When I Looked North

BBC Yorkshire & Lincolnshire at Queen’s Court, photographed in July 2017.

It is often remarked that one cannot appreciate what one has until it is gone. The twenty-tweens are a good example of this in that few people at the time would have thought them a golden age, yet they can appear as such by comparison to 2016-19, let alone the pandemic era. Aesthetically that period is a little strange as well, being part of the transition from an analogue world to a fully digital one. Most of the major social media were well-established by then by then but had not yet achieved their current level of cultural dominance. High Definition video was widely available but still far from universally receivable, and web design was a few steps away from its current incarnation – photographs and videos shown online were much fewer in number and lower in resolution compared to 2014-ish and onwards when multiple large graphics can be chucked into every page with little care for data capacity.

The particular event to be covered in this article is BBC School Report 2011. Preparations at our school began weeks in advance when we were shown a promotional video by Huw Edwards. A letter was also sent out to parents on 15th February announcing a BBC Hull project called “Life on the Docks – The People’s Archive” for which they wanted pupils to look through old newspapers and interview elderly acquaintances. Most pupils would be completing the project at school, but four delegates would be picked to visit the BBC in person. News and journalism became the topic of our English lessons for most of that month. We were set a homework task on 9th March of watching and taking notes on that night’s broadcast news to then discuss in the lesson the next day. On 16th March my parents received another letter telling them that I had been picked as one of the four delegates.

That morning I was driven from school in a minibus with the three other pupils who were chosen. Along the way the conversation turned to television more generally and somehow we wound up singing the Family Guy theme song. We parked the van in an area of the city where the buildings were in a state of decay and the tarmac rather worn. I remarked on the general dinginess of the place only for one of my comrades to tell me I would get myself shot. When we arrived at the BBC building we were reshuffled into groups with pupils from other schools who had come. I was put into the television group because it was otherwise all-female. The two girls who had come with me were put into the online team and would stay at the office all day. The other boy was put in the radio team who would be walking around with the TV team for most of the morning.

From the way this has been set up you would be forgiven for thinking that we then devised a television segment for ourselves. Certainly that is what we thought going in, but we were a little disappointed to find that the script had already been written and the stock montages composed before we arrived – we were just going through the motions.

The location shoots were fairly close by so the groups traveled on foot. In what I think was the Hull Maritime Museum we interviewed an old man (called Jim in the script) about what the elder days. Amusingly there was a bit of a mix-up at this point and Jim was interviewed by one of the pupils assigned to the radio group, who didn’t realise until later that day that she was on television as well.

We also had to record short teaser sections, including one standing by the railings on the marina. I recall a couple of interesting moments during this time – one was that we were supposed to reference the Cod Wars of the 1970s only to find that the script had said 19070s instead, another was a discussion between our guides as to whether it would cause continuity problems if I took off my blue coat between shots. Early in the day I asked about the technical details of the production and was surprised to be told that news footage was still captured on videotape rather than digital cameras.

After we had finished the shoot we returned to the centre for lunch. It happened also to be the birthday of someone in the office and we enjoyed an excess of chocolate cake in addition to the packed lunches we had brought, which made it a little difficult to move around that afternoon. I also remember at this point getting a little lost on the way back from the toilet. It was also at this point in the day that I realised I had left a bundle of papers on a side table. These were the research notes than I and my classmates had been assembling over the past few weeks to take on the excursion, only for me to completely forget about them. Obviously my group didn’t actually need them, though the online team probably would have appreciated their availability.

All of thus were subsequently treated to a tour of the complex, including the Look North studio itself where I briefly sat in Peter Levy’s chair. My recollections of the end of that day’s events are a little hazy. I think I and some other children – not the ones who had been with me earlier – were seated around a boardroom table strewn with recent newspaper cuttings and we had a group discussion on journalistic ethics. The only piece of conversation I retain now is one woman – not sure if teacher or BBC staff – bringing up an anecdote of a struggling mother being interviewed for the news and saying she sometimes thought her children were worse off than third world kids. This was used an example of where reporters have to tread sensitively around things which their interviewees sincerely believe but which objectively are absurd – oddly prescient of the Brexit era.

