Lament for Monty

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His temperament was steady, manner mild,
A marvel to all strangers who came by,
He warmly welcomed each approaching child,
Befriended anyone who caught his eye.

A dozen and two years he saw go past,
Entrenched he was in the roll of our kin.
So many of the clan did he outlast,
And many new offspring he welcomed in.

Towards the end of his long life we saw
His limbs were withered, his black fur turned grey.
It pains to grasp that one you so adore
Will in mere months decline and fade away.

Now snow falls thick above his once-warm head.
Here not forgotten, though forever dead.

UPDATE (21st February)

I have updated Homework Direct for the first time in well over four years to include the process by which Monty on the Green came about.

It’s Just Not Cricket

Armorial achievements of the Lord Cowdrey of Tonbridge (left) and Sir John Major (right)

Having exhausted what I could glean from the available editions of Burke’s and Debrett’s, I am ever on the lookout for new material on heraldry. Last week the College of Arms published its latest newsletter (which now regrettably appears only to print in October and January), but as usual the actual exemplifications of new armorial bearings were few.

I was delighted yesterday to discover this lecture on the development of English heraldry, given by the Somerset Herald David White in 2014. It is far from the only heraldry-related lecture video I have encountered online. Unfortunately I commonly find that the piece rarely goes beyond the basics of armorial composition and a brief overview of medieval chivalry, thus not telling me much beyond what I knew already – indeed it’s probable that the people making them are reliant on the same online and/or public domain resources that I am. This was not one of those, for it went beyond the Middle Ages to cover modern heraldry and much in between.

White’s lecture studied the artistic phases of heraldry, from the very simple designs of the medieval period to the more crowded ones of the early Tudors – when the nouveau riche were acquiring arms to display where they could be studied up close instead of glimpsed in motion – followed by a deliberate return to simplicity in the later Tudor and Stuart eras. There was a section on the infamous “landscape” and “seascape” heraldry of the Georgian years, with particular emphasis on Horatio Nelson, whose absurdly augmented escutcheon is often considered the nadir of the art. The Victorian era is not discussed in as much detail, save for a vague assertion that they went back to earlier styles as a result of the blossoming Gothic revival. Along the way he gave examples of families assuming arms and then later trying to get similar ones granted, or appropriating those of namesakes who were not actually related. The relative popularity of certain charges was also shown, with an ordinary or arms from the mid-1500s showing that already by then there were dozens of pages of lions (indeed a double-page spread shows thirty-two separate shields just with white lions on a red backdrop). White said that in modern times “one’s heart sinks” if a new applicant for arms requests a lion be included due to the difficulty of inventing an original design. He also speculated that the utility of heraldry as a system of identification might have been undermined by the preponderance of so many near-identical blazons.

Near the end of the lecture he showed some examples of reasonably recent grants of arms. Of particular interest was that of the cricket-player Colin Cowdrey, who was ennobled by John Major in 1997. His shield has a paly of four defaced by a bend dexter, representing the tallying of points. His crest had a set of wickets nosed by the white horse of Kent. Just to quash any remaining uncertainty, he also had crickets as supporters. Major himself became entitled to supporters upon his appointment as a Knight of the Garter in 2005. He too wished to have crickets, but was required to distinguish them from Cowdrey’s and so had them stand upon despatch boxes. Heraldry, of course, has no sense of scale. White called it a “slightly depressing thing” that the portcullis symbol was increasingly used on the shields of retired politicians to represent their profession.

The lecture I found was part of a collection of public lectures archived online by Newcastle University. The range of topics is as wide as you would find at Gresham, so well worth checking out.

The Chris Whitty Collection

Since about 2015 I have been an avid consumer of the public lectures put out by Gresham College. Initially the main draw for me was Vernon Bogdanor’s lectures on politics, followed by Simon Thurley’s series on the history of British architecture. The college has a sizeable online back-catalogue in addition to a high rate of new updates, so I was rarely stuck for something to watch.

By 2019 (or maybe it was 2018) I was branching out into lectures about medicine. I do not recall exactly which such video it was that I chose first and nor, until last year, did I remember much about the speaker. When the coronavirus crisis began and the government began doing daily press conferences, I did not think of Professor Whitty as a familiar name or face. Occasionally I think this of a public figure only to discover that I have edited their Wikipedia page years prior, but even that was not the case here. It was only upon searching for him on YouTube and finding familiar thumbnails that I realised I had seen him before.

Sure enough, Whitty spent some years as Visiting Professor of Public Health, and is currently Professor of Physic. He has produced seven series of lectures for the college since 2013, and continues to do so even during the pandemic.

In addition to these he has been the star – or at least a participant – of quite a few other videos over the years.

As far back as July 2012 he gave the Walker Institute Annual Lecture for the University of Reading, talking about Climate Change & Development in Africa.

In February 2013 he gave a speech at the STEPS Centre Symposium about the importance of evidence in health policy. In contrast to his eventual catchphrase, he makes a point here of deliberately including no slides at all. There was also a Q&A session.

In September 2014 he told the Science & Development Network why synthesis is key to science influence.

In late January 2015 he lectured the Royal Society of Tropical Medicine & Hygiene on forty years of fighting Malaria. That October he returned to talk about the pitfalls of eradication attempts.

