This week, I have seen a most odd and spectacular thing. A thing so glorious and weird, I’m not sure I have the language skills to describe it to an audience. It completely wiped out my supposed knowledge of one culture, but simultaneously allowed me to make sense of every Monty Python sketch and Black Adder episode I’ve ever seen. I’m speaking, of course, of the State Opening of the British Parliament.
I’ve previously written in this space that I’m a big fan of the British Parliament. I watch Prime Ministers Questions on C-SPAN religiously, but nothing could have prepared me for what I saw on my TiVo this week. We don’t have anything remotely like the State Opening of Parliament. We have the State of the Union Address, where the president goes to congress and gives a speech where half the room applauds, and the other half doesn’t. There’s not a lot of ceremony behind it. The House Sergeant at Arms says, “Mr. Speaker, the President of the United States,” and that’s about it. We don’t do much when a new congress is seated, either. Just some back slapping, a quick oath, then they can start arguing about whether gays should marry.
But the State Opening of Parliament is all about ceremony. It starts with the queen arriving in a horse drawn carriage. She’s gre
eted at Westminster Palace by some guy called the Lord Great Chamberlain. Then a procession of people with names like Black Rod and Gold Stick in Waiting head into the building. Somewhere in the crowd, there’s a Great Mace and a Sword of State. (I have no idea what these are used for.) At one point, BBC commentators point out a man named Lord Falconer, who was dressed in an elaborate robe and carrying a velvet purse. The purse, I’m told, contains the Queen’s speech (written on … goatskin?).
According to media reports, the US spends more on defense than all other nations combined. Some have said this frees up other nations to spend their money on socialized medicine or public transportation. In the UK, I believe this money is spent primarily on costumes.
There are about 3 dozen people in the royal procession, and each more spectacularly outfitted than the last. I was most amused by the Heralds, who appeared to be civil servants dressed up like characters from Alice in Wonderland. Then there’s Black Rod’s outfit. He’s dressed in a black jacket with white ruffles, short pants, and black knee socks. As you might imagine, he carries a black rod.
After the group enters the building, the Queen goes into some room and changes into a MORE elaborate outfit and puts on a big grown. By this point, I figure the Brits are ceremonied-out, but they’re not even halfway there.
A bugler plays a song and there’s ANOTHER procession that leads to the House of Lords, which is peopled entirely by stereotypes from Monty Python sketches. Then a servant
waves a 20 foot wand and Black Rod marches towards the House of Commons. Then comes another odd tradition. The MPs slam the door on Black Rod, then Black Rod starts banging on the door with his rod… which is black.
All this time, the BBC com
mentators are narrating the whole event, saying things like, “oh, here comes Black Rod. Things won’t go well for him at the Commons entrance.” I’m sure the guy holding the black rod has a real name, but only calling him Black Rod makes him sound like a lesser known superhero, like Green Lantern.
But back to this odd British dance.
Black Rod eventually enters the House of Commons and instructs the MPs to see the Queen in the House of Lords. Then comes another tradition. Some old guy makes a wisecrack. Dennis Skinner
makes a habit of mocking Black Rod each year. This year he yelled, “Is Helen Miren on standby?” The BBC guy called the joke, “cheap, but funny.”
Then everyone walks at a leisurely pace (that’s a tradition, too) to the House of Lords.
I found the whole ritual so puzzling that I rewound the TiVo and watched it all over again. I didn’t’ bother listening to the Queen’s speech, though. There’s no way it could compete with what came before.
Labels: brits, politics