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This job has a ring to it
9:08am Friday 22nd June 2012 in Features
Weddings are a way of life for Robert Livesey. STEPHEN LEWIS met the man who marries.
ROBERT Livesey reckons he has married about 10,000 women over the past 30 years or so. He’s married about the same number of men. Little wonder they call him ‘Lord of the Rings’.
Before you jump to the wrong conclusion, it should perhaps be explained that Mr Livesey is what used to be called York’s ‘Superintendant registrar’. Marrying people – ie conducting civil weddings – is his job.
He has been doing this in York since 1990, when he arrived here at the age of 32 as the country’s youngest Superintendent. Before that, he had been marrying people in his home city of Manchester for the best part of ten years.
In that time, there have been some real doozies: good, bad and downright oddball.
The law changed in 1995 to allow civil weddings in approved premises other than the register office. There are now 26 such premises in York and Mr Livesey has married people in Asda, at the top of the York wheel (back in the days when it was at the NRM) and at the York maize maze.
There is one woman he has married four times, presumably to four different men. “I do get repeat orders,” he jokes. And he remembers on one occasion in Manchester marrying a couple on the Saturday and getting the frantic groom rushing in when the office opened on the Monday.
The man was brandishing his marriage certificate. “And he said ‘Can you cancel this? We’ve had a big row and she’s gone’,” Mr Livesey recalls. “I had to say ‘no, it doesn’t work like that’.”
Perhaps his favourite marriage was a travellers’ wedding in York. It really was like an episode of My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding. There were about 150 people packed into the register office in Bootham for the ceremony, and the noise was unbelievable.
The trick with such weddings, he says, is to appeal to the ‘chief lady’ to help restore order. “She normally sits in the front row with a big handbag.”
That’s what he did on this occasion. “And she stood up, turned around, and shouted at the room.”
Everyone was told so shut up in colourful and expletive-littered terms. Miraculously, order was restored.
He enjoyed the wedding at Asda, too. That was in 2004 and was the first time a couple in Britain had tied the knot in a supermarket, he believes – and the press and TV gathered in strength to witness it. The BBC, Sky and ITV were all there, not to mention The Press. “It was broadcast live on Sky,” Mr Livesey says.
The bride worked on the checkout and Asda did her proud, he says. A message was put out over the Tannoy. “And everybody stopped shopping and came to watch.”
The wedding itself was held on the mezzanine floor – and the bride rode up there on the store’s travelator, wearing a strapless white dress and Asda tiara.
“She was surrounded by ten bridesmaids, and they all came up the travelator to the George clothing section,” he says.
Even after all these years, he still loves marrying people. As the registration service manager for York, he has a lot of admin to do these days. But marrying people, declaring them husband and wife, is still the best part of his job, he says.
But isn’t it hard to treat your 10,000th wedding with the same sense of it being special as the first?
No, the 54-year-old says. “It may be the fifth one of my day, but it is the happiest day of their lives. To them, it is a once-in-a-lifetime thing – hopefully.”
That ‘hopefully’ betrays his recognition that weddings do end in divorce. But he has never lost his faith in the institution of marriage. He loves it when people come up to him in the street and say, “Hello! you married me.”
He believes that, despite divorce rates and the increasing number of people who choose to live together without formalising their relationship through marriage, the intuition is here to stay.
“I hope so, anyway,” he says. “I think my job is fairly safe.”
He got into the job quite by accident. He grew up in Manchester, but after doing his A-levels decided he didn’t want to go to university.
He got himself a management job, which he held down for a year, but it wasn’t for him.
So he went to Jersey, where for a few glorious months he worked two jobs, one pulling beer, the other playing semi-professional football for Rozel Rovers, which played in the Rothman’s Football League.
He has always loved football: a Manchester City fan all his life, as a schoolboy he had trials with Bolton Wanderers. That didn’t work out, because he broke his leg. It didn’t work out with Rozel, either. “I only played half a season, then I came back to Manchester,” he says.
He has no real regrets at missing out on a football career. It takes a certain type of person, he says – and that person isn’t really him. “If you are going to make it, you will make it.”
He loves playing as an amateur and he’s still a huge Manchester City fan. One wall of his office in Bootham is covered with Man City memorabilia – including a shirt signed by City players which he picked up for £30 at auction.
“Robbie Fowler’s name is on there!” he says.
The wall can be a real ice-breaker when he is interviewing couples before marrying them – and can often lead to friendly banter with prospective grooms about the merits of different teams.
After Jersey, he wound up back in Manchester, a young man looking for a job. “And there was a job advertised in the job centre for a deputy registrar at Manchester register office.”
He was qualified for it – the post required 5 O-levels – and he thought it looked interesting. He hasn’t looked back since.
He was 23 when he conducted his first wedding. It was nerve-wracking, but he didn’t have time to dwell. The Manchester register office was big. There were six rooms for conducting weddings. “And I probably did seven or eight my first day,”
That was 10,000-or-so weddings ago, and he’s still going strong.
When it came to his own wedding, however, he and bride Silvana – a fellow registrar – decided not to do a busman’s holiday.
The civil weddings they conduct are just that – civil, not religious, ceremonies. They are not allowed to include prayers or religious hymns in the ceremony, he says – which doesn’t, in his view, stop the occasion being every bit as meaningful and special as a church wedding.
When he and Silvana were hitched, however, just before he left Manchester for York, they did so in a church.
This wasn’t for religious reasons, he stresses. Silvana is a Roman Catholic of Italian descent, yet they got married in a C of E church.
So why didn’t they get one of their colleagues to do it at the registry office?
“It would have been a bit like going to work,” he says.
Robert Livesey on:
Robert Livesey has never had any problem at all with gay weddings, or civil partnerships as they are officially known. “My best friend is gay,” he says. When civil partnerships were introduced in December 2005, he went on record as saying it was ‘about time’.
Most gay couples simply want to make the same commitment to each other as any other married couple, he says. But it is also important that the relationship between a committed gay couple can be legally formalised, in the same way as a marriage.
There were about 150 civil partnership ceremonies in York in the first year. Since then it has settled down.
York isn’t an openly gay centre, like Brighton or Blackpool. But his office still conducts on average about 30 civil partnerships a year.
He doesn’t have a view on the question of gay marriages being conducted in church – but understands why gay people of a religious persuasion would want to be able to have a church wedding.
When he worked in Manchester, these were a constant problem, he says. Since he came to York, they have been much rarer. “York is obviously a more civilised and law-abiding place.”
He does remember one in particular, in which the couple clearly didn’t know each other.
“They didn’t even speak the same language, and there was no body-language that suggested they knew each other,” he says. “Having done this job as long as I have, you get a feel for things. You know when a couple genuinely know each other.”
His other duties...
Registrars have a range of other dut
ies, including conducting civil weddings. They include officiating at baby-naming ceremonies, at citizenship ceremonies – now, in York, held in the Mansion House – and at civil funerals.
He started conducting civil funerals at York crematorium three years ago and finds them one of the most rewarding parts of his job.
It is a service that he is providing for the friends, family and loved ones of the dead person, he says. “I look at what I do as paying tribute to that person, and putting together the story of their life.”