diamond geezer

 Wednesday, May 13, 2015

After the Swiss Guard at the Vatican, the oldest military organisation in the world is the Honourable Artillery Company, incorporated by King Henry VIII in 1537. And even though they're still based slap bang in the middle of the City of London, where you'd think there wouldn't be room, their parade ground is huge.

Actually that's not quite geographically true. The HAC's HQ lies one street beyond the City, in the borough of Islington, a mere arrow's flight across the former walls at Moorgate. But it is remarkably close to the capital's financial centre, and your eyes would water at the unimaginable sums that could be raised were its five acres ever sold for offices.

Normally you can't get beyond the gates unless you're an existing or former soldier, but once a year an open evening is held to showcase the work of the regiment and perhaps encourage folk to sign up. And that evening was last night, so if you heard cannonfire and guns reverberating around the City, that was them.

Of those who descended some were bankers, and many were kids in independent school blazers come to crawl over tanks and play with guns. But most appeared to have some sort of military connection, indeed many were in uniform, because you'd likely only think to walk through the entrance in City Road if you'd known in advance the event was taking place.

The HAC served up a free barbecue, because recruitment pays, but never come expecting any kind of garnish - their army burgers are simply a mansized hunk of meat in a bread roll. And OK so the drinks cost, and I had to wait an insultingly long time to get served at the members bar inside Armoury House, but when a beer sets you back less than three quid who's complaining?

At the far end of the field a Chinook had landed, with officers showing visitors the rough and ready conditions for those transported inside. Much of the remainder of the astroturf was ribboned off to form a display ground, upon which soldiers paraded and fired things that smoked a lot, while uniformed dignitaries and the short squat Mayor of Islington watched from a podium.

The Army's motorcycle display team the White Helmets sped round in formation, occasionally stacked up like acrobats, occasionally crisscrossing with aplomb, and just the once embarrassingly falling off. They went on a bit too, far longer than the programme had suggested, leaving the HAC's unit of ceremonial pikemen and musketeers to wait and wait around for their turn to perform.

There were plans for a parachute drop by the RAF Falcons, which would have been spectacular beneath clear blue skies, but unfortunately this had to be cancelled "due to airspace restrictions over London". Instead the evening drew to a slightly chilly close to the sound of a military band, playing various brass favourites and ending with a bugle call at sunset.

It's one of the most abnormal nights out I've spent in central London, enjoying the slow spectacle but also feeling somewhat out of place. A privileged look inside a place of privilege, and what an amazing oasis to have survived at the heart of our great city.

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