In March he was a team of speakers lecturing the Royal Society of London about the inside story of the ongoing Ebola epidemic.

In June 2015 he chaired a panel discussion on the control of Malaria, presented by the Faculty of 1000.

In this one from five years ago he is interviewed alongside Professor Dame Sally Davies (his predecessor as Chief Medical Officer for England) about the experience of giving medical advice to the government.

In 2016 he gave a speech to launch the Centre for Global Health Research for Brighton & Sussex Medical School, in which he talks about global demography and its implications for the prevalence of various diseases.

The next week he appeared alongside Nicola Blackwood MP (then Chair of the Science & Technology Select Committee) and others in a panel discussion on Ebola vaccination.

Two months later he recorded a short message for International Nurses day, played by the National Institute for Health Research. Another month after that he gave a presentation commemorating the last ten years of the institute’s work.

In July 2017 he was asked how UKCDS contributes to development.

In April 2018 he launched the King’s Global Health Institute. In May he gave the George Griffin Lecture for the Association of Physicians of Great Britain & Ireland, talking about the direction of health research. That December he gave a short speech at the IDEAL International Conference about the importance of scientific evaluation of innovation.

In September 2019 he was filmed by the Medical Research Council advising on how to influence policy and practice in health prevention.

The most interesting videos are those from the first two months of 2020, just before the pandemic made him famous nationwide. On 23rd January he was interviewed for Public Health England about the importance of physical activity – a theme which has remained prominent in government policy since. On 27th February he appeared at the summit session for the Nuffield Trust to talk about health trends and projections over the next twenty years. At this stage the virus is a looming threat but has not yet taken over. Whitty is asked how he plans to deal with the coming epidemic. His answers are still abstract but already there are references to school closures, banning of mass gatherings and “flattening the peak”.

Leaving YouTube aside for the moment I also found two brief clips of him on DailyMotion: on 31st January he told ODN it was too early to tell if the virus would spread, and outlined the plans the government had in place to stop it. On 6th February he gave advice for those showing symptoms to self-isolate.

On 3rd March the Prime Minister held the first of what would turn out to be a very long series of press conferences on the coronavirus outbreak. Chris Whitty stood to his right and Sir Patrick Vallance (Chief Scientific Adviser) to his left. You might expect me to close here by saying “the rest is history” but, unfortunately, this particular piece of history is far from over yet.

The Next State Opening

There has been a lot of uncertainty over the last few years with respect to the beginnings and endings of parliamentary sessions. It might have been hoped that in 2021 the process would go back to normal, with a speech from the throne each May (typically the third Wednesday, with prorogation the week before). Now, alas, the pandemic could have thrown that out as well. A Cheapo’s Guide to London currently hints that it will take place in October, while Parliament’s own website gives no information at all. It is likely that any planned date could be changed many times depending on how events unfold in the coronavirus saga.

The key difference between this year and last is that now we have a smorgasbord of vaccines to thwart the disease and – in contrast to our poor performance in controlling the outbreak – are distributing them much faster than most other countries. Priority for vaccination is given largely in descending order of age, which could mean that for a few months of this year we have the paradoxical situation in which the elderly are safe to mingle outside while the young have to remain shielded. Overall this bodes well for the House of Lords, the majority of whose members are aged 70 and over. The Lord Speaker went for his first vaccine back in December. The Queen received hers in January. If the government’s target of 2 million vaccinations per week is maintained then the majority of Britain’s population, including nearly all peers, should have received at least one vaccine dose by the start of May.

Still, that doesn’t mean the ceremony will be plain sailing: likely there will still be some social distancing required and face coverings will remain prominent, which could dampen the splendour a little. In particular the crowding of MPs in the cramped space behind the bar of the upper chamber could prove dangerous, and it may be required that only a small delegation from the lower house is allowed to come. Of the frontal foursome it is probable that Mr Speaker (63), Black Rod (55) and the Commons Clerk (62-ish) will have immunity but the Serjeant-at-Arms (44) might not. As with the introduction ceremonies there could be some subtle changes in choreography to allow the key players to stand further apart.

The preceding prorogation would need to have such tweaks as well – although attendance for that is usually quite a lot lower anyway. Lady Evans of Bowes Park is by far the youngest of the five commissioners and thus probably the last to be immunised, unfortunate given that as the Leader of the House she is the one least able to be substituted, as well as the one who sits in the middle and the one doing all the talking. It could be that this year’s prorogation is again done with just three commissioners in attendance rather than five. It is hard to find the dimensions of the chamber online but I think there might just be room to space them out properly, though perhaps it may have to be contrived so that they sit in a triangular instead of linear formation.

To make matters worse, the devolved legislatures in Cardiff and Holyrood are expected to go up for election in the same month. They traditionally welcome the monarch for an opening ceremony in the summer months – though unlike in Wesminster the speech is not a prerequisite for the commencement of parliamentary business. As with so much in this phenomenon, all we can do is wait and see.

UPDATE (22nd March)

The government has put out a press release announcing that the state opening will be on Tuesday 11th May, “adapted, with reduced ceremonial elements and attendees to ensure it is COVID-secure”.