We went back to school grabbing as many freebies as possible (I even stuffed post-it notes into my socks.) and arrived just in time for the big bus home. My segment was on local news later that night though my mother complains to this day that she was out at the time and never saw it.

Ten years later it is hard to find much record of our contribution online as even now iPlayer tends not to retain local news very long. The BBC even has a webpage listing all of the schools taking part in the event from which mine is mysteriously omitted. I didn’t take a personal camera with me and nor, to my memory, did any of the others. Until late last year I still had the flimsily-laminated BBC pass hanging on my bedroom wall, but now even that has disappeared. Happily I have been able to find the script we used for that day as well as many of the notes and research from the preceding weeks. I do not have any of them in digital form so will need to scan or photograph them (or, God forbid, type them out again) to show them here. Perhaps the bulk of the material would be better suited to the remit of Homework Direct, but recent experience with Monty on the Green has reminded me what a pain it is to update Wix, so I am reluctant to add anything more to that site without a major redesign.

I was a little amused, five years later, when ITV Calendar came to Wilberforce for a debate about the EU Referendum and once again I was scripted to ask about Hull’s fishing industry. Not wanting to be caught out by follow-up questions, I did a lot of hurried online research for that one as well, but that also proved entirely redundant.

Something Along Those Lines

As much as I write blog posts and make Wikipedia edits concerning Sudrian lore my personal experience of real trains is not extensive – my last rail journey was in 2016. There is little railway coverage in East Yorkshire, though hints of its former extent can occasionally be glimpsed. In the three times I have been to London I of course used the underground a lot: The first two were with family at New Year 2004 (staying near Golders Green) and 2005 (staying near King’s Cross). The canned phrase “This train terminates at Morden via Bank.” from the Northern Line remained burned into my mind for some time afterward. The third was with school in 2015 on a day trip to the Hunterian Museum and the Royal Society. On that occasion I lost my pass shortly before we were due to catch the East Coast train back to Hull Paragon, but was spared from an awkward situation by the fact that the one remaining ticket barrier at King’s Cross had been mysteriously left open.

While living at Cottingham I often went on walks past the Thwaite Street level crossing and around the neighbouring station, but never had cause to actually get on the trains (perhaps just as well – they were mostly the notorious Pacers, after all) that went there.

In the last week I have voraciously consumed the YouTube offerings of Geoff Marshall, who has spent many years making short documentaries about British trains, particularly those on the London Underground. He and his wife Vicki Pipe made it their mission to visit all of Great Britain’s mainline train stations in 2017. In particular they highlighted stops at the least used stations, including some that appear to be spookily unpopulated.

Remarkably Marshall’s efforts continued even during the pandemic, including an episode about a train being used as a rapid COVID test centre. In addition to cutting edge modern trains, Marshall also does a few episodes about the emotional retirement of older stock and special appearances by vintage steam locomotives. The series is well worth a watch, although scenes of sweaty commuters huddled together on the crowded tube can be hard to watch nowadays.

EXTERNAL LINKS

Geoff Marshall:

Trains in Yorkshire:

UPDATE (23rd March)

I have compiled all the videos and photographs I took of the trains in Hull and Cottingham, which can be found here. The password is hull.

Deutschland 89 in Brief

The natural result of trying to remember the plot.

I was not aware of Deutschland 83 when it first came out, only seeing it on 4OD in 2017, shortly after taking up residence at Ferens Hall. The plot of the first series is, in retrospect comparatively simple: Martin Raunch is recruited from East Germany to spy on West Germany and has to convince his home government that Operation Able Archer is not a real missile strike.

