Last week I met a Beadle. I was the guest speaker at the Ladies’ Banquet for the Worshipful Company of Environmental Cleaners (WCEC) at the Stationers’ Hall near St Paul’s Cathedral. The magnificent Hall, dating from 1670, has been good to me; it was there that I received The People’s Prize for Fiction in 2010. I was invited to the Banquet because the Mistress Angie Kay, partner of Master, Philip Morrish, is a fan of my detective duo Stella and Jack.
Livery companies in the City of London are a legacy of the Medieval Guilds. The WCEC is signified with tasteful shades of blue. The gowns would suit Stella were she lucky enough to become a member. There are 107 livery companies of which the WCEC is ranked 97. I’d guess the order is about longevity because surely there’s little that’s more important than cleaning.
Philip Morrish told us that Angie is on an equal footing with him. Traditionally over the centuries, the Master of a Livery company was a male preserve so this was refreshing. The evening was steeped in ceremony and this would also suit Stella, she’s a great one for structure. Jack would love the rituals.
Those of us to be seated at the top table processed two by two out of the Court Room into the banquet hall. The 120 guests slow hand-clapped us in and later out again. To a true-to-type Leo this was more than acceptable. I’m encouraging friends to clap me whenever I process across a room.
Awaiting me at the top table was a stuffed replica of Great Uncle Bulgaria. The wise owlish Womble is the Master’s mascot. This gift to me was, I thought, an appropriate emblem for the warm, friendly atmosphere; those involved with cleaning are an inclusive crowd.
At points during the dinner (delicious), we rose to toast the Queen, the Royal Family, the Guests, the Master, and past Masters and Wardens, junior and senior. Later, the Guest Master (of the Tobacco Pipemaker and Tobacco Blenders) passed around a silver snuff box affixed to handlebar antlers. I declined, but going by the sneezing and coughing, many guests took a pinch and a snort.
The Beadle, resplendent in his gown, got the Company’s attention (what with the toasts and the snuff, this was increasingly challenging), by smashing a gavel on a block. The sound reverberated against the walls like a gunshot. Good cover for a crime. Gavel was also a verb. As ‘Principal Guest’, I was ‘gavelled for’.
The membership of the WCEC includes companies responsible for forensic cleaning of crime scenes, fruit fly extermination (yes) and abseilers. Architects seldom consider the cleaning when they design buildings. The Gherkin has a curved exterior so you can’t be hanging from a cradle with straight sides. The cleaners descend on the end of a ‘fall arrest’ rope. That’s not for me, who isn’t keen to clean even with my feet on the ground. Nor for Stella; her highly valued operator Donette handles ‘high level cleaning’.
According to the running order I received in advance, ‘At the end of dinner, the Beadle leads the party out clockwise to the door to the Stock Room.’ My vague expectation of a room crammed with staplers, reams of paper and hole punches was way off the grand chamber that we retired to at the close of the night.
Stella avoids ‘Posh Nights Out’. She prefers to deep clean. In The House with No Rooms she’s reluctant to attend a Cleaning Ball. Yet I strongly suspect she’d enjoy the Ladies Banquet and Jack would be in fine voice for singing Grace (Laudi Spirituali).
Over the years that I’ve been writing The Detective’s Daughter series, I’ve had fascinating and extraordinary experiences in the cause of research, and attending the Ladies Banquet has to be right up there. It’s not every day you meet a Beadle.