A Clean Slate

Four years ago, when watching Donald Trump’s inauguration on the television, my eyes kept flicking to the White House website. It proclaimed “Yes we did. Yes, we can.”, the triumphal culmination of eight years of Obama’s presidency. There were pages upon pages of policies, speeches, appointments and events. No sooner had the 12 noon mark passed (or 5pm for us in Britain) than it all was gone. In its place was a “transitionsplash” page showing Trump & Pence together and a link to sign up for updates. Continuing to the main site one saw that, while the template was still the same (though a more substantial redesign was done some months later), all of the old content had been removed and the biographies about the first and second couples had been changed to reflect the new incumbents. As the news was quick to point out, this was planned long in advance as part of the post-electoral transition process. The same had occurred, albeit less smoothly, when Obama first entered office in 2009. Sure enough it happened again in 2021, despite all the shenanigans over the previous ten weeks. Biden’s new site has been the subject of much excitement and a little intrigue. The old sites haven’t gone of course, rather they have been moved to the archives – preserved forever in digital aspic.

Really, changing over the website itself is the easy part – a relatively simple matter of swapping the domains around. More difficult is the treatment of the many associated official accounts on various other platforms. These are similarly archived and wiped, which I assume requires the intervention of the platform owners (as it would in many cases be beyond the capabilities of the ordinary user) to move all of the existing material to a different account name and then opening a new account under the old name. This means that the incumbent president always possesses the undifferentiated “whitehouse” address while his predecessors are specifically named or numbered, important for both practical and symbolic reasons. This only appears to apply to the presidency, however, and not to the other cabinet departments, whose websites and other outlets all carry on regardless.

The World Wide Web became available to the public in 1991, during the tenure of George Bush Sr. Since then there have been five presidential transitions, all of them occurring on 20th January of a leap year and all seeing a change of party – from Republican Bush Sr to Democratic Clinton in 1993, to Republican Bush Jr in 2001, to Democratic Obama in 2009, to Republican Trump in 2017, to Democratic Biden in 2021. Interestingly, Biden is the first challenger with a website to win. Each entailed a change of most if not all senior executive offices, making a clean break from what existed before. Not all transitions, though, are quite so discrete. Imagine that the web had launched four years earlier and that the White House had its main website up by the end of Reagan’s term. He was succeeded by his own Vice President of the last eight years and quite a few cabinet officials (such as Nicholas Brady, Dick Thornburgh and Lauro Cavazos) remained the same. Would it have made sense to wipe the slate at that point, given that much of the work being erased would have been the new president’s own? Alternatively, one could have asked the same question in 2001 had the Florida recount gone differently and Al Gore succeeded Clinton. Indeed sometimes the transition cannot even be planned – such as with Nixon’s resignation in 1974 or Kennedy’s assassination in 1963. Would Johnson and Ford have been given new accounts immediately, or would they have continued with the old? Given Biden’s advanced years and hints that he will only serve one term, this question could shortly become pertinent again.

In Britain, at least for the last decade, there has been little in the way of neatness. In 2010, following an inconclusive general election and days of tense negotiation, the New Labour government of Gordon Brown was replaced by the coalition government of David Cameron and Nick Clegg (beginning what many term “ConDemNation”). That government had no continuity with its predecessor – every single minister being replaced and no party continuing in power. The coalition survived with reasonably little churn until the long-awaited 2015 election, in which the Conservatives won a majority in the House of Commons while the Liberal Democrats were all but obliterated. Clegg and his ministers resigned from the government, to be replaced by an all-blue team. There was surprisingly little change in the cabinet lineup at this point – out of 30 members (22 full and 8 extras), 17 continued in the same post they held prior to the election, including all four great offices of state. Of those new appointments that were made, four were to replace the excised Liberal Democrats and three more to replace Conservatives who had ceased (voluntarily or not) to be MPs. Cameron’s second government lasted only 14 months, brought down by the EU referendum and replaced by Theresa May. Her reshuffle in July 2016 was a great deal more substantial than that of the previous year – 20 cabinet posts changing hands (including all four great offices of state) as well as one office dissolved and two created. May’s first government was to be even shorter-lived, for the next year there was a snap general election. Contrary to her intentions, this resulted in a small net loss of seats for the Conservatives, forcing her to form a minority government with confidence & supply from the Democratic Unionists. This prompted a fairly small reshuffle of just seven changes, though the next two years saw a high rate of turnover due to fallouts, scandals and protests. In July 2019 the leader herself finally resigned, replaced by Boris Johnson. That reshuffle saw 27 cabinet ministers replaced (again, including all four greats). Johnson’s first government technically still enjoyed supply from the DUP, but in practice had no majority as a large number of Conservatives defected (indeed, party discipline on important votes had broken down long before). It was only fifteen weeks before the chaotic 57th Parliament was dissolved. The Conservatives won a large majority at the ensuing election, allowing Johnson to form a second government without the need for DUP support. Fearful of too much disruption so close to the Brexit deadline, he purposely kept his existing ministers in place until February before carrying out a reshuffle, even ennobling Nicky Morgan so that she could continue her role in the other place for a few weeks.

