| Walter Benjamin writes, "Every image of the past
that is not recognized by the present as one of its own concerns threatens
to disappear irretrievably" (255). Images form a substantial part
of our historical memory. When joined with text, the visual is transformed
into moments to be read, into arguments for a particular way of reading
history. The purpose of this article is to consider the ways in which the
omission of the original photographs from the texts of Virginia Woolf's
Three Guineas and George Orwell's The Road to Wigan Pier alters
our readings of these books, and thus of their historical moment. We need
to consider the ways in which the historical context and purpose of these
texts – and our understanding of their historical perspective – have been
The authors of these texts are attempting to situate themselves in history,
to create a representation of history, by working in documentary, whether
that documentary takes the form of testimony, letters, tables, or photographs.
The removal of the photographs from Three Guineas – of the rhetoric
of the visual – creates gaps; these gaps, where dialogue between the visual
and verbal is meant to take place, signify the spaces where the text has
been divested of its most impactful political content, its visceral, immediate
political argument. On the other hand, the inclusion of photographs in
The Road to Wigan Pier, against the original plan of Orwell, was
meant to make that text 'more' documentary, rather than to present the
documentary Orwell originally had in mind, that of the growth of individual
political conscience. Each author originally intended to join the political
and the personal in her or his own particular way. In different ways,
this dialectic between self and society is effaced.
Both Three Guineas and The Road to Wigan Pier established
themselves as documentary texts. They meant to use documentary elements
– "pictures of actual facts," in Woolf’s words (Three 14) – to persuade, to
call for change. Woolf's text uses letters and photographs,
as well as Woolf's own polemic; Orwell’s uses thick description (to borrow Geertz's term), charts and tables,
and material from his own diary, a journal of his travels through the
text also had photographs, although it remains to be seen if they were
part of his original project or not.
In using documentary, these texts gestured towards a certain objectivity
and a certain political agenda. The photographs are framed and shaped
by an argument; they become an inextricable part of that argument. The
joining of the verbal and the visual in documentary become "a realm
of fact where language and reality meet" (Hynes 269). Storm Jameson, in her 1937 manifesto "New
Documents", outlines what is necessary:
The writer living in one moment of time and in one
society, and perpetually conscious of another trying to break through,
has been set a task which calls for special discipline and effort. He
must not, he ought not to indulge himself in self-analysis, since that
is to nail himself inside his own small ego at a moment when what is
individual to each man is less real, less actual, than that which he
shares with every other man. (314)
that the individual is a creature of time and society, a being living
in history. Her definition of documentary, however, requires that the
individual divest himself of his own self; the individual should record
history without being a part of or analyzing his place in it. Shared
experience, and the objective representation of shared experience, is
more real than individual experience. This is why she had a problem
with The Road to Wigan Pier. She continues: "Writers should
be willing . . . to go, if you like, into exile. Without feeling heroic,
or even adventurous, or curious about their own spiritual reactions.
Willing to sink themselves for the time, so that they become conduits
for a feeling which is not personal, nor static" (314). She compares
this act of writing to taking a photograph or making a film, "the
literary equivalent of the documentary film" (318): the I becomes
the eye. Here, the individual ceases to be a historical being, neither
writing himself into history nor creating history. Rather, he becomes
a 'conduit' for history, his text a site in which history as an impersonal
force is expressed, his writing an objective instrument with which he
examines his historical moment.
As a conception of either history or documentary, though, Jameson's
idea fails to take into account the slippage between language and reality.
They do not "meet," as Hynes would have it; instead, they interrogate
and disturb each other. Documentary texts serve as recordings of historical
moments, not only through an "eye," as Jameson would have it,
but through an "I". History is created, recorded, and interrogated
by subjects. Documentary can never be as objective as some of its theorists
might argue. One theorist who acknowledges the subjective underpinnings
of the documentary project, Paula Rabinowitz, writes, "Documentary
circulates between the public and private, personal and political spheres
by becoming simultaneously an aesthetic and archival object" (6).
A documentary text does not exist in a vacuum; it does not even exist
by acknowledging that it does not live in a vacuum. It is always already
framed by the purpose of its author, by that author’s subjectivity, perception
of the world, and place in history. It is an archival object – an artifact,
a moment from a personal archive.
