The Loving Cups followed the dinner: I set two on their way and others came up the centre spring towards me. The Royal toasts followed, and a short comfort break, during which the musicians strutted their stuff. Liam Dunachie from the Guildhall School of Music had brought a Jazz Quartet. I had requested Fats Waller’s ‘Aint Misbehavin’ and Duke Ellington’s ‘Take the A Train’ and boy were they good! Rather than have a string quartet (which many may have expected of me) I decided, on the strength of hearing Liam and his colleagues at Plaisterers’ Hall in January that they would create a relaxed mood at the Banquet, midst the formality.
Then Jaki Howes, Upper Warden, gave a potted history of the hall in her Civic Toast, when she also welcomed Sherriff Nigel Pullman, with a passing reference to ‘stockings’ (‘men in tights’ are not confined to 1930s Hollywood and Errol Flynn as Robin Hood: they flourish to this day among the City of London Shrievalty). It was now time for the ceremonial welcome and Toast to the Company Guests. My speech included the tribulations of public speaking without the visual aids which usually drive my presentations. It is reproduced below, and was well received. In reply, John Burton, surveyor to the fabric of Canterbury Cathedral, made a brilliant concise speech: on hearing his title an American guest at a formal dinner had replied that he too was ‘big in drapes’. John emphasised the need to recognise the contribution of crafts to the continued cherishing of our architectural heritage. His Toast, on behalf of the Guests, to the Company, coupled with the Master –‘may they flourish root and branch’ left me alone seated, almost as patriarch of an extended family (which is what the Livery is in extended sense). In reply, my final utterance, all I could say was that this had been one of the highlights of my life that I knew would not recur, thank all for their support and presence, and invite them to take a Stirrup Cup.
I have since learned that as I and the Murrays were driven back to Ashwell that an extended Stirrup Cup Italiano was taken at St Pancras Hotel: I’ll leave it to Ann to add further comment.