The purpose of the preceding paragraph’s whistle-stop tour through the politics of the New Tens is to demonstrate that in the past eleven years this country has technically had six changes of government, only the first of which represented a clean break of the kind shown by recent US Presidential transitions. What’s more, looking further back we see little improvement: Brown took over in the middle of the 54th Parliament from Tony Blair, who had been in charge for over ten years of Labour rule. Before that we find an even longer period of Conservative rule, featuring during the 50th Parliament the substitution of John Major for Margaret Thatcher due to a backbench revolt. Only Blair’s succession from Major in 1997 represents a total renewal, which means that in the average Briton’s lifetime* what we imagine as the normal way of regime change – an opposition wins a majority in the House of Commons, then its leader is swiftly appointed Prime Minister – has really only happened once.

How, then, do our government’s websites adapt to events? The online presence of the Her Majesty’s Government has had several incarnations, beginning in 1994 with the Government Information Service, then moving in 2001 to UKonline, a portal allowing the public to search various smaller departments. In 2004 this was in turn replaced by Directgov, and the next month a website was established for Business Link, a service which gave advice for the commercial sector. In 2012, under the coalition, both of these websites were scrapped in favour of the unified GOV.UK, a process which I have discussed here before. Old documentation going back decades is incorporated into the site, with notices such as “This was published under the 1983 to 1987 Conservative government.”  slapped on the tops of the pages. Prior to the move, the Prime Minister’s office could be found at number10.gov.uk (or sometimes number-10, just to confuse you). After Brown left office it appears that posts relating to his tenure were hidden to make space for Cameron. It can be seen that many other accounts were changed at this point, in the aim of “reducing potential confusion to users”. I am disinclined to go through every social media account for every ministerial department, but a little checking shows that HM Treasury has been on Flickr and YouTube since 2008 (albeit the only pictures from pre-2010 are apolitical shots of the building). The Home Office likewise established a YouTube channel in 2008 but its earliest videos are from 2012. The Department for Transport’s channel, established in 2009, averts this a little.

Of course, the US President is head of state as well as head of government, so perhaps a comparison with the royal family would be more appropriate. On the other hand, the most recent demise of the crown occurred when computer science had barely emerged as an academic discipline, and long before the creation of the internet. The earliest government crawls make reference to royal.gov.uk, but the first time I can find it is 1998. The site was redesigned a few times over the following years and then, in 2016, was replaced entirely by royal.uk. A YouTube channel debuted in 2007. Of course, the firm is rather large and contains many subsidiary households, such as for the Prince of Wales, or the Duke of Cambridge. There was a minor headline some years ago when it emerged that the family had been buying up domain names to prevent them being used for cyber-squatting. Most now simply redirect to the main homepage. A massive archiving and wiping operation upon the current monarch’s decease is unlikely, put perhaps the Prince of Wales site will be handed over to Prince William at the time of his investiture. Let us be thankful that the Duke of Windsor never had a Twitter account.

If Britain has any office that functionally resembles a presidency, it would be the directly elected mayors – be they for cities, counties or regions. The most obvious case, naturally, is the Mayor of Greater London, and not just because its most recent holder is now Prime Minister. Its official Twitter account just says “Tweets before 9 May 2016 are from the previous Mayor.” and hopes you won’t be too confused by the appearance of Sadiq Khan’s face next to Boris Johnson’s words. It could be worse, I suppose.

*Worldometers has the median age of the UK population at 40.5 years, which puts Thatcher’s accession in 1979 a little out of reach.

UPDATE (2nd February)

Shortly after departing, Trump established the “Office of the Former President”. While the establishment is routine, the name is not – the many other former presidents have generally named the office after themselves. There has been some controversy around Trump’s use of the bald eagle, though I note that other presidents have continued to use similar devices on their stationery long after leaving office. The discussion is a little reminiscent of Margaret Thatcher in the nineties. So far I have not found a website for Trump’s new office, and indeed he may struggle to find the right domain, as officeoftheformerpresident.org currently redirects to an Atlantic article calling him the worst president in history.

Public Domain Day 2021

Tarzan & the Golden Lion, illustrated in 1922 by James Allen St. John

Another year has turned, and another batch of old material has emerged from copyright.

Edgar Rice Burroughs

Born in Chicago in 1875, Burroughs is principally famous for two stories about people removed from their environment of birth: Tarzan, the British noble firstborn adopted by an ape, and John Carter, a Confederate veteran who finds himself on Mars.

George Bernard Shaw

Shaw was forthright in many controversial campaigns, a presence among the highest echelons of society and an active political force well into his tenth decade, but I can’t help but think that nowadays a lot of his works – especially Pygmalion and Arms and the Man – are now remembered more as the basis for puns and parodies than for their actual contents.

F. Scott Fitzgerald

Fitzgerald actually died eighty years ago, but the intricacies of US copyright law mean that The Great Gatsby only now enters the public domain. Long used as an educational staple, a landmark of social commentary and the ill-judged inspiration for lavish house parties, this novel is now available for anybody’s interpretation, though maybe Flash is best avoided.

