Middlesex : The Virtual County

 


You know what a County is. Maybe. In fact there are three types, administrative counties,  ceremonial or geographic counties and also ‘pseudo’ counties which are little more than an optional embellishment of a postal address. 

The first of these gets you a Council and a goody bag; things like bin collections or a parking permit. The second just does pomp & show. Berkshire is a good example. There is no Berkshire County Council, it was abolished in1998, leaving in its wake only a ‘Lieutenancy’, which is basically an opportunity for an old white man to dress up and pretend to be important. You can probably think of several more. Huntingdonshire, Westmoreland, Bedfordshire etc.

Middlesex doesn’t fit the mould and has a severe, in fact total, existential crisis. It did exist, but it doesn’t now. It is the administrative equivalent of the Dead Parrot Sketch. Some places, like Cornwall, Northumberland or Yorkshire, seem to demand allegiance. Not Middlesex. No one seems too bothered by its demise, yet it's forsaken spirit haunts North London like a shy poltergeist or a long dead maiden aunt, whose faint memory lingers with a waft of lavender scent, ghostly whispering and ornaments that are oddly placed and out of sync. 

Maybe ‘places’ like Middlesex are the real forerunners of the Metaverse, existing in people’s minds but not in any corporeal form. A dead polity. There are many of them. The Holy Roman Empire (famously neither holy, nor Roman nor an Empire) scattered them like disco lights across the dance floor of medieval Europe, giving us kaleidoscopic maps and the odd names and overgrown family trees of our crowned heads. (It would have been great if Charles had decided to use both of his parents family names and been. Saxe-Coburg-Gotha- Schleswig-Holstein-Sonderberg-Glücksburg)

The Oxford Companion to British History says that Middlesex is ‘one of the smallest, oldest and strangest of counties’. Quite right. Only Rutland is smaller. But Rutland, at least, has no existential issues while Middlesex is administrative ectoplasm. 

The long story isn’t straightforward. When King Alfred and the invading ‘Great Heathen Army’ of the Danes cut a deal to divide the country up, the border ran roughly along the River Lea and, further north, along the old Roman Road which is still Watling Street. The folks on Arthur's side of the line were ‘Middle Saxons’. The Danes got the ‘East Saxons’ as Essex, plus Christianity. You can decide for yourself who got the better end of the deal. 

Fast forward to the 1700’s and Middlesex comprised virtually all of the countryside to the North and West of the City of London, even including Westminster, although that was more or less self governing. But as the built up area of London expanded, it made less sense to govern it as a peripheral part of a wide rural area and separately from London, so its boundaries were progressively rationalised over time, with the reach of London government (no longer just the City) progressively swallowing newly created suburbs.

By the end of the 1800’s the Putinesque junta in London had annexed swathes of it, leaving the rump as a newly formed administrative County. It never had a ‘County Town’ but, as part of the carve up, retained its old HQ in Parliament Square. The Middlesex Guildhall, built in the early 1900’s in ‘art nouveau gothic’ style, is now the home of Britain’s Supreme Court.

The final dismembering came with the establishment of the GLC in 1963. This swallowed most of the County although bits were disgorged into Surrey and Hertfordshire. The Lieutenancy survived another couple of years and then London nabbed that as well. As ever, John Betjeman wrote the elegy:

Dear Middlesex / dear vanished country friend, / Your neighbour, London, killed you in the end.

He moaned for years after about the fate of the rural idylls buried beneath the semis which now stretched out along the Metropolitan Line; but in truth cared more about the loss of greenery than the County.

 What lingered after death? Where are the phantasms? The echoes? The lingering vapours? Does anyone actually care? I suspect not. 

So what is left? Middlesex University doesn’t count, it was established as a polytechnic long after the County had died and probably after a baby-naming debate. Then there are several hospitals that have retained the name. And of course there is Middlesex County Cricket Club who play (often rather badly) at Lords In Maida Vale, albeit as mere tenants of the Marylebone Cricket Club. Beyond that……

There are some odd holdouts. Middlesex day is apparently 'celebrated' on May 16th.. Who knew? It remembers a decent away performance by the eponymous regiment in the Napolenic Wars which gave it the nickname 'the Die Hards’. . 

The 'Die Hards' 

Some do indeed cling determinedly onto the floating debris from the wreckage. Lots of societies and sports clubs and whatnot use the name and some still insert the Middlesex name into their address. They don’t need to, it is all postcodes now. Betjeman would laugh st the irony of it having a County Flower. In a fit of Nostalgia for the lost Weald of yesteryear, a (very limited) public poll chose the wood anemone. Good luck finding one. 

Parts of the dismembered corpse of the County seem to have disappeared beneath the waves. I wonder if there is a reliquary for them somewhere. The area where I live was formerly one its administrative sub-divisions, called the Ossulstone Hundred. It was dissolved long before the County itself breathed its last breath.  

The County’s coat of arms or flag crops up in the oddest places. You can see it several of the tube stations, even some like Swiss Cottage, that were never really in it. There is a lovely stone plaque on the South West side of Kew Bridge. My favourite is on the viaduct that takes the Paddington Arm of the Grand Union Canal over the North Circular.

Kew Bridge 


The Canal Viaduct over the North Circular

Even the design of the Coat of Arms is ersatz though. The three swords were (and still are) used by Essex as well, so in 1965 the decision was made to distinguish them by adding the crown. This was supposedly copied from a coin depicting King Athelstan, a bloke who didn’t arrive or leave this world via Middlesex and was apparently chaste. Not a local tradition! The sword itself was supposed to be a Saxon ‘Seaxe’ sword, but the examples in the British Museum are narrow and straight while the implement in the badge looks more like a scimitar.

No matter. On Middlesex Day this year, it was the first County Flag to fly over Downing Street! Surely you noticed? No? Are you suggesting that this was a gesture by people who didn’t actually care, about a place that doesn’t actually exist, to humour people who actually weren't bothered? Morris Dancers, it needs Morris dancers. 

No 10. 

There are strange clones. In Ontario in Canada, Middlesex is on the Thames River, as it should be. And near London, which it might regret. It is the spitting Image, you can see why they used the name.

The Thames, Ontario

They also have a Hyde Park, Westminster and Lambeth. Like they used the Star Trek teleporter, which failed to reassemble the bits carefully enough…..! Detroit isn’t far away. The local Anishnaabe people spoke Ojibwe. Knowing our own Middlesex, I bet someone here still does.

Middlesex County in Massachusetts has also nicked some local place names. It too, fails to replicate the picture on the jigsaw box. It even sports an Fife & Drum Corps, ignoring the fact that some things enjoyed in the 18th century should, in all honesty, have been left there. And there is yet another, just south of New York in New Jersey. Now, there was a missed opportunity. They could have filmed the 'Sopranos' in the real Middlesex, with the final scene in the Wimpey Bar in Wembley? 

 And another, with virtually nothing in it, in the SW tip of Australia.

If, as Oscar Wilde says, 'Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery that mediocrity can pay to greatness', it suggests that there must have been something great about dear departed Middlesex. 😢

A Day to Forget at Ten Downing Street
(Are they his kids?)

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