In placing themselves within their texts, and within their own historical
moment, Woolf and Orwell interrogate the very idea of an objective history.
The photographs themselves are framed by rhetorical purpose, purpose
which at times seems at odds with the very existence of the photographs.
The photographs in Three Guineas are used by Woolf
to make a point about fascism and patriarchy. The photographs in The
Road to Wigan Pier were included, perhaps by Orwell
but more likely by the Left Book Club editors, to create a documentary
text to expose the horrors of poverty and to be used to persuade people
to join the socialist cause – not the text or purpose Orwell
had in mind, as we shall see. The photographs are not included to provide
a "slice of life", to offer the reader an objective, accurate
portrayal of a social moment. Rather, they are joined with the text
to perform a rhetorical function.
These two texts – joining word and image – are meant to serve similar
functions, yet go about it in two different ways. Both are meant to
be polemics, and both were controversial for the views they espoused.
Woolf used photographs to make
her point. However, Orwell's
point was entirely at cross-purposes with those of the Left Book Club.
The Left Book Club wanted to create a documentary text, and commissioned
Orwell to do so. Orwell wanted to compose a personal examination through
experience of his own political beliefs, interrogating those beliefs
and in the process his own subjectivity. What I would like to argue
is that Woolf chose to use photographs in Three Guineas
to make her argument. They are an integral part of her project. The
photographs included in The Road to Wigan Pier, however, were
not intended to be included by Orwell.
He never intended to create a documentary text except insofar as such
an examination of 'reality' would further his own project: a personal
exploration of his political development. He sought to render the personal
political in ways that went against the agenda of the Left Book Club.
The insertion of the photographs by the Left Book Club while Orwell was in Spain results in the effacement
of the author and the subversion of authorial intention – the death
of the author. The question remains: should we then read The Road
to Wigan Pier with the photographs? How is our reading changed?
And does the author really matter?
Virginia Woolf in Three Guineas makes the public eye
a key component of her argument. She writes, "Photographs, of course,
are not arguments addressed to the reason; they are simply statements
of fact addressed to the eye. But in that very simplicity there may be
some help" (Three 14). She begins with photographs of corpses,
victims of the Spanish Civil War. Yet we do not see these photographs.
She selects photographs that make a rhetorical point, that speak to another
purpose; Woolf wants the photographs she chooses to be "arguments."
She proposes to create a documentary text to explain the relationship
between patriarchy and fascism. However, it is not only documentary.
The photographs show the reality of patriarchy, but they also show
what will never be reality for women. They document particular
social signifiers – the medals, the ermine robes, the scepters – while
demonstrating how empty those signifiers are. In presenting them as evidence
to authenticate certain social codes and practices, Woolf questions the authenticity of the society that
The Spanish Civil War, the unseen photographs,
serve as a frame for the pictures she does choose. She withholds
these pictures of war, merely describing, gesturing:
Here on the table
before us are photographs. . . . They are not pleasant photographs
to look upon. They are photographs of dead bodies for the most part.
This morning's collection contains the photograph of what might be a
man's body, or a woman's; it is so mutilated that it might, on the other
hand, be the body of a pig. (Three 14-15)
She writes that these photographs cause violent sensations of "horror
and disgust" (Three 15), but this does not take the place
of argument. The photographs of common spectacle, special in their
ritual but quotidian in the reader's recognition of them, make her argument.
They take the place of the photographs that are only gestured towards.
The pictures of "dead bodies and ruined houses" in Spain
become the "dead bodies"of white men clothed in uniforms,
robes, and ceremony, the "ruined houses" are the patriarchal
institutions upon which a threatened society is founded.
Descriptions of the clothes and ceremonies metonymized by photographs
emphasize the detail, the "splendour", the baroque symbolical
significance: "Some have the right to wear plain buttons only;
others rosettes; some may wear a single stripe; others three, four or
five. And each curl or stripe is sewn on at precisely the right distance
apart – it may be one inch, one inch and a quarter for another"
(Three 28). The purpose of these descriptions – and of the photos
themselves – is not only to instruct but to ridicule. Three Guineas
serves as a site where Woolf's
personal history as the daughter of an eminent Victorian, and the public,
political history that created these men, intersect, giving lie to the
notion that documentary is meant to be objective. Woolf
makes her history all history, and vice versa. The
pictures provide the evidence; her ridicule explicit in their presentation
makes the warrant.