Eric Arthur Blair, AKA George Orwell

The giant of twentieth century political literature, Orwell first became known to me through the school English curriculum circa 2011. In that spring we were tasked to write – and then perform to the class – a speech on what we would consign to Room 101. I was ranked first in class for my condemnation of the caravan. While that was obviously derived more from the television series than from Orwell’s own writing, it still taught us about him if indirectly. In the early summer we analysed his essay Shooting the Elephant and I recall in the end of year examination (not sure if it was the real one or the mock) one of the passages included was an extract from chapter 3 of Nineteen Eighty-Four, in which Winston coughs a lot while performing the physical jerks. At that autumn’s prize-giving event I was named best in year for both sciences and humanities and my reward included two book tokens. I distinctly remember that Nineteen Eighty-Four was one the works I most wanted to buy with them, the other being The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins*. It is unclear exactly when I got around to buying and reading them (probably Whitsun 2012 is the late limit), but digging through old email correspondence with a classmate shows that in November I discovered and watched Michael Radford’s 1984 film adaptation. This was a source of unintentional mirth at the time as we noticed two of our history teachers interacting in what we read to be a mildly amorous manner while bearing a vague physical resemblance to John Hurt and Suzanna Hamilton. I also recall a different classmate ardently recommending that I read Animal Farm, which I did at the same time, though I do not recall how I came about my copy of that book nor where it currently resides.

At some point during these years I also found in my school’s library a copy of Homage to Catalonia, the tale of Orwell’s experience fighting for the POUM in the Spanish Civil War. The book was about forty years old** and I could barely turn a page without it breaking off in my hand. The librarian intervened several times with spine tape but eventually decided that the book was beyond rescue and decided to withdraw it from display. She placed it on a special shelf near her desk with a red ticket inside reserving it for me, on the understanding that it would stay there until I had finished it, after which she would throw it out (or give it to me permanently, it seems) and buy a new one.***

Orwell has particular relevance to this entry because period in which I read most of his works was the time of SOPA, PIPA, CISPA and ACTA in the United States, alongside the superinjunction controversies at home. It was also the time when I became engaged in various online “reviewtainment” makers (SF Debris, Red Letter Media, Trilbee et al), as well as various fandom communities, whose existence such bills would have threatened. One consequence I started looking up author death dates to commence mental countdowns to when various bits of media would enter the public domain, and Orwell’s works were especially prominent in this – his writing being so much centred around ideas of the control of information and knowledge.

The question now arises of what can be done to take advantage of his works’ new status, and one possible answer has occurred to me: Nineteen Eighty-Four includes a very sizeable book-within-a-book called The Theory and Practice of Oligarchical Collectivism, ascribed Brotherhood-leader Emmanuel Goldstein. Winston Smith reads the first chapter “Ignorance is Strength” and the third chapter “War is Peace”, but the Thought Police arrest him before he – and therefore we – can get a good look at the second.

I don’t really do competitions on this blog, since I have neither a large enough circulation nor any good prizes to give away, but if there are any teachers reading this I recommend an essay challenge for your students, which technically is also a fanfiction opportunity – tell me why freedom is slavery.

Further Reading:

2021 in Public Domain

*Somewhat ironically, that year’s prize also included a quatercentenary edition of the King James Bible.

**The latest reprint listed on its now-defunct copyright page was 1971, and the only checkout date stamped on the card affixed to the first page was 10th October 2011. Presumably I was the one taking it home on that date, for clearly nobody else had touched the book in a long time, but I may have been reading it within the library before then.

***The next year I took home a 1969 print of J. P. Nettl’s The Soviet Achievement, which I held together with some of my father’s aluminium duct tape. In May and June 2014 she held a clearing sale for a lot more books. I spent 25p on Communist Political Systems: An Introduction (Printed in 1988) by Stephen White and 10p on Structure and Change in Modern Britain (Printed in 1981) by Trevor Noble. The latter two showed no damage except their spines fading in the sunlight, but perhaps no love either as their checkout cards were blank. White’s book I found engaging enough to finish but Noble’s was so dull that I stopped with my bookmark still lodged at page 53 of 416, having found that just reading the blurb aloud would see my classmates drifting off to sleep.

Aren’t You Sitting A Bit Close?

This ought to date well.

Once again I find myself in one of the bits between, specifically the annual Christmas post-script that occurs in the final week of each calendar. It is an awkward limbo, in which the climax of the year has been reached and passes but normality has not yet resumed.

Christmas has always felt like something of a world unto itself, somehow separated from the rest of reality. For almost a whole month (much longer if you work in retail) websites are redesigned, new dress codes are imposed, all manner of buildings are redecorated and new song rotations are adopted for radio stations. We don’t normally treat Easter this way, nor indeed Halloween. In particular, an awful lot of radio and television series are insistent upon doing the annual Christmas special, which is broadcast (and possibly filmed) separately from the regular run, with the holiday often dominating the story, and sometimes even an altered title sequence – with snow effects superimposed over the visuals and bells added to the music.

There are quite a few franchises that carry on getting Christmas specials even when they are stood down as regular series. Mrs Brown’s Boys, for instance, ended its last full series in February 2013 but continues to get double bills at Christmas and New Year with the result that “special” installments now outnumber regular ones. Miranda likewise had three series of six episodes each. Oddly the second series ended on 20th December 2010 and the third series premiered 366 days later. This meant there were two Christmas episodes consecutively but they were not specials as such. The third series ended with a cliffhanger on 28th January 2013, which was not resolved until a similar special double in 2014-15. Not Going Out had its finale in 2014 (aired on Christmas Eve, but the episode was not seasonal), yet came back for a Christmas special in 2015 which then essentially became the pilot for a revival and retool in 2017.

