Westminster and Wimbledon
For a country girl, such double decker city stimulus in one day, Westminster and Wimbledon, was overwhelming and necessitated a horizontal position by 10pm.
The start was early – dog walk on Wanstead Flats before taxi hitting traffic, as cycle lanes are being made along Romford Road. Taxi abandoned for the underground, we made it just in time for the 9.30 kick off at Houses of Parliament tour.
Studying politics for the OU, I am finally coming to grips with UK parliament (on why didn’t we study this at school?) aged 57.5. I contacted Therese Coffee, my local Suffolk MP, who facilitated both the standard tour and a Committee. Barry, a born and bred East Ender, had never been in Westminster, although driven past millions of times.
After passing through security and recalling Airey Neave’s assassination here in 1979 by the IRA as his car descended to the underground car park, we assembled in the Large Hall, the only remaining authentic part of the medieval stone building of Parliament. Built by William II between 1097 and 1099, it was the largest hall in England at the time, its sheer scale designed to fill his subjects with awe. The rest, a celebration of perpendicular Gothic, is imitation medieval Chivalric Gothic architecture by Pugin, from 1830-60, a mere 150 years old. The classical architect, Sir John Soames also pitched for the competition, but lost.
The original Palace was remodelled and extended by various royal residents until the 1500s, when its role as a royal residence abruptly ended. In 1512, fire gutted the ‘privy’ (or private) chambers and Henry VIII decided to move to a nearby building in Whitehall. As a centre for law making the Palace of Westminster was affirmed when Parliament left and the Judiciary took over and the Great Hall itself was the scene of the trial of Charles 1. Nice anecdote of Cromwell. Charles II wanted revenge on his fathers beheading. All who signed the death warrant were rounded up, hung, drawn and quartered. Being 2 years dead, Cromwell was dug up, his half rotted body put on a chair in this Hall to be tried and found guilty of high treason. His dead body was executed, and his head displayed on a post. It was somehow saved, passed down through the ages, and is now in Sydney College Cambridge.
We walked into the famous Members Lobby – the one we see on TV with political commentators interpreting the machinations of the day. Hence the verb to Lobby – for here is where strangers (the public) can lobby their MP.
I particularly enjoyed the contemporary inlay of modern technology into Gothic wood. Todays names of MP’s on their Victorian letter boxes, Chuka, Caroline Lucas, with a singular green spot sticker denoting her party affiliation. Nick Clegg’s was in hand writing for some reason. Names so well known, taking form here.
We passed through the NO division lobby’s where the MP’s exit to vote. So narrow, so public, so physical. As they physically walk out from the chamber, clearly showing their preference of YES or NO, they are funnelled through 3 narrow channels depending on surname, to have their names checked off by 3 seated counters, then tallied by 2 checkers as they exit at the end of the lobby.
All oak panelled rooms, dark, warm, intimate, labyrinthine. Clocks in every room. Electronics integrated, a bespoke computer screen framed in victorian oak panel updating the day’s schedule. Screens showing todays order: Coastal erosion, Srebrenica anniversary.
The Chamber itself is strikingly small. We are forbidden to sit down on the green leather benches, but it is tempting to try. There are 470 seats for 650 MP’s (4 Fenians can never take their seat, refusing to swear allegiance to the Queen, a prerequisite to entering the Commons). When the House was being rebuilt after a fire, it was Churchill who argued for the prevailing smallness: it is the tradition, it is intimate, and all MP’s will rarely be all here together. We saw where Dennis Skinner sat, on the far front bench. Where the SNP have colonised recently. It is possible to secure a seat, with a Prayer card into a metal label above each seat, but the name denotes the rule, he/she must attend from the morning prayers – yes morning Christian prayers – to secure the seat for the rest of the day.
The architecture of the Speakers chair was historically practical. There used to be only one speaker, (now one main, John Bercoe, and 3 understudies) who had to preside whenever parliament sat, so sometimes around the clock. Therefore accommodation had to be made for daily necessities. Around the chair a curtain could be pulled, for when the speaker ate or shat, for the chair seat could be lifted to the commode underneath. I playfully imagine the speaker having an afternoon nap behind the curtains.
The red themed Lords is far more Palatial, with a gold leaf thrown at one end. I guess the King/Queen is allowed in this traditionally aristocratic place.
