Mr Smith goes to . . . get his freedom

Not since the New Statesman ran the Duke of Beaufort's chatty but short-lived hunting column has this magazine waved the crimson duster so provocatively in the faces of its readers. I'm writing to you today as a titled gentleman. And as all but the most embittered class warrior will allow, there's a newfound poise and self-assurance about me. There bloody well ought to be: my title cost me 30 quid, plus 20 for the frame.

Not that there is anything vulgar or gimcrack about my new style. I haven't been gulled by an ad in the back pages of Loot into assuming ducal responsibilities for Anglesey. Nor have I received an s.a.e congratulating me on my hard-bought degree. The honour I have acquired dates back to the Middle Ages. It's the plum that Dick Whittington carries off after his tests and trials in Pantoland, along with the mayoralty of London and the hand of Alice Fitzwarren. It's the freedom of the City of London. Do I sense the sans-culottes drawing nearer despite themselves, avid for details of the trappings that are now mine by right?

Before a simple and dignified signing ceremony centred upon my chequebook, I, too, entertained notions of arcane perks, perhaps involving animal husbandry in built-up areas, and the portage of straw by means of sedan chair. But it turns out that they're part-myth, part-anachronism, those tales of freemen driving sheep over London Bridge and debagging City of London constables with impunity. And no special dress is worn when you go to make the declaration of a freeman. In the Chamberlain's Court, an office with all the grandeur of an ante-room at a crematorium but with real, if vestigial, judicial powers, you vow to "keep this City harmless - that I will know no Gatherings nor Conspiracies made against the Queen's Peace, but I will warn the Mayor thereof . . . "

So what's the point of the freedom? I could say that the peppercorn redemption goes to help London's diminishing but not quite exhausted stock of orphans. I could say that if it was good enough for Nelson Mandela, it's good enough for me. Depending on your point of view, giving the former inmate of Robben Island the freedom of the City of London was either a clunking afterthought or a graceful gesture. The Lord Mayor's people might say that his honorary award recalled the origins of the freedom, as a refuge for the honest man in his dealings with an often summary state.

I could mention that I have a book in the pipeline. Except that a pamphlet called "Rules for the Conduct of Life", which is given to freemen in memory of a code once imposed on City apprentices, comes with an addendum forbidding the use of the title for "self-publicity". In this, incidentally, the City shows it is alert to the kind of society we have become. Against whom is the charge of self-publicity most often levelled? People who appear on daytime television. And what is their invariable watchword? Yes: entitlement.

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