Her choice to present the photographs with no distinguishing captions
in the list of illustrations at the start of the book renders the men
anonymous. They become "A General," "Heralds,"
"A University Procession," "A Judge," "An Archbishop".
They are empty spectacle. By removing the subjects of the photographs,
by reducing them to titles and types, we are left with the subjectivity
of the author, not with an objective presentation of fact. Naomi Black, who, in the process of editing
Three Guineas uncovered the identities of the men in the photographs 
, notes that the photographs lose their significance outside of
the context of the text, and that, likewise, the text loses its significance
without the photographs:
A . . . major point made by the photographs,
but only when they are placed in the context of the arguments of Three
Guineas, is that men are vain, and arrogant, and besotted with status.
. . . This dimension is what made some male readers apoplectic, including
men whom we might have expected not
to care. ("Not" 43)
Woolf received many letters after the publication of Three Guineas;
a great deal of those letters came from women expressing their appreciation,
and Harold Laski
thought it "the greatest book since Mill" (Letters
383). An unsigned review in Time and Tide, however, called the
book "a terrible sight. Indecent, almost obscene" (Letters
251). Interestingly, the review described the book as a "terrible
sight," making reference to the particularly visual nature of Woolf's
project. Among the "Bloomsbury men," for example,
John Maynard Keynes was very
negative about Woolf's
project, especially about the use of the images, for he saw her as being
hostile to institutions – those represented by the pictures – for which
he held great regard (Black, Introduction: lviii). This is precisely
true. She was hostile towards them, and Keynes and other reviewers were correct to pinpoint
the photographs as metonyms of that hostility, as exemplars of what
not to be.
In her use of photographs, Woolf
takes public images and invests them with private meaning, creating
a dialectic between self and society; the photographic image functions
as the site of that dialectic. She rereads and revises the images'
significance, and uses them to critique the patriarchal public sphere,
a world of "dead bodies and ruined houses." The photos of
the men of ceremony stand in for the photos of Spain;
they are a different form of persuasion. To remove the photographs
– as so many publishers of editions of Three Guineas since the
first have done – is to divest the argument of meaning, to leave gaps
which cannot be filled. The gesture towards the unseen pictures of
war is fulfilled by the pictures of the men. The removal of the pictures
results in an empty gesture, a space where Woolf's point should be made real. Without them,
the dialectic between self and society is effaced, and with it Woolf's historical subjectivity.
In George Orwell's writings, the historical
subjectivity is paramount. Orwell's
authorship extended to his authorship of himself as an individual writing
himself into history. The Road to Wigan Pier is meant to document
not only the sufferings of the mining poor, but also the process whereby
Orwell constructs a historical
identity and situates himself in his own moment. Orwell
acknowledges a political purpose in his writings and the necessity of
having such a purpose. However, when his political purpose as a persona,
an individual in his own text, comes into conflict with the political
expectations placed upon him as an author, as a member of the nexus
between author, publisher, and audience, his own authorship, his own
existence as an author, is effaced. Orwell sought to turn the documentary lens on himself as well as on his surroundings,
hence the filmic descriptions of Wigan and the rigorously detailed examinations
of his own political conscience/consciousness. He thus highlights his
own authorship and his own subjectivity. Through the introduction of
photographs into the publication, in addition to the famous (infamous?)
Foreword by Victor Gollancz, the Left Book Club effaces the author Orwell, and as a result effaces the
dialectic Orwell sought
to establish between his own self and society.
The brochure to enroll as a member
of the Left Book Club states its aim thus:
The aim of the Club is a simple one: it is to help
in the terribly urgent struggle for
World Peace & a better social & economic order & against
Fascism, by giving (to all who
are determined to play their part in this struggle)
such knowledge as will immensely increase their efficiency.
The LBC was founded in 1936
and run by Victor Gollancz, Harold Laski, and John Strachey.
Its ideology and purpose are clear. When Gollancz commissioned Orwell to write The Road to Wigan
Pier, the expectation that Orwell would fulfill the purpose of educating the members of the LBC and stirring them to action was probably
clear, too. Yet Orwell was not concerned with "efficiency"
nor with "playing a part". His Wigan diary shows his impulse and plan to document life in the Midlands, but in the process of
translating this work into the finished book, Orwell's purpose changed.
