Back when Noah was still drawing up the blueprint for his Ark, long before I was born, my Aunt stood against a certain Bessie Braddock as Conservative candidate for St Anne’s Ward in Liverpool. Aunty vanished without trace of course, apart from one vote found lying under the counting officer’s table, probably, though not certainly, cast by my Grand-mother.
The same fate befell everyone who stood against Bessie. Carter-Ruck’s would not be the force it is today if Bessie hadn’t employed young Peter to obtain damages from someone who had unwisely said she had ‘danced’ on the floor of the Commons – nobody could accuse Bessie of being frivolous; she was the consummate professional, dedicated to her electorate. Bessie needed no advice on the ethical way to conduct her expenses, nor anyone to tell her the ‘right’ way to behave in the House of commons.
That piece of family lore fascinated me, and when I was around 10, my Aunt took me to London for the day to show me where she would have worked – had Bessie been hit by a nuclear explosion the night before the election. I remember little of the personalities of that visit, no great political insight gleaned, but one memory stayed with me, that of the Ladies Powder Room in the Central Lobby with its vast labyrinth of gleaming copper pipes heading in a myriad directions, each junction formed by an equally gleaming brass connection, presided over by an old crone with an ever busy polishing cloth.Â Pugin’s pipework – a sight to make the ten year old heart beat faster! Who could have imagined!
Just as well it stayed in my mind, for some ten years later I found myself exceptionally gainfully employed plucking anything in Rupert Bear trousers that ended six inches above their ankle off the streets of London and into a sales pitch that only culminated when they became the proud possessor of a suitable ‘lot’ of Florida swamp land that could be viewed anytime they acquired a glass bottomed boat, and built on when theyÂ earned enough to undertake the draining thereof – and got rid of the crocodiles.Â Parliament Square was my favoured hunting ground for such stray and unsophisticated Americans. In the winter months the House of Commons became my refuge from the cold and lack of suitable conveniences.
In the early 1970s, you could still stroll in without identifying yourself, and mingle with the great and the good as they went about their business; you could climb the steep stairs to the public gallery without impediment and while away a warm hour or two listening to Shirley Williams or the still squeaky voiced Margaret Thatcher lambasting all and sundry. I was fascinated this time. You would meet them in the Ladies Powder Room; the pipes still gleaming, the old crone, I assume the same one, still anxiously watching lest anyone leave a finger print mark anywhere on her proud domain.
One afternoon, she raised a hand to motion me to wait; a woman in a fur coat, still a common sight on the streets of London, was repainting her lips. A few seconds later another woman emerged, in a coat so magnificent it took your breath away. The mink that gave their lives for that coat had never seen a factory farm; they had been indulged and cosseted from birth, fed whatever they desired;Â the coat glimmered and shimmied in the light. It was several seconds before I tore my eyes away and took in the sheer beauty of the woman wearing it – no photograph ever did justice to Princess Margaret. She was stunning.
Last Thursday I returned to my old stamping ground. I had taken a stroll to Parliament with Old Holborn. The building was now surrounded by ugly lumps of concrete, metal crash barriers firmly joined together. A phalanx of policemen lined the steps. You could no longer stroll in as you pleased.
We were photographed, interrogated, advised what manner of dress was acceptable to these Policemen. We had to plead for our right to enter. When we did enter we were corralled and followed, eyed suspiciously and informed that we ‘had no rights’ from the outside world, we were now under the control of the unpublished ‘House Rules’ – a copy of which could only be acquired by filling in the correct form and applying to the Sergeant at Arms. One of our number was cautioned for wearing a hat – only the cleaners, the Police, the Sergeant at Arms, the Queen, (and several women we noted) can wear a hat, if the ex-militaryÂ – all improbably dressed for a Chav wedding – so decree.
We climbed the stairs, little changed, apart from the Policeman stationed at every turn. We passed through more metal detectors, we handed over our phones, our handbags, our lighters, our coats; we felt like criminals. Finally we were admitted, behind a bullet proof screen, to listen to the disgraced MP Elliot Morley, still in his well paid position as the ‘Honourable’ Member for Scunthorpe, lecture a handful of MPs on the evils of global warming. We might not have the democratic right to eject him from Parliament, but we still, just, have the democratic right to insist on our right to listen to him drone on in person.
We outnumbered the other Honourable members interested in listening to him several times over.
As we left, I managed to slip away from the Kremlin type guards that had dogged our every step, and walked purposefully towards the Old Ladies Powder Room. It was still there. It no longer smelled of Patchouli andÂ Worth’sÂ Je Reviens. The Old Crone had gone, her raison dâÃªtre, the plumber’s pride and joy, the Pugin tiling, all had been hidden behind false walls. The white tiled walls bearing a tick box sheet telling you how many hours it was since it had last been inspected for cleanliness. Nu-Labour’s obsession with statistics reaching even the smallest room.
On the back of the cubicle door was this sign.
Truly they are a skaggy lot in Parliament these days.Â The women too.Â It’s no longer the Ladies Powder Room – it’s just the ‘Women’s Toilets’.
Could you imagine the likes of Bessie Braddock, or Margaret Thatcher, needing to be told what was acceptable behaviour?
The world has changed since I first went there 50 years ago. We have all changed.Â Not for the better.
50 years ago, I wouldn’t have dreamt of nicking their sign.