IT takes place twice a day at 11 a.m. and 4 p.m., never failing to grip the
eager lens of the tourist. The Changing of the Guard in Whitehall is ever
popular. It is like the big clocks in Swiss town squares which every hour do
something odd involving woodmen, cowgirls, and other characters from tales of
former times. Distinctive, quaint, and endearingly useless, these things remind
us that we are on holiday.
Wearing clothes now seen only in prop cupboards, the soldiers in London play
to the gallery, glad no doubt to be clear of Iraq. Straight-faced and
stern-eyed, they parade in shiny helmets with elegant plumes, and thick coats
from the time of Waterloo. Their big black boots are designed for riding; so
those in the ceremony forced to walk do so in an awkward fashion — like a small
boy in his father’s wellingtons.
The show has no more substance than the West End performances near by. Gone
are the days when two men on horses protect anyone, however magnificent the
beasts or long the regimental swords. But no matter; for there is nothing to
protect anyway, other than a memory — past times, old forms.
And one day, like winter leaves, their time will run out. The guard will
change for the last time, and the stable doors will close on an old form spent
and tired. New forms of power, as empty as the old but pushy with youth, will
press their case, and find guards appropriate to the times.
We must do what we must do, but we become most dangerous when we imagine we
guard something. In our passionate watch, we become the small and narrow
people, squeezing ourselves into the cramped corridors of our particular
concern. When I guard something, I get up in the morning and imagine myself
honourable and right, which leaves no evil beyond me, towards those I guard
I am told that the Archbishop of Canterbury has, in a letter, been told by
two-thirds of the Anglican Communion that he is an unfit guardian of the
Church. New forms demand protection. Only there is nothing to protect. Form is
the flimsy construction of circumstance and time. It may bless briefly. But it
should not be protected. Only spirit is eternal, and only spirit worth
In these dark December days, I contemplate the stern-eyed men in shiny
helmets and big boots. I enjoy the show. It moves me like old railway stations.
But for the sake of the world, like the Archbishop, I can guard nothing but the
flickering light of my own spirit, as fragile and hopeless as a baby in a
This is enough.