It might seem old-fashioned to speak of authorial purpose and intention.
Yet the publication history of The Road to Wigan Pier
– as well
as as that of Three Guineas
– illustrates the consequences of neglecting
authorial intention. The book as artifact, as communication to the reader,
as product of commerce and expectations, must be examined in order to
consider the ways in which Woolf's and Orwell
's intentions were subverted, and the very message
of their texts altered. The omission of the photographs in the first
case, and the addition of photographs in the second, transform the medium
and the message of the two books. In the instance of Woolf, a radical and threatening
point is silenced; in that of Orwell,the carefully constructed
authorial presence and perspective, again in service of a politically
threatening argument, is effaced. Text and image are meant to function
in dialogue, but each are being made to say something that was never intended.
Storm Jameson, in a review of The Road to Wigan Pier,
praised Orwell's book as a model of the documentary mode –
the first half of the book, that is. The first half of The
Road to Wigan Pier details Orwell's travels among and observations
of the mining community at Wigan,
a town especially devastated by the depression. The second half details
Orwell's personal intellectual and political development, specifically
how he came to reject the orthodoxy of socialism, yet realize that as
a decent person committed to justice there is really no other option.
This bifurcation sparked a great deal of criticism, and continues to
lead many critics to label The Road to Wigan Pier as Orwell's
least successful book. In her review of the book, Jameson
wrote, "The first part . . . is a social document as vivid, bitter,
and telling as one could have asked. The second part is a document
of another kind, much less interesting and less valuable, but more curious"
(qtd. in Hynes 272). Critics have continued to echo this sentiment;
in a recent essay, Keith Williams describes the book as "notoriously
broken-backed" (164). Orwell himself wrote to Jack Common in October of 1936, "It
[The Road to Wigan Pier] is not a novel this time but a sort
of book of essays, but I am afraid I have made rather a muck of parts
of it" (Collected 233).
However, what must be recognized is that the two parts of The Road
to Wigan Pier are necessary each to the other. One cannot understand
how Orwell arrived at the place he did in Part I without
the background of Part II. In the book he describes a backwards journey:
on the way to Wigan Pier he meets himself. Wigan Pier has ceased to exist,
but in that space he sees himself, who he was, who he has become, and
who he needs to become. Wigan becomes a symbol, a heterotopia where Orwell's past and future intersect with the past and future of the society
he so desperately wants to change. It is a place of process, of coming
to consciousness. It is also, crucially, a place of tension, where the
private self and the public self meet, the subjective and the objective.
Wigan is a place, a physical real town in England. Yet, through the
text, Orwell consciously constructs Wigan as a symbol. Wigan Pier does not exist anywhere
but in the collective imagination of the town, and in Orwell's
text. Wigan Pier becomes a symbol of the space where the private and
the public meet yet do not meet. It is a symbol of public, social suffering.
On a BBC program called "Your
Questions Answered" broadcast on 2 Dec. 1943, Orwell was asked "How long is the Wigan Pier
and what is the Wigan Pier?". He responded:
Well, I am afraid I must tell you that Wigan Pier
doesn’t exist . . . . For some reason, though it's not worse than fifty
other places, Wigan has always been picked on as a symbol of the ugliness of the industrial
areas. At one time, on one of the little muddy canals that run around
the town, there used to be a tumble-down wooden jetty; and by way of
a joke someone nicknamed this Wigan Pier. The joke caught on locally,
and then the music-hall comedians got hold of it, and they are the ones
who have succeeded in keeping Wigan Pier alive as a byword, long after
the place itself had been demolished. (Collected 264)
and the pier that doesn't exist, becomes a symbol of everything that has
gone wrong with contemporary society and the suffering it has engendered.