Paradoxically, the saviour’s birthday is also a way of nailing down the timeline within a fictional story – most episodes of a fictional series could be set at any time of year – especially if it’s a studio show with no opportunity to check the leaves on the trees – and it isn’t always clear how much time is supposed to elapse between them. If there are at least two episodes set at Christmas with at least one non-Christmas episode in between, then this establishes that at least one diagetic year has gone by. This occasionally leads to problems with the series’ setting. Dad’s Army is a story about the Second World War, but more specifically the Home Guard. That institution was established on 14th May 1940 and deactivated on 3rd December 1944 (although not formally dissolved until New Year’s Eve 1945), which means that only three Christmases occurred during its period of operation. I was not able to binge the entire series again to check, but from the brief summaries I read online it appears that there were at least four episodes released at this time of year (one as part of a normal series, three as specials), although only two were necessarily set at Christmas so perhaps the chronology is preserved. The Simpsons, Family Guy and American Dad all famously operate on a floating timeline – where the external year changes but the main characters never physically age or progress to different life stages. All have annual Christmas episodes year on year without acknowledging the implications. The latter is especially bizarre as the Christmas stories form an ongoing series in themselves which often involves traveling through time and warping reality.

Thomas & Friends** is a franchise in which time never progresses either externally or internally. Sir Topham Hatt’s grandchildren Bridget & Stephen never grow up, nor does the technology level (or indeed the clothing) move beyond the early 1960s. This is despite the inclusion of at least one Christmas (or at any rate wintertime) episode in each series, and indeed quite a few series in which the year apparently cycles around several times. For a long time the only real human (as opposed to real locomotives, such as City of Turo, Flying Scotsman or Rocket) to be written in the franchise was, quite aptly, our immortal sovereign. From Paint Pots & Queens until the start of this year, I think I counted forty-two separate winters on the island, which means that new episodes cannot logically be taking place any earlier than 1994. Her Majesty returned to the franchise in the 75th anniversary special Thomas & the Royal Engine, this time accompanied by her eldest son. Charles is dressed in what vaguely resembles his Gordonstoun uniform, which would place the episode in the period of 1962-1967, but his height and voice would suggest an earlier date.

This year’s coronavirus pandemic has made it painfully apparent which “new” television content is actually new and which was filmed months or even years in advance. The example most prominent for me is Channel 4’s long running panel show 8 Out of 10 Cats, whose Christmas special this year was apparently recorded back in January (i.e. just after the previous such holiday had finished). The studio had a full live audience and plenty of physical interaction between the panelists. The spin-off series, 8 Out of 10 Cats Does Countdown, was even worse.

Already the programme had been subject to some creative scheduling in 2019 due to Rachel Riley’s pregnancy. Riley announced her condition on 24th May, and gave birth on 15th December. In scripted series this might have been hidden by careful framing or an oversized labcoat, but this was probably not feasible with a studio audience. The bump is not seen during the eighteenth season (26th July-6th September), but appears prominently in that year’s Christmas special (broadcast 23rd December), during which Carr decides to stake his reputation on the joke “Rachel is heavily pregnant, so let’s get a move on before someone unexpectedly slides down her chimney.”, as well as throughout the nineteenth season (9th January-14th February 2020).

The twentieth season ran from 31st July to 28th August, by which point the pandemic was well underway, and consists entirely of leftover material from earlier years. Episodes 1 and 2 were filmed in “late 2019” and show Riley still pregnant. Episode 3 was filmed in “early 2019” and includes references to Richard Ayoade’s role in the “recent” LEGO Movie 2, which premiered over eighteen months prior. Episodes 4 and 5 were not new material, but “Best Bits” compilations assembled in 2018 (for confirmation, look at the title slides at the end of the closing credits to see the little “MMXVIII” and “MMXIX” notices). Quite why these episodes were released in so obviously the wrong order is anyone’s guess. There was something of a Funny Aneurysm Moment in episode 2 when Jon Richardson got “Corona” as his word and the other panelists didn’t really react.

From what has been said on Twitter by people claiming to have been in the audience, the 2020 Christmas special was actually filmed in February 2019. That may initially seem crazy, but on closer inspection it is reasonable, as Riley is clearly not pregnant, yet it cannot have been filmed after the birth as the title card still says “MMXIX” not “MMXX”*, so it must have been filmed before the foetus grew to noticeable size, which realistically means no later than July. Why the 2020 Christmas special was filmed before the 2019 one is, again, a question for the ages.

An example of this effect in fiction is the BBC sitcom Ghosts, whose second season was released on 21st September, having been filmed in January and February. Episode 2 has an eerily subplot about how one of the medieval peasant ghosts returned from a holiday outside his village and accidentally gave all of his neighbours the plague, which was originally planned to be much more graphic. This season also includes a Christmas special (released on 23rd December) in which, once again, there is no acknowledgement of the pandemic.

It would be pertinent to ask whether this really matters: current-affairs programming such as Have I Got News For You? or Mock the Week need to be filmed at short-notice, but non-topical material can be stored for any time without the quality being affected. I would say that it does matter at least a little, for all works are a product of their times even if that is not their intention – each new entry being on some level a reaction to what existed before. The longer in advance a program is made, the more those in it must hedge their bets with respect to topical references, social commentary or even acknowledgement of personal circumstances, with the result that a product which should feel fresh and contemporary is instead rendered oddly generic and distant. Furthermore a game show of any kind relies on the audience being invested in the competition while a fictional piece often strives for hype regarding story arcs and major plot developments, but the tension is inevitably dulled if it is obvious that the events on-screen are all in the past.

