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The Very Old New Normal

An ancient livery company celebrates St George’s Day and a year of successful ‘virtual’ operation in the teeth of Covid-19

A year ago today, around the swelteringest part of the Sri Lankan year, I clambered to the roof of our apartment building in Colombo, donned my lairiest tropical shirt, cracked a Lion ‘larger’, and, as the sun plunged into the Indian Ocean (GMT+4.5), drank a toast “to the Queen, St George, The Worshipful Company of Skinners root and branch, may they continue and flourish for ever,” as well as to all frontline workers, and our disappointed guests.

The Skinners’ Company’s (rightly renowned) annual St George’s Day lunch had, of course, been cancelled, thanks to Covid, and replaced with a forgivably ad hoc ‘virtual’ toast, centred on Facebook.

Well, I’m not in Sri Lanka any more; but it’s St George’s Day AD 2021, and once again the lunch is off – and in the intervening year that’s pretty much been the consistent pattern, even the venerable ‘Great Twelve’ livery companies of the City of London forced to bend before the onslaught of the abiding international crisis.

Bend – but not break. Incorporated by Royal Charter in 1327, the Skinners’ Company and its Dowgate Hill HQ have seen much worse. Blitz spirit, and all that. I mean, for one thing, it survived the actual Blitz. And the Fire of London. Even the construction of Cannon Street station. ‘The postponement or cancellation of our gatherings,’ the then-Master wrote, ‘is a relatively small inconvenience; nor is it unprecedented. The Beadle alerted us to a Court minute in 1625 that accompanied the election of William Cockayne as Master for the third time: “Dinner was forborne by reason of God’s visitation of ye plague of pestilence.”’

At just a few years shy of seven centuries old, a lot of the Company’s traditions and whatnot are ‘very old’ at least – if not perhaps technically ‘ancient’. Ermine gowns, seriously antique loving cups and sung graces still generally obtain. And while the Company has long since registered the prevailing need to modernise – we’ve been on Facebook for five years, you know – I think it’s fair to say that even at the start of 2020, probably no-one was expecting ever to read the sentence ‘today’s Corpus Christi church service premieres on YouTube’.

But over the ensuing annus horribilis the Company has done a remarkable job (as have, for sure, thousands of comparable organisations of every size and stripe) of not only keeping its head above water, but of continuing – perhaps even improving – its delivery of both core charitable functions and social engagements for the Skinners membership. In this regard, matters were helped, no doubt, by the fortuitous incumbency of a tech-positive Master, whose social media posts (and love of Austrian desserts, protracted puns, and the odd liturgical bonfire) had already been going down a treat in several quarters.

Advertorial as it may be, I was particularly proud of the Marsh Academy in Romney, Kent (where I was formerly a governor), which promptly redistributed unneeded food and toilet rolls – the school being shut – to local residents. Tonbridge School and Skinners’ School in Tunbridge Wells manufactured and donated PPE directly to healthcare professionals. And the Company en tout has, in a joint Livery Kitchens Initiative, been providing meals for NHS workers and deprived communities in the East End of London, to the tune of £630,000 so far. This against a background of routine provision of grants and awards administered to the Company’s seven schools, two almshouses, and a host of otherscholarships and charities.

In terms of internal Company business – as has been said for years by all right-thinking people everywhere – it turns out many meetings can be had without the trouble of stepping out of one’s bedroom study. The first Zoom Court meeting of the Worshipful Company of Skinners duly took place, and everybody dressed more-or-less appropriately for the occasion, albeit one was in slippers, the senior active member was in his garden, and the soon-to-be-Past-Master solemnly gavelled in proceedings with a schnitzel-basher.

At the final Master and Wardens Committee meeting of the year (July), the usual boisterous do was ‘distanced’ across at least three venues: the Hall’s roof garden, the Courtroom, and several members’ own domestic dining tables. Once the new Master was sworn in, his predecessor put the ceremonial gongs down on the desk, retreated a few steps, and watched as the incomer picked them up and put them round his own neck.

A little low-key. But in time, the membership received a video of the new Master’s maiden speech, along with stills of an event not normally witnessed by those not in the livery (or even the court, perhaps?). All this and more, facilitated by a revamped website/membership portal which the Hall staff suddenly found themselves ‘blessed’ with time to work on.

Other things, of course, are rather harder to pull off remotely.

Our cricket grudge match v. the Merchant Taylors’ (all 6s count as 7s) was scrubbed, as was the inter-livery real tennis, the Great Twelve quiz, and even the annual sheep drive over London Bridge.

