For 5 years I walked the corridors of power. Sat in the mother of parliaments. But no one seemed to really notice.
Between 2002 and 2007 I had a job working in the Houses of Parliament, as a researcher in the House of Commons’ Library. But to the 650 MPs or the 800 Lords sitting in Parliament – red faced and bustling, full of importance and self-regard – me and my fellow employees didn’t ever really seem to exist.
Which was fine with me. It meant I was able to walk with impunity the ancient lobbies, the thick, slightly chintzy, carpeted halls, the bare stone staircases, the courtyards looked over by iron-grilled stained-glass windows – in amongst the plotting and the political machinations – and I could watch, unnoticed, unencumbered, the often bizarre, often baffling, goings-on of our elected representatives.
The House of Commons Library had been running exactly 150 years before I arrived in its 4 long Victorian rooms with its dark carved wooden shelves, full of books, floor to ceiling; old writing desk with the silver ink pots and delicate old letter openers; and dotted around, the leather armchairs, full of post-lunch snoozing MPs.
The Library is situated directly down the corridor from the Common’s main chamber, and next to the famous MPs’ tea room.
From the library enquiry desks we had the perfect view of determined-faced, sprinting MPs barrelling down the hall from inside the chamber, desperate to arm themselves with a fact or a quote or a piece of ancient law from our huge repository of books and papers to take back and throw nonchalantly into the debate.
Or alternatively an MP might sidle languidly out of the tea room – cigarette in hand, in my day – and ask one of the Library team to find out what time the next train to Norwich might go, or whether someone could sew a button on his trousers.
It was telling that the most borrowed book from all of our stock in our Library was ‘How to be an MP’ by Paul Flynn MP.
All the tricks were in this book on how Parliament works, complete with chapters: ‘How to climb the greasy pole’, ‘How to apologise’, ‘How not to go mad’, ‘How to eat and drink’.
The last one was an essential.
The Palace of Westminster has 23 different bars and eateries, ranging from the pleasantly overdone Pugin tea rooms where MPs take elderly lady dignitaries visiting from their constituency, to the notorious – the dimly tarnished wood Stranger’s Bar, impenetrable for mere pass holders, as I was. Only Members and press allowed in. Although I would often see in passing on my working day the door open to a Hogarthian scene of raucousness inside. Even a “Way Out” sign situated just a foot off the ground for those esteemed members of Parliament and press who would be leaving the premises on all fours.
All bars are heavily subsidised. A pint of beer for little more than a pound when I was there.
As is the Member’s Dining Room, where everyone working in the Palace could eat, cheaply – thick, heavy, British school dinner meals: steak and kidney pies, crumble and custards.
This didn’t prevent, however, a miserable looking, parsimonious, Gordon Brown standing next to me in the queue with our trays, audibly counting and comparing the number of chips on my plate compared to his.
Then there is the new.
Portcullis House is a modern addition to the Parliamentary estate, housing MPs’ offices. Sleek lines, lots of glass, fig trees in the atrium. Dinners here more nouveau, more gastro.
It was a surprise then, as I sat on a tiny table for one, to be asked by a couple of the myriad fresh-looking, posh, tight suited young grads who pad around the Palace shouting loudly, knowing next to nothing, whether I minded them sitting here with their guest.
As I looked up from my soup, I saw their guest was a grim faced, very aged looking Lady Thatcher. Silent, slumped, mouth hanging, she stared me in the eye during the whole meal. Putting me right off my food. The only vague alive look in her eye was perhaps a desperately plea, asking me to silence the yapping young man with the haircut next to her.
Prevailing through the whole the Palace of Westminster is the delight in customs past, an enthrallment which flows through the veins of the place and which can often make the actual running of Parliament quite ludicrous.
In the old committee rooms situated just above where I worked, in order to show approval for what was being said, MPs were called, as tradition prescribes, to stamp the floor, hammer on the windows, smash the desks. Like some 18th Century riot shaking the foundations of the building.
The Sergeant at Arms, who guards Parliament – along with his team of ex-policemen and retired, tattooed, taxi drivers who make-up the security – are made to wear ridiculous 400 year old tunics and stockings.
On my first day at Parliament the Sergeant at Arms took us new-starters on a tour of the whole parliamentary estate. As we stood in the hall of the Speaker’s official residence – in my time this was the teetotal and penurious Michael Martin – the Sergeant at Arms told us with a pleased-with-himself preen how his whole costume, including ceremonial sword, cost £40,000.
“And I have two of these” he boasted, just as Mrs Martin came through the door in her Glaswegian anorak and bags from Lidl.
“Hats off strangers!” is bellowed to everyone in the Central Lobby, hatted or not, as the Speaker makes his way to the chamber.
“Who goes home?” bellowed at the end of play.
Snuff kept by the doors for members. The traditions are varied and vast.
As is the Palace of Westminster itself: 8 acres, 100 staircases, 1000 rooms, 3 miles of passageways.
I can testify to the extent of the Palace’s domain as I once found myself walking from the far corner of the estate, the Norman Shaw buildings on Whitehall, to the Victoria Tower at the far south west corner, through innumerable swinging heavy wood doors, down tunnels that run under the roads below the unknowing tourists, all the way followed by the suede-shoed stumble of a shuffling Ken Clark who had to whiskily burble a “thank you” every time I held one of these countless, never ending succession doors open for him.
It was a great job to have, to watch the frantic horse trading going on between crowds of members outside the chamber doors. To watch the belligerent MPs shouted at and put in their place by small aproned dinner ladies, or made to vote by squeezing through two small wooden doors, wedged open so that only one person could pass at one time – an official stood on a chair counting each member. Democratic legislation in the advanced western world in the 21st Century!
I was sworn at by an irate John Prescott. Had to talk on a few occasions – without breaking into a broad smirk – to Tony Blair wearing full brown face pack make-up. Just the two of us. No cameras. Mid-afternoon in the empty Library.
I watched MPs proposition the prettier members of our staff, help of few of the more refreshed ones to a late afternoon taxi.
But, as I strolled around the ornate foyers and recess, unchallenged, or stood alone on top of Charles Barry’s colossal, gilded, aureate roof, staring at Big Ben with London flowing away below me into the night, I thought: despite no one really knowing I was here, despite some of the unbearable inhabitants of this place, I somehow seemed to have found myself in the best spot in the land.