Yet it is more than a symbol of social injustice. In The Road to Wigan
, Orwell writes, "Mr. Orwell was 'set
down' in Wigan
quite a while . . . He has only one fault to find with it, and that
is in respect of the celebrated Wigan Pier, which he had set his heart
on seeing. Alas! Wigan Pier has been demolished, and even the spot where
it used to stand is no longer certain” (Road
74). This place that
doesn't exist is also the place where Orwell becomes a construction in his own text, a person in process. It is
a never-ending process, however, destined to continue into infinity, like
the road itself, leading to no foreseeable endpoint.
each part of Orwell's
text is necessary; the tension between them, and among the varying discourses
employed by Orwell,
reflect the struggle of the individual to situate himself in the world
and to construct a vocabulary of understanding. Alex Zwerdling notes, "One has a
sense of fragmentation within the sections…of starts and stops, mysterious
shifts from description to narration, from narration to tangentially
relevant analytic essays, from essays to confession, from confession
to exhortation. The very multiplicity of elements compounds the problem
of coherence" (167). While Zwerdling is correct to point out the
"sense of fragmentation" within The Road to Wigan Pier,
it is important to note that this "fragmentation" is carefully
kept a diary during his time in Wigan; a comparison of the diary with the finished text reveals Orwell’s self-conscious process of creating a literary
text. This process ultimately shows the boundary between "documentary"
and "literature," between "objective" and "subjective,"
to be a fiction. It is impossible to have a completely objective document,
when the individual creating the document has a past and a project –
the past and project revealed in Part II. John Mander writes,
The weakness of . . . 'documentary'
theories is that they ignore the existence of the man behind the camera
whose ability to select and distinguish is what divides Art
from mere Chaos. A truer view is that an artist must build up a world
of his own, a world not identical with reality as such but recognisable
as one man's attempt to analyse, penetrate, label, and respond to it!
A significant part of understanding the world and one's place in it
is to know that the construction of the self plays a large role in that
understanding, and that the two processes feed into one another endlessly
without ever being completely reconciled.
Orwell's commission to write an objective document was "quickly transgressed"
(Williams 164); Orwell'
project and its presentation, in turn, was transgressed by his publishers.
Orwell sent the manuscript to Gollancz
and left shortly after for Spain
. The LBC found many of Orwell's conclusions about the poor, and about Socialists, deeply problematic,
and to combat this Gollancz quickly erected an entire apparatus around
-only edition of The Road to Wigan
contains a Foreword by Gollancz, offering a disclaimer to what
lies inside and attempting to argue that the book upholds the mission
of the club. He emphasizes the quality of the book, its "positive
), but criticizes the autobiographical perspective
of Part II. Gollancz notes that Orwell
is critical of "us", meaning the socialists, and aligns himself
– Gollancz – clearly on their side (xxi
). Interestingly, this
's own purpose.
He notes his own outsider status throughout his journey through Wigan
; he makes his outsider status clear in relation
to political dogma; and he here has that outsider status upheld by his
publisher. Yet Gollancz perpetuates Orwell's project to maintain outsider status specifically to show how Orwell
is outside true socialism, and as a result
his text must be taken with reservations. Thus Gollancz misses the point:
Orwell is an outsider, and has constructed himself as such, while at the
same time maintaining that it is this status that makes the true objectivity
of documentary – of any documentary – impossible.
Just before Orwell's departure, a meeting took place in Gollancz's
office where the decision was reached to include photographs: "The
intention was 'to make the book fully documentary'" (Complete
5:228-29). It is possible that Gollancz discussed this move with Orwell,
but the records are uncertain (Davison xxxv). As we can see
from the diary, however, Orwell had already created the text as a documentary,
albeit a literary one. Apparently the work was too "literary",
too autobiographical – too dangerously subjective – because the publisher
made the decision to include images to render the text more "fully
documentary". Thirty-two plates were included in the original
edition of The Road to Wigan Pier. They have never been reprinted
until the recent publication of the Complete Works, and the originals
have never been found.
The text of Part I is documentary in its use of primary materials and
testimony, much of it taken from his diary: tenants' opinions of their
67), a budget for the average unemployed family living
on thirty shillings a week (Road
92). The more 'literary' material
was recorded in the diary as notes, and then reworked into thick description
in order to provide an almost filmic depiction of life in the mining towns.
The photographs are included near the end of Part I, images of coal searches,
of a strike in South Wales, of miners' cottages near Newcastle and Swansea.
