The Domesday Book

Oddly, it is not known who owns much of the land in Britain today ... Thus the early Anglo-Norman kings may have been rather better informed about land ownership in their country than the Prime Minister is today.
— Alex Burghart, No pig left out, Times Literary Supplement July 3, 2015.

King William I and the Domesday Book

One thousand eighty-five A.D.:
The Conqueror was King, and he
Believed he was entitled to
Collect a lot of revenue
Like many kings before and since.
And therefore that rapacious Prince
Decided he should send a band
Of royal agents to survey
And figure out who held the land
And how much tax they ought to pay.

The agents labored for a year
In Cornwall, Sussex, Lancashire,
They counted swine. They measured fields.
They estimated harvest yields.
The agents came back to the court
And scribes recorded their report
On parchment made from hides of sheep —
A stable medium, but not cheap.

The book had such prestige and fame
It soon got a portentious name:
"The Domesday Book" (a cognomen
Endorsed by Huckleberry Finn).
And to this day it can be found,
Entirely intact and sound,
Though once or twice it's been rebound.

They say the age was cruel and dark.
King William couldn't write or read.
But, still, it's worthy of remark
That when King William felt a need
To be informed, he could succeed
In getting data fairly fast,
Precise, complete, and quite detailed
And saved in records sure to last —
A task more recent folks have failed.

The BBC and The Domesday Project

Nineteen hundred eighty four. The British Broadcast Corporation,
Honoring the Domesday Book's nine hundredth anniversary,
Organized a notable historical commemoration,
Suited to the values of a liberal democracy.
Gathering an awful lot of fascinating information:
Fauna, flora, social issues, history, geography,
Welcoming the children of nine thousand* schools' participation,
Utilizing multimedia software and technology,
To ensure the Domesday Project's everlasting preservation,
Written down on LaserDiscs in safe Read-Only Memory.

To their shock, sixteen years later, someone at the BBC
Realized the Domesday Project now was at enormous risk:
The software used to run the thing was obsolete; and, scarily,
No one anywhere had any drives to read the Laser Disk!

Domesday Project very nearly ended up completely lost.
Luckily, some engineers who built a clever work-around.
Managed, with enormous effort, and considerable cost,
To recover all the data of the Project, safe and sound.

They were very lucky. Many products in that century —
Movies, scientific data, major web sites and their pages
Music, art work — have now vanished, gone beyond recovery
Victims of the mindless progress of the Digital Dark Ages.

The Land Registry

I would have thought, ingenuously,
That, in this modern century
The owners of real property
Are listed systematically
In the official Registry
And furthermore, undoubtedly,
Online for everyone to see;
An Excel spreadsheet, or perhaps
Accessible through Google Maps.

Well, that is what I did believe
Turns out I was a tad naïve.
My confidence was built on sand.
A sixth of all Great Britain's land
Is missing from the Registry.
The owners are a mystery.
And neither I nor Boris J.
Can ascertain, in any way
Who owns this chunk of the UK.

In fact, the Registry did state,
Some years ago, that we should wait,
They're trying to get up to date.
We'll know the people who possess
By 2030, more or less.

But nonetheless I'm pretty sure
The true facts will remain obscure.
The stated ownership will be
A non-existent company,
A P.O. box in Idaho,
Some guy who vanished years ago,
A lawyer who has been disbarred,
A Persian cat, a playing card,
To hide the truth, indecent, that
The owners are a kleptocrat,
A useless bitcoin billionaire,
A start-up hawking vaporware,
Purveyors of rhinoceros horn,
Or looted art, or kiddie porn,
And all the other human trash
Society rewards with cash.

The gov'ment of Her Majesty seems not at all averse
To gath'ring lots of data, for better and for worse.
Five million video cameras surveil, all night and day
The comings and the goings of the people of UK.
But when it's more conveni-ent for all the pow'rs that be
The Information Age becomes the Age of Secrecy.

* Or possibly 13,000 schools — Wikipedia says that there are conflicting accounts.
I realize, no question, that that figure's rather vague.
But what can I do? I just quote the Wikipedia page.

End Note

This is part of the collection Verses for the Information Age by Ernest Davis