In Which I Go To Parliament


I’d been inside the Houses of Parliament without a tour guide one before, to the House of Lords for a wedding – the children of Right Honorables can get married there – but I hadn’t been in the other side, the House of Commons. So when my friend Suzi was invited to an event with a Plus One, I jumped at the chance.

Parliament is open to all UK residents through a variety of different programmes and events. Guided tours take visitors into both the Commons and Lords chambers and Westminster Hall, as well as up the Clock Tower. You can also attend debates in both Houses and watch committee hearings. This, however, was a chance to chuck down booze on the river terrace at the MPs expense and hear a couple of speeches that sounded interesting.

Entering the building is now as complicated as passing through US customs, and involves metal detectors and having your picture taken for a badge. After the astonishment of Westminster Hall, St Stephen’s Hall and the central open square, you re-enter through a far less spectacular part that takes you past endless meeting rooms where people were either having dinner, holding meetings or drinking, all attended by waiting staff. In fact, the biggest surprise was just how many people there were inside.

The smell of institution dinners was overpowering – a little like being in a care home – as waiters delivered endless plates along a cream corridor. A marquee on the Thames terrace revealed the purpose of the event – to relaunch the London Magazine, once a Whig magazine that boasted Wordsworth and Dickens among its contributors.

Unfortunately, things got strange after that. First up was the Hon. Jacob Rees-Mogg MP on “The Current Mood in Parliament”, who didn’t talk about that at all, but attempted to turn the gathering into a Tory rally by braying about the London magazine now being in ‘safe Conservative hands’.

A glance through the magazine itself reveals that it has become a bland catalogue of property-porn and pretty pictures aimed at the rich clients who sit in Harley Street waiting rooms (I can’t tell you more as there were, strangely, no free copies knocking about).

The rest of the speech consisted of stitched-together aphorisms, completely contradictory statements and a guarantee that we currently had ‘the best party leaders we’ve ever had in Parliament’, before ending with some nasty-minded schadenfreude about the collapsing EU.

After the faintest smattering of applause it was the turn of Dr. Nicholas Penny, Director of the National Gallery, on “What Future for the Arts in Britain?”, who wasn’t as unpleasant but didn’t stick to the brief either, rambling on about people paying for special exhibitions when they should be looking at resident collections, and how everyone pays too much attention to modern art and not enough to the classics, specifically Titian.

When I give a talk I at least make an effort to cover the subject in question. Perhaps there’s something about being in the Houses of Parliament that encourages weird soap-box complaining – in which case, heaven help our debating chambers.

6 comments on “In Which I Go To Parliament”

  1. Steve says:

    Sounds like a room full of puffed up fish bladders. Much like our Congress and Senate.

  2. Helen Martin says:

    Thank-you for the description, although “as waiters delivered endless plates along a cream corridor” is perhaps slightly unfortunate. Not being a UK resident I won’t ever get to see inside the Mother of Parliaments so everyone’s versions are welcome.

  3. Alan G says:

    My Godfather used to be Clerk to the House – back when that insane woman was in charge. I recall him freaking out when I sat down in the House of Lords… but I really treasure the memory of having a pint of beer on the balcony. I was fourteen.

  4. Terenzio says:

    Helen, no need to distress yourself, those of a foreign extraction can visit the Houses of Parliament for a something like 7 quid. Check out their website and look for Oversees Visitor information. I think the advantage of being a citizen of the UK is you can request free visitor tickets from your MP. And perhaps UK citizens also get preferential treatment when entering the building or queuing up.

    I have never been. Back in the 90’s during on my first trip to London (when I was still a virgin when it came to International travel) I did visit Westminster Abbey. I was in total awe of the building, however, I was on my own and it was first trip outside the US, so I was somewhat intimated with being in a different county and culture. I had a great time thought and I met a few nice blokes, one in particular, who were wonderful and helped to alleviate my – well – anxiety. I met the one guy on the other side of the street from the Half Way to Heaven Pub. I was hanging about for like 20 minutes trying to get up the nerve to inside. I probably either looked like a lost puppy or a stalker. Since he was willing to strike up a conversation I am probably looked more like the former. On that trip I also met extremely cute Italian guy who didn’t speak English and I didn’t speak Italian, on the train going to Venice. What a great weekend, except I had to cut my list of sights I wanted to see by half, still the time I spent with him was truly wonderful. I figured the churches and museums would be there on my next trip and eventually I did get to see what I had missed the first time around. This was one of the few times in my life when I splurged on a high-end hotel, but after seeing Eva with Jean Moreau when I was a kid, so I couldn’t resist the urge to stay in the same hotel. I still remember the look on his face when we walked into our hotel room. We were both amazed. Neither one of us came from a wealthy background so it was pretty hard if not impossible to impressed. I will always remember his shy bashful smile when we first looked at one another when he and his friend got on the crowded train at Padua. Something just clicked, instead of him getting off in Mestre he continued on to Venice with me. Those were the days – to be young and carefree.

    Maybe on my next trip to London I will visit the Houses of Parliament. I have always been an admirer of this type of architecture. Gothic and even Gothic Revival are quite lovely. Strawberry Hill near London) is another place I would like to see.

    The one in the purple dressing gown…I’m off to get pick up some crème de cassis…what would life be without a Kir before bed especially when reading Harry Potter in French.

  5. Ken M says:

    Other curiosities include peculiarities due to parliament being exempt from much of it’s own legislation, so some lifts are built inside old stairwells that are still used as stairs, but are now only one person wide. It is also a museum of old technology as they periodically upgrade but are compelled to leave the old stuff around, so traces of the old atmospheric tube messaging system are still visible, and the array of phone booths that used to be used by the press. When I saw those I had to stand in one and say “stop the presses – this stuff is dynamite!”.

  6. Helen Martin says:

    Thank-you, Terenzio. I realize I should really speak to people like all of you before travelling. And thank-you, Ken, for that wonderful description of the phones. I don’t think I could have resisted, either.

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