The Blog

Life in the Arts Lane - Week 29 - A New Beginning

The real stars of this show are the soldiers. As they stand there full of dignity, the heat increases and yet they still stand solid and stable despite their years. Kindly, matronly nurses skitter about with cups of water. Your eyes scan the ranks. Some have effulgent beards, some carry a stick.

Friday will begin at 7am with an auspicious event that I am not even attending. Nicola has a taxi booked for 6am. Otherwise impeccably attired, she will appear in a high-viz jacket, a garish, ill-fitting hard hat and comedic clown boots with steel toes. She is at the Bull Ring Gate on the Embankment of the Royal Hospital. There she is met by Andy Hickling, from whom she will take possession of the site and commence the Masterpiece tenancy. Eleven months of work have led up to this moment. I imagine a few jokes about the earliness of the hour. I imagine trucks from Neptunus who build the structure, backing up round various corners. The throb of their engines and the hum of Dutch language radio and banter in the distance. All this I can see in my mind from the comfort of my bed in Stockwell. I don't know how much is real and how much is my fantasy but I do know that our tenancy will begin at 7am on Friday morning.

Whilst the actual appearance of Nicola on Friday is something I can only conjure, her presence on Thursday was something I did observe. Founder's Day at the Royal Hospital is a wonderful, touching and magnificent affair. It is partly their 'end of term' and partly a celebration of their history. Founded by Charles II in 1682, and developed and enhanced by James II and William and Mary. The day bears a weight of memory and history. The in-pensioners, of which there are 300, have an average age of over 80. Their serried ranks of red coats and tricorne hats look stately and sober. A member of the Royal Family always attends, inspects the troops and gives a speech. This time it was the Duchess of Cornwall. She spoke well and shone in a coat of green-blue. There is a certain sort of managed clothing that is distinctive of the Royals. Only they can have matching shoes and handbag, a matching coat and hat with the dress underneath only a tonal shade different. The end result of a flash of silk and a broad-rimmed hat is something bizarrely calm and also surreal. It almost looks like 'fancy dress'. The governor then speaks, he thanks everyone and makes amusing remarks. His tone is very much that of a headmaster. I cannot see him from where I am sitting but his voice has a warm, benign tone, very reassuring. It bears a very British sense of confidence. You feel that with voices like these nothing bad could ever happen. The sun glitters off the brass of the band and everything seems in order and harmony.

However, the real stars of this show are the soldiers. As they stand there full of dignity, the heat increases and yet they still stand solid and stable despite their years. Kindly, matronly nurses skitter about with cups of water. Your eyes scan the ranks. Some have effulgent beards, some carry a stick. There are tall ones, short ones, fat and thin. Nowadays there are even women amongst them. They march, they stand, they are reviewed by the officers and the Royals. The binding reality here is that they have made a commitment to the service of their nation. They have, each one, made a sacrifice of individuality for the greater good. As I watch them stand from my seat in the stands I cannot help but feel a debt of gratitude. In the programme there is a whole page dedicated to listing the medals and citations the assembled have been awarded. This is an astonishing catalogue of courage. The names are not noted, I think this is rather beautiful. The message here is that the list represents an accumulation of heroism, the men and women here share their pasts, presents and futures. At the end of their lives these people have pooled all their experience and offer it up for us. One of the most touching parts of the march is the parade of electric wheelchairs. They have cunningly only ordered red ones, in line with the red coats. They try their hardest to drive along with the same dignity and gravitas as the soldiers who can still walk. They manage it beautifully and with great charm.

The British military tradition is rich with eccentricity and I don't believe there is any country in the world where 3000 people can sit with perfect seriousness as each person is bedecked in branches, sprigs and leaves of oak. Charles II, the founder, was sheltered by hiding in an oak tree after his defeat at the battle of Worcester in 1652. The oak leaf has since become the symbol of both the founder and thereby the Hospital. I also love the Bearskin, the magnificently absurd so-called 'cap' the British army guards and grenadiers wear in memory of defeating Napoleon at Waterloo. To top that, on view are miles of gold frogging, beautifully cut suits and quite a few swords. The final effect is not comic; it is awe inspiring and resplendent. This is because it is done with total seriousness and it has the weight of centuries of history behind it.

After the parade we have a pause and then we walk into the refectory where we dine at the time-honoured oak tables. Above our heads are flags captured in battle and we are surrounded by portraits of the great and the good. The food and the wine are not the point, the opportunity here is to celebrate and enjoy the contribution that the supporters of the Hospital have made. Everyone here is positive and enthusiastic and the conversation is easy. The assembled company is as one in mood and character. As we leave, our feet crunching on the gravel, wending our way back towards the underground station at Sloane Square we all feel as if we are leaving one world and entering another. At the station I see my first advertisement for Masterpiece and it brings me back to reality with a jolt. We have a lot of work to do in a very short space of time.