‘This is where Parliament is scrutinised’ the tour guide informed. Ah yes, I think back to TMA1, those checks and balances. There is a fresh move against this feudal institution. The newly elected SNPs are challenging the power of the English Lords over Scottish legislation. There are 850 Lords, of which less than half, 400 are active. A diminishing quota are hereditary, 92 today, the remaining appointed for their ‘expert knowledge’, for example science and technology, sport, media. An exhibition in the Lords Hall commemorates the centenary of the battle of Waterloo and Wellington, centred on a huge canvas painting, now well faded, of Blucher and Wellington meeting at the end of the battle (the other of Nelson). Our tour ends in the Tudor room, a montage of the life of Henry VIII, with his diverse wives.
Just before 11.30, there’s a buzz in the Lobby as people gathered for the opening of Parliament for the day.
‘Strangers! Off with your hats’, growled the command, and the police doffed their helmets. Men in black buckle shoes, black tights and long coat tails marched swiftly through, two carrying the Mace, the representative of the Queen (who is forbidden into the House of Commons, so this represents her), all tailed by John Bercoe, a small man, with charismatic smile cutting through the serious formality of the ritual daily event. It was the 10th anniversary of the 7/7 bombing in London, and out of respect for those 50/60 who died or more who were injured on that day, a minutes silence followed, a surprisingly long time, a moment to contemplate the seat of UK power.
To my delight I find that the Committee meeting Terese Coffee has booked me in for was in the main House of Commons Chamber, so stripped of mobile phones and hand bags we took our seats upstairs in the Strangers Gallery, behind glass since a protesting Dad threw flour at Tony Blair, facing the John Bercow the Speaker on the floor and the Press Gallery on our elevated level. The proceedings of the day in swing. Departmental Health. On the Government benches 3-4 including a Gummer answered the prepared questions, printed on our Order Sheets. Like jack in the boxes members from both sides rose up and down trying to catch the speakers attention to get their subordinate question in. Most were colloquial, about their hospital, hospital car parking charges, or local health care issue, frequently no more than asking for a meeting with the Minister. The Minister summed up the policy to move away from our dependence on hospital care to Vanguard care. There was some bantering across the benches, the Government affirming their latest recruitment of 5,000 extra Doctors, getting in a dig more than x years of the opposition.
The challenges were couched in the polite language of Parliament.
‘Can I gently say to the honourable member….
Or if more aggressive cross party digging, that we see so familiarly on PMQ’s it was dressed up in archaic language.
‘Nothing but woeful and inadequate answers from that side of the house.’
The star of the day was John Bercow. Wrestling with too many questions and desires for interruptions in too short a time, he cut short (Yes, we get the jist) before like a teacher to a child, he reprimanded one MP Greg Mulholland (Lib Dem, Leeds) question on Duchenne muscular dystrophy and tuberous sclerosis – and snapped.
‘Order! It is a discourtesy to the House to be so long-winded.’
‘Don’t shake your head, mate. You were too long. Leave, that is fine. We can manage without you.’
With sweet symmetry, I listening to the event reported on Radio 4 the next morning.
Trains on time (oh let it be known) and a £12 taxi from the Southfields station, got me into the Wimbledon Members enclosure just before they finished serving for lunch at 2.00. Edward met me to put a tag on my coat. His generosity once again, as an All England Tennis member (as the supplier of wine to Wimbledon), he gets an allocation for tickets. I am free as a carer for Tim who needs/wants no caring, and with fierce independence wheels himself.
It was women’s day, ‘Tim’s got his binoculars’, Edward jested. Tim on good form, sun tanned from tramper ventures around the parkland of his new home. He’s thinking of taking up wheel chair tennis with his new friend and fellow Polio inmate, Tony.
‘He’s so competitive’, says T, talking also of himself, I think. ‘He may be older than me in years, but not in Polio years – I beet him there. (Tony had caught Polio in his 20’s from India; Tim was 6)
Great lunch of sea food including my favourite hot smoked salmon, with perfumed Sauvignon, a New Zealand wine selected for Wimbledon by Edward. Over strawberries and cream we talked of my woodland and Edwards recent trip to Venice.
Late to our seats at the top, we came in to see Sharapova win relatively easily over Vandeweghe. They’ve taken the nationalities off the board.
Serena Williams made them look like butterflies after a shakey start the battleship, such power (6/2 and 6/3 final two sets). Both games ending early we watched the first set of an entertaining men’s doubles, Henri Lecount and M Bahrami (Iranian) two great clowns, and Beharmi an excellent player.
Fell asleep on the train back, collapsed into bed.