At Lambert Hall two years ago I watched Deutschland 86, set three year’s later when the GDR is facing bankruptcy and the Stasi must concoct wild schemes to acquire worthwhile currency. This includes selling weapons to both Iran and Iraq while they are at war with each other, as well as Botha’s government in South Africa whose policies and ideology are in sharp opposition to their own. Alongside this is the ongoing AIDS crisis, which is itself a money-grabbing opportunity as the East can sell its citizens’ blood to the West, as well as use them in less-than-ethical trials for potential cures. All the while Martin is desperately trying to get back home and see his toddler son Max.

This final series begins at the fall of the Berlin wall and the realisation that the entire Second World is in its death throes. The Stasi disbands and shreds its documents for fear of upcoming revolution. Martin is by now working for (and simultaneously against) three countries’ intelligence services and fleeing around Europe to avoid himself or his son being kidnapped or killed.

That summary barely scratches the surface of the convolution of the storyline, with a large recurring cast and constant switching of sides. Helpfully last autumn a promotional montage was released with Jonas Nay narrating (in English) a recap of everything that happened in the first two series in anticipation of the third’s release.

The series was more popular in Britain than its home country, with the highest ratings of any foreign-language drama in the history of British television. It was of particular appeal to me as much of my history course for both GCSE and AS-Level had been about communism, German division and the Cold War. My only real problem was that upon seeing Martin for the first time I was struck by his resemblance to Wesley Crusher. This thought never fully left me throughout the run.

The United Kingdom itself does not play a significant role in the series, bar the odd mention of Thatcher opposing reunification. The finale caps of with a rapid flash forward through international politics since 1990, including clips of Merkel, Farage and – of course – Donald Trump waxing lyrical about his southern border wall. Obviously that last part may have lost a little significance as Trump was voted out of office shortly after the series aired and construction of the wall has been halted. Obviously the franchise was launched long before the EU referendum, and even before the one on Scottish Independence, but watching it now from a British perspective the tale of a former superpower facing an increasingly-ungovernable population, looming threats of dissolution and a forsaking of its entire national constitutional philosophy makes for a rather uncomfortable omen.

On What Authority

A sign welcoming drivers to Humberside, defaced by black and white splatters.

By Adpopulum, 1992 (CC-BY-SA-3.0)

The people of Yorkshire have an unusually strong local identity compared to those of other English regions, and Kingston-upon-Hull a greater notability (or perhaps notoriety?) compared to other cities.

Around 208 CE York was established by Emperor Septimius Severus as the provincial capital of Lower Britain. A reorganisation in 296 made it the probable capital of Second Britain. From around 450 to 654 it was the capital of the Anglian Kingdom of Deira, which then became the southern half of the Anglo-Saxon Kingdom of Northumbria. From 867 to 954 it was known as Jórvík and was under Danish rule. It was during this period that the North, West and East Ridings* were established to subdivide the area. The territory was absorbed into the unified Kingdom of England in 954, then from 966 to 1055 an Earl of York was appointed to govern on the monarch’s behalf.

Prior to the Norman conquest the earls of England had each ruled multiple shires and considered themselves of equal stature to continental dukes, but William of Normandy did not want to be outranked and so diminished them to one shire each, putting the earls level with European counts and so leading to their administrations being called counties. The county system emerging from this time remained fairly stable until Victoria’s reign.

Parts of Cumberland, Lancashire of Westmorland were split off from Yorkshire in the twelfth century, but by the time of the 1831 census it was still by far the largest of England’s forty then-counties, having more than more than twice the acreage of Lincolnshire or Devon and nearly thrice of Norfolk. The Local Government Act 1888 removed many administrative duties from the courts of quarter sessions and invented county councils to take them on instead. The three ridings, already given separate sessions, also had their own separate councils. The next big reform was the Local Government Act 1972, which sought to radically alter the county map of England and Wales so that the borders corresponded to the modern – rather than medieval – population distribution. Yorkshire’s three ridings were abandoned. A few smaller parts around the edges were given to other neigbouring counties, and the rest reconstituted as four entities – North Yorkshire, South Yorkshire, West Yorkshire, and Humberside.

