Political sketch: Best of British

The Queen's Speech production: men in tights and curtains, and a non-hat on a stick.

When Ronnie O' Sullivan announced a six month sabbatical after winning the World Snooker final last weekend, no one expected him to turn up at the State Opening of Parliament.

But there he was wearing a set of curtains in his part-time job as Lord Great Chamberlain of the United Kingdom with only his snooker cue - painted white for disguise - to give the game away.

Lese-majeste comes in many forms but few can be as cruel as forcing the Queen to dress up for a night out in the middle of the morning to announce where the latest rabble who claim to be her Government plan to spend the nation's non-existent money in the next 12 months.

She got time off for good behaviour last year but with the country back up to its ears in odure she found herself booked again to provide entertainment for the tourists who had mis-read their tickets and arrived early for the Olympics.

And not just the tourists since the unemployed were also provided with diversion from signing on as Ronnie, masquerading as the Marquis Of Cholmondeley (pronounced Cholmondeley), accompanied various Sticks, Rods and Yeomen through a rehearsal of the Mikado.

With the House of Lords booked for the occasion and Europe's supply of gold thread bought up months ago the scene was set for the bit of business we do better than anyone else: the past.

Even before the Queen turned up Britain's answer to the Department of Homeland Security - the Beefeaters, distinguished by wearing tea cosies on their heads - disappeared into the cellars clutching lanterns and pikestaffs to check on terrorist activity.

With the Palace of Westminster apparently swept clean, more men in tights turned up in a coach at the backdoor carrying a sword, a crown and a hat on a stick.

The BBC's Huw Edwards, that other national treasure, explained that the crown - carrying enough jewels to clear the national debt on its own - was the one Her Majesty wears for special occasions; obviously, as opposed to the one she wears for putting out the bins which she turned up in.

The hat on stick is not a hat, he also explained, but the Cap of Maintenance which in the best British tradition has no relevance whatsoever apart from being carried around by someone who looked like the Jack of Hearts.

With everything now in place the Queen herself arrived accompanied by the Duke of Edinburgh who appeared to have hired the uniform of a Lord High Admiral - and several other people's medals - for the event.

But even with all these entries the best-in-show prize has to go to a surprise late entrant, the Lord High Chancellor of Great Britain himself, Nottingham's own Ken Clarke. For once without his hush-puppies and instead resplendent in buckles, wig and bows, Ken looked every inch the great panjandrum as he clutched an ornate cushion cover containing the Queen's Speech.

Just to prove the event was not just a comedy, over in the Commons Speaker Bercow, wearing his own coat of many colours, was hanging about with a few friendly but mostly enemy MPs waiting for the summons to hear the Speech which they had all read in the morning papers. The summons is delivered by Black Rod so called because he carries it. (Do try to keep up!)

His job is to go to the Commons, bash on the door, pop inside and demand the oiks make their way to the Lords where their elders and betters have already taken all the seats, and hear what they will be up to for the next 12 months.

With Speaker Bercow gladly on his own out in front, MPs clearly excited by a school trip followed their leaders Ed and Dave both demonstrating that being well brought up enough means you can make polite conversation.

Finally the Queen got down to what she had been booked for. Ten minutes later it was done and she and a relieved Prince Philip were off again back to the real Palace for the last half hour of This Morning.

Meanwhile back in the Commons, chief oik Denis Skinner, who once again had refused the Royal invitation, must have been happily musing over the cries of "shame" from the Tory benches which accompanied his own part in the historical event: the mauling of the monarch's representative.

As Black Rod nervously made his way back to safety Denis summed up the proceedings: "Jubilee year, double-dip recession, what a start ".

 

Photograph: Getty Images

Peter McHugh is the former Director of Programmes at GMTV and Chief Executive Officer of Quiddity Productions

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The deafening killer - why noise will be the next great pollution scandal

A growing body of evidence shows that noise can have serious health impacts too. 

Our cities are being poisoned by a toxin that surrounds us day and night. It eats away at our brains, hurts our hearts, clutches at our sleep, and gnaws at the quality of our daily lives.

Hardly a silent killer, it gets short shrift compared to the well-publicised terrors of air pollution and sugars food. It is the dull, thumping, stultifying drum-beat of perpetual noise.

The score that accompanies city life is brutal and constant. It disrupts the everyday: The coffee break ruined by the screech of a line of double decker buses braking at the lights. The lawyer’s conference call broken by drilling as she makes her way to the office. The writer’s struggle to find a quiet corner to pen his latest article.

For city-dwellers, it’s all-consuming and impossible to avoid. Construction, traffic, the whirring of machinery, the neighbour’s stereo. Even at home, the beeps and buzzes made by washing machines, fridges, and phones all serve to distract and unsettle.

But the never-ending noisiness of city life is far more than a problem of aesthetics. A growing body of evidence shows that noise can have serious health impacts too. Recent studies have linked noise pollution to hearing loss, sleep deprivation, hypertension, heart disease, brain development, and even increased risk of dementia.

One research team compared families living on different stories of the same building in Manhattan to isolate the impact of noise on health and education. They found children in lower, noisier floors were worse at reading than their higher-up peers, an effect that was most pronounced for children who had lived in the building for longest.

Those studies have been replicated for the impact of aircraft noise with similar results. Not only does noise cause higher blood pressure and worsens quality of sleep, it also stymies pupils trying to concentrate in class.

As with many forms of pollution, the poorest are typically the hardest hit. The worst-off in any city often live by busy roads in poorly-insulated houses or flats, cheek by jowl with packed-in neighbours.

The US Department of Transport recently mapped road and aircraft noise across the United States. Predictably, the loudest areas overlapped with some of the country’s most deprived. Those included the south side of Atlanta and the lowest-income areas of LA and Seattle.

Yet as noise pollution grows in line with road and air traffic and rising urban density, public policy has turned a blind eye.

Council noise response services, formally a 24-hour defence against neighbourly disputes, have fallen victim to local government cuts. Decisions on airport expansion and road development pay scant regard to their audible impact. Political platforms remain silent on the loudest poison.

This is odd at a time when we have never had more tools at our disposal to deal with the issue. Electric Vehicles are practically noise-less, yet noise rarely features in the arguments for their adoption. Just replacing today’s bus fleet would transform city centres; doing the same for taxis and trucks would amount to a revolution.

Vehicles are just the start. Millions were spent on a programme of “Warm Homes”; what about “Quiet Homes”? How did we value the noise impact in the decision to build a third runway at Heathrow, and how do we compensate people now that it’s going ahead?

Construction is a major driver of decibels. Should builders compensate “noise victims” for over-drilling? Or could regulation push equipment manufacturers to find new ways to dampen the sound of their kit?

Of course, none of this addresses the noise pollution we impose on ourselves. The bars and clubs we choose to visit or the music we stick in our ears. Whether pumping dance tracks in spin classes or indie rock in trendy coffee shops, people’s desire to compensate for bad noise out there by playing louder noise in here is hard to control for.

The Clean Air Act of 1956 heralded a new era of city life, one where smog and grime gave way to clear skies and clearer lungs. That fight still goes on today.

But some day, we will turn our attention to our clogged-up airwaves. The decibels will fall. #Twitter will give way to twitter. And every now and again, as we step from our homes into city life, we may just hear the sweetest sound of all. Silence.

Adam Swersky is a councillor in Harrow and is cabinet member for finance. He writes in a personal capacity.