The Lord Mayor by A. A. Milne

There is a story of a boy who was asked to name ten animals which inhabit the polar regions. After a little thought he answered, “Six penguins and four seals.” In the sam …

There is a story of a boy who was asked to name ten animals which inhabit the polar regions. After a little thought he answered, “Six penguins and four seals.” In the same way I suspect that, if you were asked to give the names of any three Lord Mayors of London, you would say, “Dick Whittington, and–er–Dick Whittington, and of course–er–Dick Whittington,” knowing that he held that high office three times, and being quite unable to think of anybody else. This is where I have the advantage of you. In my youth there was a joke which went like this: “Why does the Lord Mayor like pepper? Because without his K.N., he’d be ill.” I have an unfortunate habit of remembering even the worst joke, and so I can tell you, all these years after, that there was once a Lord Mayor called Knill. It is because I know the names of four Lord Mayors that I can write with such authority upon the subject.

To be a successful Lord Mayor demands years of training. Fortunately, the aspiring apprentice has time for preparation. From the moment when he is first elected a member of the Worshipful Company of Linendrapers he can see it coming. He can say with confidence that in 1944–or ’43, if old Sir Joshua has his stroke next year, as seems probable–he will become the first citizen of London; which gives him twenty-four years in which to acquire the manner. It would be more interesting if this were not so; it would be more interesting to you and me if there were something of a struggle each year for the Lord Mayorality, so that we could put our money on our respective fancies. If, towards the end of October, we could read the Haberdashers’ nominee had been for a stripped gallop on Hackney Downs and had pulled up sweating badly; if the Mayor could send a late wire from Aldgate to tell us that the candidate from the Drysalters’ stable was refusing his turtle soup; if we could all try our luck at spotting the winner for November 9, then it is possible that the name of the new Lord Mayor might be as familiar in our mouths as that of this year’s Derby favourite. As it is, there is no excitement at all about the business. We are told casually in a corner of the paper that Sir Tuttlebury Tupkins is to be the next Lord Mayor, and we gather that it was inevitable. The name conveys nothing to us, the face is the habitual face. He duly becomes Lord Mayor and loses his identity. We can still only think of Dick Whittington.

One cannot help wondering if it is worth it. He has his crowded year of glorious life, but it is a year without a name. He is never himself, he is just the Lord Mayor. He meets all the great people of the day, soldiers, sailors, statesmen, even artists, but they would never recognize him again. He cannot say that he knows them, even though he has given them the freedom of the City or a jewelled sword. He can do nothing to make his year of office memorable; nothing that is, which his predecessor did not do before, or his successor will not do again. If he raises a Mansion House Fund for the survivors of a flood, his predecessor had an earthquake, and his successor is safe for a famine. And nobody will remember whether it was in this year or in Sir Joshua Potts’ that the record was beaten.

For this one year of anonymous greatness the aspiring Lord Mayor has to sacrifice his whole personality. He is to be the first citizen of London, but he must be very careful that London has never heard of him before. He has to live the life of a hermit, resolute neither to know nor to be known. For a year he shakes hands mechanically, but in the years before and the years afterwards, nobody, I imagine, has ever smacked him on the back. Indeed, it is doubtful if anybody has even seen him, so remote is his life from ours. He was dedicated to this from birth, or anyhow from the moment when he was first elected a member of the Worshipful Company of Linendrapers, and he has been preparing that wooden expression ever since.

It is because he has had to spend so many years out of the world that a City Remembrancer is provided for him. The City Remembrancer stands at his elbow when he receives his guests and tells him who they are. Without this aid, how should he know? Perhaps it is Mr. Thomas Hardy who is arriving. “Mr. Thomas Hardy,” says the gentleman with the voice, and the Lord Mayor holds out his hand.

“I am very glad,” he says, “to welcome such a very well-known–h’m–such a distinguished–er—-“

“Writer,” says the City Remembrancer behind the hack of his hand.

“Such a distinguished writer. The author of so many famous biog—-“

“Novels,” breathes the City Remembrancer, gazing up at the ceiling.

“So many famous novels,” continues the Lord Mayor quite undisturbed, for he is used to it by this time. “The author of East Lynne—-“

The City Remembrancer coughs and walks across to the other side of the Lord Mayor, murmuring Tess of the D’Urbervilles to the back of the Mayoral head as he goes. The Lord Mayor then repeats that he is delighted to welcome the author of Death and the Door-bells to the City, and holds out his hand to Mr. John Sargent.

“The painter,” says the City Remembrancer, his lips, from long practice, hardly moving.

In the sanctity of the home that evening, while removing his chains of office, the Lord Mayor (we may suppose) tells his sleepy wife what an interesting day he has had, and how Mr. Thomas Sargent, the famous statesman, and Mr. John Hardy, the sculptor, both came to lunch.

And all the time the year is creeping on. Another day gone. Another day nearer to that fatal November 8…. And here, inevitably, is November 8, and by to-morrow he will be that most pathetic of all living creatures, an ex-Lord Mayor of London. Where do they live, the ex-Lord Mayors? They must have a colony of their own somewhere, a Garden City in which they can live together as equals. Probably they have some arrangement by which they take it in turns to be reminiscent; Sir Tuttlebury Tupkins has “and Wednesdays” on his card, and Sir Joshua Potts receives on “3rd Mondays”; and the other Lord Mayors gather round and listen, nodding their heads. On their birthdays they give each other gold caskets, and every November 10 they march in a body to the station to welcome the new arrival. Poor fellow, the tears are streaming down his cheeks, and his paunch is shaken with sobs, but there is a hot bowl of turtle soup waiting for him at Lady Tupkins’ house, The Mansion Cottage, and he will soon feel more comfortable. He has been allotted the “4th Fridays,” and it is hoped that by Christmas he will have settled down quite happily at Ichabod Lodge.

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