The non-metropolitan county of Humberside mainly replaced the East Riding, but also incorporated parts of the West Riding and northern Lincolnshire. It was subdivided into nine districts, all of which obtained borough status: North Wolds, Holderness, Kingston-upon-Hull, Beverley, Boothferry, Scunthorpe, Glanford, Grimsby and Cleethorpes. Although the government had used the term Humberside in planning since 1964 and the BBC had launched Radio Humberside in 1971, the creation of a county by that name was strongly disliked by a significant proportion of its residents. In 1981 North Wolds renamed itself East Yorkshire and Beverley became the East Yorkshire Borough of Beverley. Already by the 1990s it was clear that the county could not last. With effect from 1996 the area was reformed yet again. Those parts which had been in Lincolnshire were returned, while the Yorkshire part was made into the new ceremonial county (also called a lieutenancy area) called East Riding of Yorkshire. The governance of the new county was split between two unitary authorities – Kingston-upon-Hull became one, while Beverley, Boothferry, Holderness and North Wolds were merged into the other, which confusingly was also called East Riding of Yorkshire.

Even though Humberside has now been dead longer than it was ever alive (as well as longer than I have been) the name continues to haunt us in the aforementioned radio station, the fire service, the airport, the scouts and the police force. There was even a Humberside Police & Crime Commissioner created in 2012. A lot of junk mail continues to put Humberside in our address, and many official notices put up by the former borough councils are still in place.

Hull itself has a place in the national consciousness – particularly in comedy – long before its designation as City of Culture. By the end of the thirteenth century the King’s town upon the River Hull had an active market, a travelling funfair, a seat in the House of Commons and a royal charter. From 1331 the burgesses had the power to elect a mayor. Another charter in 1440 created the municipal corporation and made Hull a county of itself (an early version of the same idea that a unitary authority today expresses). Seven years later the county’s boundaries were widened to include some nearby villages, which were sometimes called Hullshire. These were removed in 1835. The 1888 act made Hull a county borough. Victoria bestowed city status on the town to commemorate her diamond jubilee. George V upgraded the mayor to lord mayor after opening King George Dock. The city council replaced the corporation in 1972.

Readers may be wondering why I have bothered to tell them all of this. Well, in Eye 1540 I came across this passage in the Rotten Boroughs section:

HOW DEMOCRACY WORKS (1): Labour Hull city council is keen to get into bed with Tory East Riding of Yorkshire Council to set up a combined authority. Jumping on the devolution bandwagon with an elected mayor and all could bring in a hoped-for £1.6bn in Whitehall funding.
Under the planned timetable for the creation of the combined authority, a deal will be signed off by 31 March. But public “consultation” on any agreement will not start until late June at the earliest. How might the (meaningless) public consultation go?
Back in 2014, Hull wanted to extend its boundary to take over part of East Riding, so a referendum was held. Fewer than 2,000 voters were in favour, with more than 51,000 against, so the plan was ditched. But this time the public may not have any effective say in the matter.

Looking back I found a story about the plan in the Hull Daily Mail from October, with other hints still earlier but public interest only really seems to have picked up a few days ago. The gist of the plan seems to be that the existing councils will remain, but they will pool their resources to form a combined authority similar to that used by metropolitan counties, and on top will be a directly-elected “metro mayor”. It is not clear if the mayor will absorb the role of the existing Police & Crime Commissioner, as has been the case in other regions. It will also be interesting to see what name the combined authority will take – most have been named after the counties in which their constituent districts are situated, and indeed the county councils which used to be there before 1986, but in this case one of the districts has the same name as the overall county, so most likely the combination will be called something like “Hull & East Riding”, a redundancy akin to saying “Parliament and the Lords” or “Europeans and the French”.

The existence of directly-elected executives is a new development in Britain, and one at odds with the traditions of our constitution. This has long been a nation of parliamentary government, not presidential. The scramble for local and regional devolution has not been without controversy, especially the PCCs. The cost of and confusing of so many reorganisations in local administration also tends to provoke public anger. Many mock the patchwork of differing political structures across the United Kingdom, but attempts to standardise them never really seem to work. In particular it is noted that local personal identity tends to align more with the pre-Heath counties than with the modern ones, which were designed around administrative efficiency rather than emotional allegiance.