This year, of course, adds another dimension to this problem. When the general public have spent nine months largely stuck at home, deprived of social interaction and encased in protective clothing, it can be quite jarring – perhaps even a little cruel – to see people on television apparently carrying on as if nothing has happened. Charlie Brooker in his Antiviral Wipe said “many shows which would normally seem cozy and harmless suddenly look freakishly irresponsible” and many online discussions of recent media have comments to the effect that it was like staring into a parallel universe.

*UK Maternity leave is mandatory for two weeks and then optional for up to fifty more. Riley giving birth on 15th December means, that there would only be three remaining days in the year 2019 in which she could have returned to film the special, one of them a Sunday and another New Year’s Eve. It doesn’t seem very likely.

**This paragraph solely concerns Thomas & Friends on television. The Railway Series in print does not have these problems.

UPDATE (January 2021)

Another season of Cats Countdown has been launched. The end card still says MMXIX and Riley is still not pregnant so presumably this was filmed around the same time as the recent special. One wonders just how many advance episodes they could have banked in 2019 – especially given that the previous season already appeared heavily padded.

The Long Arms of the Law

The Lord Kerr of Tonaghmore died on the first of this month, having retired on the last of September. He was both the last Lord of Appeal in Ordinary appointed to the Appellate Committee of the House of Lords under the Appellate Jurisdiction Act 1876 (just ninety-four days before their respective dissolution and appeal took effect) and the last of that group’s veterans to retire from the successor Supreme Court.

Undeterred by the recent obliteration of so many such pages, I wondered if the law lords were worth an armorial list on Wikipedia, and so have begun to draft one. As with my article last year on Speakers of the House of Commons, I found that there were quite a few names on the list who died so soon after being ennobled that they miss out being recorded in the genealogy books (and the law lords are of course life peers, so no heirs or successors can hold the place). What’s more, those books themselves are in shorter supply than they were last year – whereas Wikipedians used to have access to online scans of Burke’s Peerage from 1949 (on The Internet Archive) and 1959 (on Hathitrust), those files have been removed in the latter half of this year. Our earliest edition now is a copy of Debrett’s Peerage from 1936, and that is a poor-quality scan with many sections of prose missing.

Of course, nowadays the country’s highest judges would not be mentioned in such volumes at all: The Constitutional Reform Act 2005 which brought about the change barred those justices already holding peerages from resuming their seats in the House of Lords until their time on the court had ended. Further, a political decision was made that subsequent appointments to the new court would not be ennobled at all, but merely granted courtesy titles akin to those of hereditary peers’ heirs apparent. An exception was made at the start of this year when the new President of the Supreme Court Robert Reed, who had already used the courtesy title Lord Reed since his appointment to the College of Justice in 1998, was substantively created Baron Reed of Allermuir, of Sundridge Park in the London Borough of Bromley, under the Life Peerages Act 1958. It remains to be seen whether this favour will be repeated for his successors in that office.

How then, do I find the missing entries? My experience hunting down the speakers’ arms taught me the importance of looking for unofficial records, especially fan labour. I discovered some time ago the Flickr account of Baz Manning, an older heraldist who has carefully photographed a lot of armorial art and architecture over the years. In particular he has uploaded a scrupulous catalogue of the coats of arms displayed on the walls and windows of Lincoln’s Inn, where so many of Britain’s senior lawyers and judges are trained. The collection of shields of the institution’s alumni stretches back centuries, and proved very helpful to me in resuming my contributions to the Commons, which had petered out in the previous month due to running out of source material. The mean real drawback to using this method is that I have no access to the text of the original blazon, and so can only copy what the previous artist has done, and if any charge or ordinary is unclear in the image I see then it is not possible to identify it. I would not attempt to reverse engineer the blazon from the depiction and risk getting any parts wrong.

Obviously not all of the UK’s judiciary went to Lincoln’s Inn – or even necessarily to the other Inns of Court – but the proportion who did is significant enough to keep my hobby going for the present, and hopefully the presence of such a large armorial display in such a prestigious location dedicated specifically to legal professionals should bolster my case (ahem) for the notability of an armorial list for the law lords, so that it would not be so casually junked as were the others.

EXTERNAL LINKS

The Podcast in the Tower

Princes in the Tower Podcast Series

Shortly after mentioning them in a post about someone else, I came across a podcast by History Extra concerning the mystery of the “Princes in the Tower”, meaning Edward V and Richard of Shrewsbury in the Tower of London awaiting what should have been the former’s coronation. As well as the boys themselves, the podcast also investigates the historical reputation of their supposed killer Richard III, formerly Duke of Gloucester.

As the boys simply disappeared without trace in the summer of 1483, nobody can be sure exactly what happened to them. Bones were discovered in 1674 that might have been them, but there were discrepancies between historical accounts and some of the bones were not even human. Our present sovereign has not allowed DNA testing to determine their exact identity. The reason for her reticence is itself unknown, the most plausible explanation being that she fears setting a precedent for historians to tamper with her own remains in centuries to come. Perhaps “the Princess in the Tunnel” will still be an obsession for the nuttier tabloids?

