Legend: Tourists mistake one member of the House of Lords' greeting to another as a command to kneel.
[de Vos, 1996]
The British are wizards of pomp and ceremony. Even innocent bystanders and spectators sometimes feel themselves involuntarily caught up in and reacting to the drama of the moment, through they may know little or nothing of the ritual itself . . . . Parliament's equivalent of the U.S. Speaker of the House is called the "Keeper of the Woolsack," who wears resplendent gold-and-scarlet robes topped with a ceremonial wig. At the time of this story . . . the office was held by Sir Quentin Hogg, Lord Hailsham. After Parliament adjourned, Lord Hailsham strode into the corridor, passed an American tour group, and saw an old friend, the Honorable Neil Marten, an MP with whom he wished to speak. "Neil," Lord Hailsham called, "Neil." There followed an embarrassed silence, as all the tourists obediently fell to their knees.
Every session of Britain's House of Commons is called to order by the Speaker, who marches into the halls with the flowing train of his black gown held up by a page, looking for all the world like a character in Gilbert and Sullivan. On the way to the House, he strides through the visitors' hall, a herald preceding him to call out, "Hats Off, Strangers!" Tourists who have gathered from all parts of the world to watch the colorful and traditional ceremony obediently doff their headgear as the procession goes by.
One day a great personal friend of the Speaker, named Neal McLean, was in the gathering in the visitors' hall. The Speaker spotted him as he walked through and impulsively cried out, "Neal! Neal!" Every tourist present promptly dropped to his knees!
Variations: The legend has been told a number of different ways:
As happening in 1979 at Westminster in front of Lord Hailsham when he greeted MP Neil Marten.
When some parliamentarian with a rich, authoritative voice, accosted the then leader of the Labour Party, Neil Kinnock.
Of someone's shouting a greeting to Niall MacDermot, a Labour MP (1957-59 and 1962-70) and a Minister in the first Wilson government.
Prior to 1965 to Neal McLean, the friend of an unnamed Speaker of the House.
Origins: Brits in the know say this story has been in circulation for more than fifty years and that it periodically updates itself as a new Neal steps into the
political limelight. As a legend, it's closely related to the Hit the Floor! tale in which a Black man's gruff command ("Hit the floor!," "Sit, Lady!" or "Sit, Whitey!") is interpreted by a frightened woman as a demand for her to drop to the ground and comply with being robbed.
No matter which Neal is named or when the incident is said to have happened, the setting remains the same: it always takes place in one of the British Houses of Parliament (Commons or Lords). Though other countries besides Britain have parliamentary customs that involve wigs or impressive ceremonial robes, and indeed many judicial systems feature bewigged participants or unusual costumes, in none of these other settings are visitors reputed to drop to one knee as per legend. Moreover, not only is the story always set in the British Parliament, the befuddled tourists are invariably identified as American. No other nationality will do, apparently.
Why Americans? Perhaps because they're stereotyped as rude and abrasive tourists, often ignorant or disdainful of other countries' languages, cultures, and traditions. A tale that makes them look foolish can't help but be satisfying to those who have experienced (or been told of) the legendary arrogance of Americans.
As well, this legend depends upon the homophonous relationship of the name "Neal" and the verb "kneel," something only a speaker of English would understand (or fall for). Americans, unlike citizens of Commonwealth nations, have no experience with the trappings of monarchy or the pomp and circumstance of a parliament and are therefore more potentially cowed when confronted by a traditionally-garbed court official.
Barbara "playing to the robes gallery" Mikkelson
Sightings: The "Kneel!" legend turns up in an early Dilbert cartoon and can be found in Scott Adam's It's Obvious You Won't Survive by Your Wits Alone collection.