In this instance any controversy over the merits of the plans themselves is accompanied by anger at the secretive manner in which negotiations were carried out, and in the apparent intention of both central and local government to impose the new system without public consent. Two items arrived in my postbox today: Issue 39 of Your East Riding, and a campaign leaflet. The first is keen to announce that East Riding won Council of the Year 2020, but makes no mention of the new combined authority, merely having a brief segment about the Humber Local Enterprise Partnership on page 5. The second is credited to Matthew Grove, who was Conservative PCC from 2012 to 2016 but has since defected to the Liberal Democrats. Half of the front page is dedicated to a large-lettered condemnation of the deal and its negotiation process.

There is also a partisan component to consider here, which the Eye briefly mentioned. Generally it is observed that urban voters lean to the left and rural voters to the right. This is clear in recent election results for the two districts.

Hull City Council, 2018: Labour 31, Liberal Democrats 24, Conservatives 2.
East Riding Council, 2019: Conservative 49**, Liberal Democrat 8, Yorkshire Party 2.

The latter result is particularly impressive given that the UK-wide results were disatrous for the Conservative party. While there have been times when the Liberal Democrats gained significant footholds, the norm has been for Labour to have a majority within City of Hull and the Conservatives an ascendancy without. By contrast, the metro mayoral elections across the combined county would be very tight races. I wonder if, without the promise of such a large payment, the existing council leaders would have been more reluctant to relinquish such secure areas of control.

As this blog is so often about heraldry, I will end with some of the arms of the authorities I have been discussing.

Kingston-upon-Hull: Azure three ducal coronets in pale Or. Certified in 1879 but seen in use as early as the fifteenth century.

York: Argent on a Cross Gules five Lions passant guardant Or. Recorded in the 1584 visitation but in use as early as Edward III’s reign.

On 11th February 2004 Hull was also granted a badge of Three coronets in pale Or without the blue background.

The creation of county councils in the nineteenth century led to a proliferation of county heraldry, which previously had been inapplicable. In medieval times it was considered that helmets and crests were appropriate only for human men not impersonal corporations, so older grants of arms are of just a shield, though York obtained semi-official permission to ornament its arms with sword, mace and cap of maintenance in 1396. By Victoria’s reign this principle had been abandoned and so later civic grants of arms frequently include crests, supporters and mottoes. In contrast to the city arms which have been carried through multiple reconstitutions, the county arms have been designed anew as often as the counties themselves.

East Riding County Council (1889-1974): Escutcheon Per chevron Argent and Or in chief two garbs Proper and in base an eagle displayed Azure on a chief Sable three Roses of the first barbed and seeded Proper; crest On a wreath of the colours on a garb fessewise Or an eagle displayed Azure; motto Solis Ortum Conspicere. Granted 28th February 1945.

Humberside County Council (1974-1996): Escutcheon Per fess Sable and Gules on a fess wavy Argent between in chief a coronet Or between two roses Argent barbed and seeded Proper and in base two fleurs de lis Or a bar wavy Azure; crest On a wreath Or and Gules rising from flames Proper a demi-eagle Azure goutté d’Or armed also Gold holding in the beak a sword point downwards Proper hilt and pommel Or; supporters On the dexter a dolphin Argent finned Or charged on the shoulder with a terrestrial globe Azure the land masses Or supporting an anchor Proper and on the sinister a female figure habited representing Ceres with cornucopia all Proper upon a compartment per pale water barry wavy Azure and Argent and a grassy field Proper; motto United We Flourish. Granted 28th July 1976.

