The City of London! Compacted history. Place names from great literature and the Monopoly board. Ancient and modern cheek by jowl. Narrow medieval streets with the gherkin lurking on the skyline. The City is where we were yesterday evening. A good friend of ours is Rector of St Olave's (Samuel Pepys church) and chaplain of the Clothworkers' Company. The chancellor and I were there as his guests at the Court Dinner in Clothworkers' Hall.
St Olave's Rectory is a stone's throw from Clothworkers' Hall. Or to give you a better sense of its proximity, the kind of distance you can walk in ridiculous shoes when drunk. Not that I was wearing ridiculous shoes. I spent a large part of the evening with a very big cartoon question mark hovering over my head. Who or what are the Clothworkers? Who are these people in medieval costume? Why are we bowing? What is this strange silver chalice we are passing round and drinking from?
Similar questions probably flit through the minds of people attending an Anglican cathedral for the first time. The biggest difference between the Clothworkers' Court Dinner and the 10.30 at Lichfield Cathedral is the quality of the food and wine. Five fabulous courses were served at the Court Dinner, and if I'd drunk everything set in front of me, I would have needed a fireman's lift home from a passing beadle. (A beadle is what we know in cathedral circles as a verger.)
It was an exquisitely English occasion, i.e. packed with arcane ritual dating back to medieval times, which is loyally upheld, whilst not being taken too seriously. The Clothworkers' Company, if you are interested in such matters, is the twelfth of the 'Great Twelve' Livery Companies of the City of London, which can trace unbroken descent from medieval craft guilds. Samuel Pepys was a Clothworker. This may give a glimpse into how far the Company has drifted from its roots in the cloth trade. Still, the Hall (the sixth on the site originally acquired by the Shearmen in 1456) sports a very fine golden statue of a sheep, which reminded me of the golden calf of the Old Testament, though nobody was worshipping it. I was also given a teasel by the chaplain. Thank you, darling! Teasels were used to tease wool in times of yore. Nowadays they can be deployed on spare seats on public transport to ensure nobody sits next to you.
At one point in the meal (chronology somewhat hazy), a tray of drinks is brought round and the waiting staff lean towards you and murmur suavely, 'Do you dine with Alderman or Lady Cooper?' You, very reasonably, reply, 'I'm sorry?' (thinking Cooper, Cooper, am I supposed to know the Coopers?) The question is repeated. Panic sets in of a clammy English kind. Can't ask them to repeat it a third time! Faux pas ahead! This is followed by a sudden plunge down to an ever worse level of dread: is another way of asking Do you dress to the left or the right? (whatever that means). You opt for a non-committal noise, smile blindly and take nearest glass.
Maybe this is how punters feel in the cathedral when the steward asks them, 'Would you like to go up for a blessing?' The Cooper question is basically just 'Gin or brandy, love?' There's a long story behind it, but if you're reading this, you'll have access to Google, won't you?