Nicola Vincent-Abnett

Nicola Vincent-Abnett
"Savant" for Solaris, Wild's End, Further Associates of Sherlock Holms, more Wild's End

Tuesday 3 November 2015

Inside Parliament

We know a man.

Everyone should know a man… this sort of man.

We know a man, who gets things done. He organises things and does stuff, and sometimes he makes us a part of that. Because of him, we’ve had all kinds of experiences that we wouldn’t otherwise have had, and we are extremely grateful. Neil Grant is my hero.

Visiting the Palace of Westminster: Westminster Hall
Yesterday, because of Neil, the husband and I ended up at the Palace of Westminster.

The truth is that anyone can visit the Houses of Parliament and take a tour, but I can’t help thinking that ours was just a little bit special.

It’s a weird and wonderful place, the Houses of Parliament, evocative of so much of the history that I learned at school and university. The events and stories, and even some of the dates came flooding back to me as we walked its halls.

We began by meeting under the statue of Churchill in Parliament Square.

Everyone has feelings about Sir Winston, mostly, of course, relating to his role during World War II. My feelings about him are rather more personal. My grandfather worked for Churchill. In 1947, Granddad took the job as head gardener at Chartwell. He was, quite literally, Churchill’s gardener. He lived in a cottage on the estate, and, after his retirement, moved into a flat in the main house, which was his home until his death in 1994. Churchill died in 1965, of course, not very long after I was born, and Chartwell was taken over by the National Trust. 

I spent a good deal of my childhood at Chartwell, we had the kind of access that the public couldn’t possibly appreciate, and we took it entirely for granted. My parents and grandparents knew Churchill personally. Chartwell was our family home. That doesn’t seem weird to me. It seems extraordinary to the people who know that about me.

Back to the Palace of Westminster.

The Victorians loved a bit of Gothic, and Charles Barry and Augustus Pugin were exuberant architects and designers. This building has been designed to within an inch of its existence, but it’s so very English and so very regal that it seems entirely fitting. It’s all wood and gold, and red and green. It’s orderly too, right down to the stewards in their black dress suits, men and women, alike, with their badges of office, all made in gold and silver gilt, each one unique, and every one an individual piece of the crown jewels.

The oldest part of the Palace, the Hall, built for William Rufus, is a thousand years old, and its later roof is held up by twenty-six individually carved trusses, thirteen on each side, representing the apostles and Jesus Christ. They reminded me of the figureheads on sailing ships.

Queen Victoria is represented everywhere, in paintings and statues, but also on tiles and frescoes. Stories of King Arthur are carved into wall panels, Alfred is there, too, the Tudors and the Plantagenets.

The Monarchy and Parliament are linked right down the ages.

Queen Elizabeth II is also well represented in portraits, and we visited the robing room, and the Norman Porch where she enters the Houses of Parliament to deliver the Queens speech. We looked at the marks on the steps where the Household Cavalry’s spurs press against the masonry as they form her guard.

We went into the chambers, stood among the benches occupied by our incumbent Lords and MPs, although we were not allowed to sit. Yes, of course I was tempted. We gathered in the lobby, and the divisions, on the NO side. We looked at rows and rows of shelved copies of Hansard: Bound in red for the Lords and green for the Commons.

We learned of all the rituals and protocols associated with both houses.

There is a good deal of art in the Palace, if the building weren’t a work of art in itself.

There are paintings and sculptures everywhere, and room for more. Every Prime Minister has a bust in the Members Lobby, although Tony Blair and Gordon Brown have yet to be added. They are loomed over by statues of four prominent twentieth century leaders: Churchill, Attlee, Lloyd George and Thatcher. Margaret Thatcher’s effigy was erected during her lifetime. I wonder whether history will be so kind to her in the long run.

We looked at the French paintings in the Royal Gallery, two vast pictures, one of Trafalgar and the other of Waterloo, painted by Daniel Maclise, and we heard stories of how they are covered or left in the dark when the French visit.

One of my favourite things wasn’t made to be art, but seemed beautiful to me, and has become art, I think, by association. The grilles in the Central Lobby are very special. The Central Lobby is the place where constituents can meet their MPs, and it is the very heart of the Palace. The grilles once belonged to the Ladies’ Gallery. They covered the windows between the gallery and the house so that members would not be distracted by the sight of women. Of course, the grilles also obstructed the sight of the women into the chamber, and made the gallery oppressive. Preposterous, I know. The suffragettes thought it preposterous too, and the grilles became a symbol for the exclusion of women from parliament. In 1908, two suffragettes chained themselves to the grilles, which had to be removed so that the women could be extricated. After the vote that finally gave women suffrage, the grilles were permanently moved to their current home in the Central Lobby.

I could go on and on about my visit to the Palace of Westminster. I could talk about the glass ceiling in Portcullis House, and the steps up the Elizabeth Tower. I wish I’d seen both of those things, but I had to opt out of the second half of the day, and live vicariously through the husband’s experiences of those things. An honest to goodness GLASS CEILING! Really, not funny! How men mock us! But I won’t go on, because I’ll simply thank our guide, Chris, who was absolutely splendid, and I’ll urge you all to visit the Palace of Westminster, because it really was a brilliant experience.

The Palace is a big, important building and it’s the heart of the country in so many ways, and not only politically, but historically and culturally, too. The pity is that the building needs a huge amount of work to maintain it and to bring it into the twenty-first century, work that has been put off or compromised over decades. I happen to know that the cost in time, money and inconvenience would be colossal to make the Palace as good as new, as good as it really ought to be. I think it’s time we spent the time and money and put up with the inconvenience. Good our bad, this is our heritage, and if we don’t look after it, nobody will.

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