Holderness Borough Council (1974-1996): Escutcheon Per saltire the chief Azure charged with a sun in splendour Or the base barry wavy Argent and Azure the dexter flaunch per fess Vert and Sable the sinister flaunch per fess Sable and Vert each charged with a rose Argent barbed and seeded Proper; crest On a wreath Or Vert and Sable within a mural crown Argent charged with a saltire Gules an ancient ship with one mast and two sails set standing on the poop a man with cocked hat and telescope beneath his sinister arm Sable mantled parted Vert and Sable doubled Or.; supporters On the dexter side a mermaid on her head a Roman helm proper and holding in her exterior hand a trident Or and on the sinister side a Triton on his head a horned Danish helm Proper and brandishing with his exterior hand a sword Argent pommel and hilt Or; motto Think Right Do Right; badge A Viking ship with sail and pennon flying within an annulet compony Or and Argent. Granted 30th March 1978.

East Riding of Yorkshire District Council (1996-present): Escutcheon Barry Vert and Or on a chevron engrailed plain cotised Gules three roses Argent barbed and seeded Proper; crest Issuing from a mural crown Argent an eagle displayed Gules armed and langued Azure supporting with the dexter talons a sword hilt upwards and with the sinister talons a crozier in saltire Or mantled Gules doubled Argent.; supporters On the dexter a lion Azure guardant armed and langued Gules gorged with a wreath of barley supporting between the forelegs a trident Or on the sinister a demi-horse Argent langued Gules maned Or the feet webbed Vert conjoined to the lower half of a hippocampus Vert supporting between the forelegs set upon a staff a cross fleury Gules.; motto Tradition and Progress. Granted August 1996.

https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/7/7e/Choosing_the_Red_and_White_Roses.jpg
Finally a note about the roses: while the white rose was indeed a badge used by many heads of the House of York, and the red rose a badge used by many heads of the House of Lancaster, the status of each as the badge of its respective faction was imposed retroactively by Henry VII’s creation of the Tudor rose upon his marriage to Elizabeth of York, then bolstered by William Shakespeare’s writing of the Temple Gardens scene in Henry VI, Part 1. The name “Wars of the Roses” came into common use after 1829 in reference to said scene. Their use of symbols for the counties of Yorkshire and Lancashire emerged still later. Notably the roses appear frequently in municipal grants of arms since the 1888 reforms but not in earlier ones. In spite of what some may claim today, the conflict was not a petty rivalry between two northern counties.

EXTERNAL LINKS

*The term riding literally means one third (in contrast to the farthings used prominently by a different famous shire) so one of the compass directions had to be left out. Much like the Diocese of Sodor and Man, the name was eventually adopted for a fictional location in Winifred Holtby’s novel. The BBC adapted the novel in 2011 for a miniseries, some parts of which were filmed close to my house.
**Two of them, Leo Hammond and Benjamin Weeks, were at university with me at the time of the election.

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.

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.

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.

The Curious Case of Barron Trump

There are many strange phenomena associated with Donald Trump and his immediate family, who spent many years in business and reality TV before acceding to the heart of government. The one that I will discuss today is the fandom that has developed in the last few years around his youngest son.

Donald Junior (1977) and Eric have been both executives in The Trump Organization and judges on The Apprentice. They are active in their father’s election campaigns and engaged in international business dealings. Ivanka (1981) was a board member of the Donald J. Trump Foundation now serving as Advisor to the President. She participated alongside her father at international conferences and diplomatic meetings. Her husband Jared (1981) was appointed Senior Advisor and Director of the Office of American Innovation, among other things. 2006-born Barron, of course, is too young to be involved in such matters, and his mother has made efforts to maintain for him an appropriate level of distance from public scrutiny. He is rarely heard to speak, and reportedly is not allowed a social media presence, so little can be known about him outside of what few snippets are uttered to the press by his parents and what can be spotted when he is brought to public events.