The pictures are haunting. One, captioned "Overcrowding", shows
seven people in a tiny room, three of them children. Another shows a
house in a slum with broken windows and doors, crumbling walls, wash strung
in the sooty yard. Orwell describes in his words a scene similar to the one in the picture
added by Gollancz:
But the squalor and the confusion! A tub full of
filthy water here, a basin full of unwashed crocks there, more crocks
piled in any odd corner, torn newspaper littered everywhere, and in
the middle always the same dreadful table covered with sticky oilcloth
and crowded with cooking pots and irons and half-darned stockings and
pieces of stale bread and bits of cheese wrapped round with greasy newspaper!
A third depicts a miner, stripped to the waist,
his face black, kneeling over a washtub filled with dirty water as his
wife scrubs his back. Orwell writes:
After his meal he takes a largish basin of water and washes very methodically,
first his hands, then his chest, neck and armpits, then his forearms,
then his face and scalp (it is on the scalp that the grime clings thickest),
and then his wife takes the flannel and washes his back. He has only
washed the top half of his body and probably his navel
is still a nest of coal dust, but even so it takes some skill to get
passably clean in a single basin of water. For my own part I found
I needed two complete baths after going down a coal-mine. Getting
the dirt out of one's eyelids is a ten minutes' job in itself. (Road
Here in this
description we find Orwell's
participation in his own documentation of the lives of the miners. As
Storm Jameson writes, "The instinct which drives a writer to go and
see for himself may be sound. If a writer does not know, if his senses
and imagination have not told him, what poverty smells like, he had better
find out" (314). Orwell is able to testify, through his entrance into
this life and his thick description of the experience, to the squalor
of poverty; he uses this to call for political change, but also to trace
his own political development: "Here am I, a typical member of the
middle class. It is easy for me to say that I want to get rid of class-distinctions,
but nearly everything I think and do is a result of class-distinctions"
(Road 193). This awareness of Orwell's is the result of his journey to Wigan, and the subversive message Gollancz sought
to combat: the refusal to admit that one carries baggage into one’s political
dealings, and that true objectivity is impossible.
pictures, in their sordid representation of brutal poverty and deprivation,
make a fine counterpoint to Orwell's
text. They present an "objective" representation of the things
the author has been merely describing. But the rhetoric of the images,
the ideology behind them, serves to strip Orwell’s text of its purpose. They function as a
distraction from Orwell's argument against such rhetoric and ideology.
The inclusion, without necessarily the cooperation of Orwell, of these photographs, seriously compromises the original intention,
the purpose, of Orwell's
book. Roger Fowler notes, "Orwell is definitely a literary rather than a documentary
writer" (86). We might complicate this by saying that Orwell
sought to expand the documentary genre, and in doing so show how it is
impossible to construct a truly objective documentary. The documentary
functions at the intersection between subjectivity and objectivity, as
the self struggles for its place in society and works its way into history.
To attempt to transform the book into a documentary to achieve a political
purpose violates the authorial purpose which lies at the book’s core and
is its ultimate thesis.
does this leave the reader? If this particular reader were to go to a
bookstore and purchase either Three Guineas or The Road to Wigan
Pier – both published by Harcourt Brace Jovanovich in mass paperback
– she would find that neither book has the illustrations originally included.
The omission of the images from Three Guineas leaves a hole where
Woolf's point should be made. Her original argument
– her intention – is subverted. Her anger at social codes and institutions
is lost, because those images metonymized those codes and institutions.
Perhaps the omission of the images from The Road to Wigan Pier
brings the book closer to the original intention of Orwell,
but their existence as a political apparatus violates the author’s argument.
In both cases it is not merely photographs that are being omitted: it
is the author who is being erased. The reader of today thus suffers the
loss of two key voices and two key texts of 1930s polemic, as well as
a moment where she might interrogate the intersection of word and image,
documentary and history.
Benjamin Walter. Illuminations
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Storm. "New Documents". Civil Journey. London:
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Rabinowitz, Paula. They Must Be Represented:
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Williams, Keith. "Post/Modern
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Woolf, Virginia. Three Guineas. New York: Harcourt, Brace, and Co.,
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Zwerdling, Alex. Orwell and the Left. New
 The "General" is Robert Baden-Powell, founder of the Boy Scouts; the "University Procession"
includes former Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin in his role as Chancellor
of Cambridge; "A Judge" is the Lord Chancellor, Lord
Maugham; and the
"Archbishop" is the Archbishop of Canterbury, William Lang.