Richard III himself is also hotly contested. Having been painted by the Tudors (and then Shakespeare as a deformed, leering hunchback, he has benefited from later attempts to rehabilitate his reputation, at least relative to the standards of the time. As said in the podcast, the Ricardian phenomenon is at least as intriguing as the life of Richard himself, or indeed his royal nephews.

EXTERNAL LINKS

UPDATE (February 2021)

Today I found a podcast series about Richard III by Matt Lewis.

More Armorials

Photographs by Baz Manning, 2014

A month ago I mentioned that I was creating a Wikipedia armorial page for schools in the United Kingdom. Since then I have moved the page from Draft to Mainspace. Whether it can be called successful is not yet clear – nobody has attempted to delete it, but few have come to contribute to it either. Having run out of obvious categories of corporate arms, I went back to a personal one. Having already created a page for Speakers of the House of Commons, earlier this year I drafted one for their old counterparts, the Lord Chancellors. These were generally easier to source than those of the speakers of the lower house, for the chancellors acceded to the peerage – and thus the pages of Burke or Debrett – at the beginning of their tenures rather than the end. The Constitutional Reform Act 2005 complicates matters somewhat, as the office has since been given to a disturbingly rapid succession of MPs, none of whom are yet armigerous as far as I know. The new, separate office of Lord Speaker has only had three incumbents so far and I have no information on any of their heraldic bearings or lack thereof.

That page having apparently worked, yesterday I embarked on yet another armorial, this time for the Chancellors of the Exchequer. Already I have filled in most of the entries for those who have held the office since the dawn of the eighteenth century, helped in part because the list significantly overlaps with that of the prime ministers. Now I am unsure of how to tread further, for the office is not as simple as it appears. The Chancellor of the Exchequer of the United Kingdom is a merger (confusingly not done until sixteen years after the kingdoms themselves were merged) of the Chancellor of the Exchequer of Ireland with the Chancellor of the Exchequer of Great Britain. The latter was itself a merger of the Chancellor of the Exchequer of England with the Treasurer-depute of Scotland. The Lord Chancellorship similarly has existed in various forms in multiple polities. I am not sure that it would be possible to make armorial pages for all of them, for some of the lists stretch back to the high medieval era and there are many uncertain entries. If even their names are not remembered then it is not likely that their blazons would be.

On a slightly different note, most major media sources have determined beyond reasonable doubt (though reason has been tested in the last few years) that Joe Biden is the President-elect of the United States. Parliamentary democracies tend to have a full-time shadow cabinet whose members are ready to form the real cabinet at moment’s notice should their party win power. In the states there is a lengthy period between election and inauguration during which the outgoing and incoming presidents negotiate the transfer of power and decisions can be made in advance about the composition of the new administration. In at least the last three instances the transition team has been construed as a formal office with its own website and its own insignia. Obama’s team used a wide rectangle with the national coat of arms adjacent to the name in a stylised typeface, notable in that it shows the heraldic achievement separated from the context of the round seal, and rather resembles the departmental branding seen in Roadkill. Trump used an oval with a depiction of the White House in the centre and his own title around the border. Biden’s team is currently using a minimalist version of the presidential seal with the number 46 at the base. Though its cause was ultimately jossed, in 2012 a Romney transition was planned, its logo being a conjoined circle and oval, the former showing what I assume to be an eagle volant, though the resolution is too poor to make out. I have yet to find one for Hillary Clinton in 2016. It remains to be seen if future presidential transitions will settle on a standardised emblem, for it seems a pity to put so much work into a brand that will only be used for a couple of months. Personally I would quite like to see the shield differenced by the three-point label of an heir apparent – though actually that could belong to the Vice-President as well. Another thing to note is that, at noon on inauguration day the White House website and all associated social media accounts are wiped clean ready for the new president to start again, with all previous content copied swiftly onto an archive site. This is necessary so that communications by an earlier administration are not attributed to those of a later one. I have a faint memory of this being a problem for the Mayor of London’s account on Twitter, where if you crawl back far enough you can see Boris Johnson’s words alongside Sadiq Khan’s face, with somewhat confusing results. It is interesting that since the launch of the World Wide Web there have not yet between two consecutive POTUSes from the same party, and I wonder how the digital transition would then be handled – especially if the new leader had been a senior figure in the administration of his predecessor.

Back to the main topic, recently I discovered (though how recently it happened I cannot say for certain) that the Heraldry Society has released its 2019 articles from The Coat of Arms as downloadable pdfs. The 2020 article titles are listed but presumably the content will remain reserved for members only until next year. The most tantalising of these is Arms and the woman: the heraldry of women parliamentarians by Duncan Sutherland, which I had already seen advertised as a live event but obviously did not have the means to attend. If the lecture was recorded then the video is not one to which I have access.

UPDATE (13th November)

No sooner had I completed the pages than a user by the name of Fram prodded several of them for deletion, as well as a few earlier such armorials that I did not create, on the grounds that the lists of coats of arms are not notable in their own right. I have a week to argue my case. So far nobody else from the heraldry and vexillology project seems to have noticed. Just in case I fail, I have backed up the code for all the affected pages in my own userspace – which was not possible for the Sudrian material on account of the non-free photographs.