His relative anonymity gives Barron a fascinating quality – he becomes a sort of blank state onto which others can project their own imagination. Above all, his fans feel a pity for him having to grow up in the shadow of his dysfunctional elders, and a hope that he can be “saved” from their fates as an adult. As is to be expected, there are rumours of autism, with some even suggesting that this could have influenced his father’s credulity to anti-vaccination ideas. It is at least faintly plausible given that the president was fifty-nine years old when he conceived his last son (advanced paternal age being a known risk factor), but I would be more inclined to believe it were this not a trendy claim to make about seemingly everyone in the public eye nowadays. Of course, the common perceptions of those on the spectrum (some true, some false) often overlap with those of the people in these kinds of online communities, which could go some way to explaining why they feel a natural affinity with Barron – or at any rate more of an affinity than feel for the rest of the entourage.

Prior to Barron in 2017, the last minor son of an incumbent POTUS was John F. Kennedy Junior, who was frequently under the spotlight during his years at the White House and is immortalised in the photograph of him saluting his father’s coffin. Generally speaking most presidents’ children in the last century or so reached their majority some time before their fathers’ election, so a dependent First Son is a rarity, which of course adds to the excitement whenever it does occur.

As with much about the Trump family, certain precedents can be found in royal dynasties of centuries ago: Edward of Middleham, lone son of Richard III & Anne Neville, lived so brief and so ill-recorded a life that there is even an uncertainty of four years as to when he was born, and of about forty miles as to where he was buried. Had he not died so young then the course of British history would have been very different – the House of York might have been secured on the throne for many more decades and the Tudor coup of 1485 averted. He is important in that sense, and obviously would have been well-documented had he survived to become king, but as it is he serves as little more than a placeholder. The only contemporary likeness is a crude cartoon on the Rous Roll, and the only personal characteristic recorded was his sickliness. Two other namesake Princes of Wales fare little better: He of Lancaster was active military (and indeed was England’s only heir apparent to die in battle) so we can at least record his movements, but what we know of his personality is limited to a few sensationalist excerpts and is almost certainly exaggerated for propaganda purposes. He of Warwick survived into adulthood, but spent most of his life hidden away in the Tower of London. Again he was important as a placeholder, for Yorkist forces rallied around him as a potential replacement for Henry VII, but almost nothing is known about the man himself except that he had a mental illness, and even that is based on a one-off line written years after his death. He of the Sanctuary fares a little better in this regard, perhaps because he actually made it to the throne if (of only for eleven weeks) and spent nearly all of his life before that as heir apparent. Details were therefore recorded of his upbringing and his education, and we even have a few snippets describing his character. Even so, he is more remembered for his death than for his life. His brother Richard is a case in point – except for his child marriages and peerage there is very little in his biography that would not also apply to Edward V, and it is suggested that so many more pretenders posed as Richard than Edward precisely because the younger son was less well-documented and so granted wider latitude for invention.

For a modern example, one possible candidate is Prince John, youngest son of George V & Mary of Teck. Like Edward of Middleham his health was poor and, like Barron Trump, many suspect autism. In 1916 he was removed from public life and sent to live at Wood Farm on the Sandringham Estate (where the Duke of Edinburgh has lived since retiring in 2017) due to his increasingly-frequent epileptic seizures. He died in 1919. He has been the subject of some intrigue since his death, styled as The Lost Prince or The Windsors’ Tragic Secret. Unlike the earlier examples there was plenty of contemporary documentation of his life, but it was made public for a long time after his death. The void encouraged fiction, and some writers liked to exaggerate John’s seclusion so as to paint the family in a negative light, but later revelations indicate that he was treated as well as could be expected for the time, especially given that the First World War was in full swing.

If I had to single out one example of a historical antecedent for Barron my choice would fall upon Gioffre Borgia, youngest son (if he was his son at all) of Pope Alexander VI, who lacked his relatives’ political ambition. He is generally regarded as the innocent one in a dynasty renowned for its depravity. This is best illustrated in the Horrible Histories song about the family from 2012, in which Gioffre sits in mute confusion while his father and siblings go on about their various crimes, scandals and machinations. Gioffre lived into his thirties, playing a modest role in the Second Italian War and ruling indirectly over the city principality of Squillace.