Most of the standing social events in the calendar fell victim to a rolling month-by-month ‘postponement’ barrage – the worst of all, for my money, being the loss of the Summer Drinks Reception, a light-hearted, champagne-flute-clinking event, open to all ranks and their guests. The 2019 incarnation was my last Skinning act before I left the country, and that evening alone I met, just off the top of my head, a sky diver, a professor, at least one senior partner at John Lewis, a minerals broker, about a dozen teachers, several members of the cricket team, our first lady Master (whose name, impeccably, is ‘Dudley’), a Lord, a General, a specialist in Romanian music, one of the animators of Peppa Pig, a sometime organist at Hereford Cathedral, a man who’s been to Antarctica, a dabbler in/on Renaissance lute, and no end of other top chaps and chapesses, all in their finery (humorous socks optional).

But here too the Company bounced back.

There was nothing to stop even the lowliest member from joining in a week or so after the Corpus Christi feast (sic), when a condensed highlights reel was made ‘public’ (although having to cook one’s own grub could be viewed as something of a minus point). The inter-livery shooting competition did manage to take place. The Company annual review got itself compiled and sent out both digitally and on paper, despite trying working conditions for such a team production. Then there was a virtual wine-tasting (the wine was real enough) in November, followed by the carol service (a surprisingly recent ‘tradition’) at St James’, Garlickhythe, in early December. Numbers were capped, needless to say, so even though I unexpectedly found myself in England for the ‘festive’ season, I watched it on the internet, somewhat disconsolately, along with a couple of hundred other people.

The new year has had its ups and downs, but distanced visits, competitions and other fun have all been had at the Skinners’ alms houses. The mid-May golf against the MT’s is still scheduled to go ahead. A late-June ‘lunch on the Thames’ has been merely moved to September, rather than cancelled. And so wildly popular was last night’s online British-salmon-and-wine-tasting evening that a second, overflow event had to be scheduled before the first had even taken place.

There have also been announcements of adjustments to the rules of apprenticeship, so that potential later generations will not miss out on anything courtesy of arbitrary deadlines. And last month, for the first time, Bindings and Freedoms themselves took place online: ceremonies which, under normal circumstances, would involve exchange of peppercorns, oaths in Latin, and the use of vellum. I’m pleased to read these new members will be the first in line for hearty welcomes at the Hall, when Covid restrictions finally are lifted.

Meanwhile, the Company’s active approach to social media means that one can maintain links (or indeed ‘lynx’ – our furry mascots) with Skinners all around the world, learn about opportunities to get involved in the committees and governing bodies, read personal Instagram accounts of Skinning life (@skinnerstories), see footage of various school events and online performances by Skinners’-sponsored Guildhall music students, watch online lectures about the history of the Company, get updates on, e.g., the artefacts being unearthed by excavations in the building (a jug’s just been found, dating to the time of the Great Fire of 1666), and even – in an avowed attempt to get folks off their screens – enter a paint-by-numbers competition to win tickets for this year’s Autumn Dinner. The current Master is also hosting regular online ‘Meet the Master’ events for recent members, an opportunity for the sort of face-time which genuinely might not, in previous generations, have presented itself to a new Skinner for several decades.

Today, I write from Stanley, in the Falkland Islands. We’re four hours behind the UK, now (no daylight saving) so the ‘lunchtime’ toasts did feel a smidgen early, and for the life of me, I couldn’t locate my Hawaiian shirt. Not that that’s a problem here, mind, where autumn temperatures are already pushing zero, and winds routinely gust at over 40 miles an hour. The Master tells me that the weather’s aptly glorious in England. But since the Company’s St George’s celebrations are of course again online, that meant that I could join in, cost-free, howsoever clad, and same as anybody.

Last June, his predecessor rightly prophesied the Corpus Christi service would be better attended virtually than it has been, historically, in person. Perhaps counter-intuitively, Covid has opened up a range of Skinners interactions and involvements to many of us too junior, skint, or distant to otherwise participate. It may also prove to have been beneficial when it comes to the Hall’s imminent closure for a two-year renovation marathon – another sign of the regenerative spirit of the Company, ancient and modern. Far be it from me to suggest that many a British institution might have the turning circle of an oil tanker; but, undesirable as the situation is for now, who knows if one day we won’t look back and see this as an accidentally helpful boost into new ways of functioning?

But that silver lining, obviously, implies the cloud, and the lack of company – not to say Company – is still a heartfelt problem. An institution that exists solely for fraternal charity and fellowship cannot realistically be operating at full-throttle where people aren’t allowed to congregate. No-one would claim the current circs are anything other than suboptimal.

So it is heartening to read in monthly e-news, mailouts, and the rest of it that spring is in bloom at the Hall, the staff are back, real-life events are being pencilled in to diaries, and if I colour in my rampant lynxes very carefully, I might yet be there for the Autumn Dinner.

As broadcast on Falklands Radio

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