No-one does a charity event quite like the British, says David Philpott.
I have always subscribed to the view that we the British, do ‘charity’ differently to anyone else. Well, with the possible exception of our Aussie and Kiwi cousins that is. The assertion is not that we do it better or that we are more generous, but simply that we are different. Whereas that species that I refer to as Humanus Americanus utilise to the full their tax breaks through philanthropy and my friends in the Rhineland seem only to look across continents in search of worthy causes – believing it to be the duty of the State to care for their own poor – we Brits still do our charity with the verve and mission of our Victorian antecedents.
As Caroline and I followed the Mayor of Marlborough and his entourage up the winding stairs to the Assembly Room of Marlborough Town Hall last Friday evening, I knew this could only ever happen here on our sceptred isle. Our instructions from the Mayor’s Ceremonial Officer had been clear. We must follow in precise order and when we got to the top of the stairs, peel off - left and right - like synchronised swimmers in an Olympic pool. Maroon and green robes were everywhere and but for the absence of ermine and rich red leather, this might well have been the House of Lords, so seriously were the protocols followed. Having found our places on the top table, we all stood and slow hand-clapped in forty or so members of 4 Battalion, Intelligence Corps from nearby Bulford Camp.
I have done quite a lot of these civic dinners over the years. “What is the collective noun for a gathering of Mayors?” I asked one - weighed down by more corporation bling than Jimmy Saville at a jeweller’s convention - but his Worship did not know, although he suggested that perhaps the Chain Gang might suffice. Many such gatherings I have sat through and been force fed enough rubber chicken to turn me veggie, but everything about this very special night in Marlborough was oh so much different. The top table was a riot of humour, enthralling conversation and bonhomie and the food better than anything I have ever tasted at a lavish wedding breakfast.
Then came the after-dinner speeches with the erudite and unconventional, paragliding Mayor of Marlborough setting the bar high with both his knowledge of protocol – “My Lords, ladies...” ,you know the sort of thing - and his wit and wisdom. “Follow that!” I heard a voice in my head say, but fortunately I did not need to for it was the turn of Lieutenant Colonel Austin Pearce.
He acquitted himself well as he spoke of the regiments’ historic association with the town. As he ended on a humorous note, his wife Louis leaned over and said “I told him to put that joke in.”
My turn came next and passed without incident and then Melanie from Helen and Douglas House Hospice told of their wonderful work helping children living with life-limiting conditions. The rest of the evening was passed in pleasant conversation and glasses or port, as protocol was now abandoned with official blessing and people moved around tables and had an uproariously good time. And the point of all this pomp and ceremony? Simply to do what Mayors the length and breadth of Britain have been doing for over a century. Using their year in office to raise money for local charities.
As I walked back to my hotel, I decided to slip into the Abercrombie Arms for a swift pint. I must have looked a right ‘nana in my black tie and dinner jacket but I cared little. My late-night reverie was interrupted though by the protestations of an emo/punk/rock-chick type - delete as appropriate; I can’t tell the difference - sitting at the bar. “Anyway, we raised all this money for such and such [a well known national charity] and they couldn’t even be bothered to come and collect it” she said, half cut and on the cusp of being ridiculous.
“Next time, you should do it for the Mayor’s charities,” I interjected, rather helpfully I thought. “By God, I think I will” she declaimed, as she fell out the door and onto the widest High Street in England.
Tucked up in my bed, I imagined that next year, following Colonel Pearce, someone resembling Susie from the Banshees will be making a speech in the old Town Hall, and based on the welcome I got, I imagine she will receive a standing ovation.