Barron, at this point, has already most of the people to whom I have referred, and his encounter with SARS-CoV-2 appears not to have caused any harm. Nor, for that matter, has there been any sign of an assassination attempt. Only time will tell which path he ultimately takes, and whether his fans’ hopes will be fulfilled or betrayed. All we can say for certain at this point is that he’ll be extremely tall, which might be an omen for the Cambridge and Sussex children, too.

A Princely Gift

I suppose there are worse things he could be wearing.

A few days ago I discovered the YouTube channel Documentary Base, whose content is what you’d expect. What particularly caught my interest was the series Crown and Country. The Prince Edward writes and presents a historical tour of England’s royal landmarks, one of many documentaries put out by his ill-fated Ardent Productions. This programme is about the same age as I, and now so obscure that its IMDB page looks to be mostly guesswork.

As far as I can decipher there were three series (in the years 1996, 1998 and 2000 – the former typed in the credits as such while the latter two are rendered as MCMXCVIII and MM). The YouTube playlist does not have them in broadcast order – and I think it may even mislabel a few of them, which makes it a little confusing. Series 1 and 2 are differentiated by swapping some of the clips in the opening title sequence montage. Series 3 switches from 4:3 to 16:9, and the title sequence is crudely cropped. The first two series credit the presenter as “Edward Windsor”, the third as “Edward Wessex”.

Technical details aside, the programme is pervaded by an otherworldly quaintness. As with so many films of this type it seems to be designed for international syndication rather than domestic broadcast, and while many specific events and locations are discussed the production itself is curiously timeless. It bulges with luxuriant panning shots of rolling countryside, weathered stone and ornately carved wood panels. The overall tone puts me in mind of Mitchell & Webb’s Sunday afternoon relaxation DVD. There are other curiosities, too, such as the title music which occasionally sounds like the middle eight of the Doctor Who theme.

The parts most interesting to me, as a blogger on heraldry, were the visits to the College of Arms and St George’s Chapel, neither of which get as much screen time as I would like.

In more recent news, the Prince of Wales has launched RE:TV, a channel (or platform, it’s not entirely clear) centered around his environmental projects. I also found this virtual interior tour of Buckingham Palace by interior design blogger Ashley Hicks.

Heraldry in Upstart Crow

Ben Elton’s BBC sitcom Upstart Crow, covering the life of William Shakespeare (David Mitchell), contains some interesting heraldic treasures. A subplot of the series involves the playwright’s attempt to elevate himself to the gentry with the acquisition of a grant of arms. Robert Greene (Mark Heap), Master of the Revels, seeks to deny him this, viewing the Shakespeares as of insufficiently high birth.

Success comes in the third season, Elizabeth I allegedly having been so impressed by Shakespeare’s latest play that she decreed “Only the son of a gentleman could have writ such wit!” and thus elevated the bard’s father accordingly.

There are other armorial treats, though also causes for confusion: At the theatre where Shakespeare and his troupe are seen rehearsing, there is a large cloth of the royal arms at the time – quarterly France & England – hanging in the background. There appear to be multiple versions of this prop used. On some occasions the arms are depicted in the correct tinctures, on others the field colours are swapped so that the fleur de lis are on gules and the lions on azure. There are other curiosities in that same set, for on either side are other shields which also get swapped out at various points. On the right, in seasons 1 and 2, is a shield resembling that of the Dauphin of France, though again with the background tinctures changed, while those appearing on the left are not those I can identify.

The Queen herself (Emma Thompson) appears at Hampton Court Palace in the 2017 special A Christmas Crow. Behind her is a large, colourful relief of the modern-day royal arms, showing quarterings for Scotland and Ireland but not for France, and featuring a unicorn argent as the sinister supporter. These elements would not be brought together until the union of the crowns, which of course occurred at Elizabeth’s death. The specific iteration shown in this episode, with the motto scroll floating in the air, would belong to the reigns of Victoria, Edward VII, George V, Edward VIII and George VI.

NOTABLE CLIPS

FURTHER READING