I had a rather fun start to the day on Thursday: my day began with a 334-step climb up Elizabeth Tower. For those who don’t know, Elizabeth Tower is the official name of the tower that we all tend to call Big Ben! The story behind Elizabeth Tower and Big Ben is fascinating, and I’d really recommend the tour; if you write to your MP you can go for free. It was great to learn so much about this most iconic of British buildings, and I was shocked to learn that Big Ben, which is the bell, is actually Big Ben the second. This is because, when they were trying to tune Big Ben the first to E natural (in the mid nineteenth century), they chose a hammer that was far too heavy and the whole thing – all 16.5 tons – cracked apart.
I was moved to hear that Augustus Welby Northmore Pugin, the man who designed the clock faces, suffered a breakdown in 1852, just around the time he was designing the clock. He was sent to Bedlam and, suffering from poor mental and physical health, died at the end of the year aged 40. It was really quite sad. I’ll never look at that beautiful clock again in the same way, knowing that a man in so much pain created something so beautiful.
Thanks to Niky81 from Flickr for this (2011) photo.
My favourite moment, and one which was particularly poignant, was when Lindsay explained how the accuracy of the clock is maintained. Three times a week a team climbs into the clock tower and checks this. If the accuracy has slipped at all, they have a simple solution: on the pendulum which keeps the time, they either add or take away an old copper coin from a pile which has been sat next to the pendulum for years. Each coin changes the time by two fifths of a second. This practical ingenuity evoked a very precious memory. When my father and I dismantled the grandfather clock of my dear late grandfather Eric Harry Miles Foxen, ready to move it to our house, we found a yellow paperclip in the mechanism holding several bits together and enabling it to work. It was a paperclip I had sent him, along with others, some seven years earlier because yellow was his favourite colour. I’d been bowled over when I discovered the paperclip, and, hearing about the Big Ben coin trick, couldn’t help but think how much I would have loved to tell my grandfather that the same sort of practical ingenuity that he used to keep his clock working is what is enabling the most iconic clock in the world to keep time.
I have a problem with lifts. Having never worked in a place with a lift, and only recently reconciling my irrational childhood fear, I found out I’m not down with lift etiquette. I’m trying to work out what to do when you have the ‘first one into the lift’ role. I’m taking a Grounded Theory approach to it, though, and working it out as I go along.
Attempt number one last week consisted of: getting into the lift, pressing the button for my floor, then standing next to the buttons doing nothing – including when a fellow passenger followed me in. This felt wrong; by standing where I was, I had assumed the role of Lift Monitor and yet had failed atrociously in my monitoring-the-buttons task. I vowed to myself never to make such a faux pas again.
Tuesday’s attempt started much better: I got in, pressed my button, then when the next passenger arrived didn’t miss a beat in asking which floor they wanted and pressing the button. Success. However, the journey is a perfect length for awkwardness to kick in. The second after pressing the button, I realised that as Lift Monitor I had initiated a verbal exchange. Was that the beginning of a conversation? Was I being cripplingly rude in not following my “which floor?” with at least an anodyne comment about the weather? Was this also bad lift etiquette? I still haven’t figured it out.
Something else I haven’t figured out is if Banksy has been in the Houses of Parliament. As I turned Sombrero Corner on my way to the Tube on Tuesday evening, I noticed on the wall a graffitied electrical cable and cable box in the style of Banksy – or at least that’s what it looked like. I suppose it could have just been grime where such objects once were. But I’m not certain; I’ll keep my eyes peeled for further evidence.
As typical days in the office go, Thursday 7th May was certainly not one of these. Hopping off the Tube as usual, I made my way along the corridor through the Houses of Parliament. Each time this walk reveals something new. This time my eyes were drawn to a small plaque on a courtyard pillar: “Near this spot, beneath the old House of Lords Chambers, Guy Fawkes and his fellow conspirators hid thirty six barrels of gunpowder with the intention of blowing up King James I…” I couldn’t help but compare this historic attempt to destroy our Monarch and Government with the situation today; political dissatisfaction and a very present threat of terror.
Political commentary and banter provided the backdrop to a distracted office throughout the day. Conversations and alcohol levels were cranked up a level at 5:30 when fellows and some of the staff headed to the parliament Sports and Social Bar: imagine walking through centuries-old stone corridors lined with wood panels, then into a pub resembling a corner of the Queen Vic in EastEnders circa 1980. A pint set us up for dinner, which set us up for the subsequent venue: The Cinnamon Club.
A friend had told me that during my time at Westminster, I absolutely had to try The Cinnamon Club – a restaurant/bar in the Old Westminster Library. What better occasion than Election night, to see the results roll in. Miraculously, our party of 15 or so managed not only to get in with jeans and trainers but also to get a table. We occupied the back wall of the cellar cocktail bar and looked on, wide-eyed, as a camera crew interviewed folk for their reactions. We were a game party and most of us went for cocktails. Disappointingly, though, our collection was rather yellow, and we enjoyed discussing the taste-to-price ratio rather more than the cocktails themselves. The bar was packed, and it was so noisy that to make conversation I had to shout at the fellows opposite me. At a non-descript moment just before 11 pm silence fell across the bar: there was no need to explain what was happening, we all knew: the first results were in!
The second seat was declared just after 11 pm, and I could have stayed there all night – literally; the bar was open all night, however, it had been an early start and there was work to be done on Friday, so when others made to leave, I joined in and got the bus home aware that going to sleep under one government, I would be waking under another.
This morning I arrived at the train station a couple of minutes early so decided to try a different route into work: as opposed to the usual mainline to Victoria followed by 20-minute walk down to Westminster, I took the mainline to Blackfriars. From Blackfriars it was just three stops on the Underground to Westminster. The best thing about taking this route was that it meant I could take The Secret Entrance into the Palace that I had spied from within the week before. I followed the signs to Exit 3 in Blackfriars, having noticed them next to The Secret Entrance during my first week, and felt smug as I looked around to see few commuters heading the same way.
There’s no way to describe this entrance into the Palace other than it being pretty cool. You go from standard Underground ‘décor’, through the security-enabled revolving doors which are illuminated by distant light coming through the far-off glass ceiling of Portcullis House and some low lighters, and then through into a crypt-like space. From there, you can either turn right and take the escalator up into the modern concourse of Portcullis House, or turn left. To the left, which was the option I took to head through the Houses of Parliament down to my office, you walk through the half-lit stone corridor and between a human-sized lion and unicorn taken from the royal coat of arms. The corridor is set on a gentle gradient, which means that as you pass through these majestic beasts, you resurface.
Having resurfaced, I knew I needed to follow the covered path along the side of the Houses of Parliament, then make a right through a courtyard, crossing through a couple of heavy doors and onto Millbank. As I crossed through the courtyard, I realised the heavy doors were missing; there was no way out. Mild panic set in as I realised that I didn’t know how to get out and was probably going to have to unsettle a policeman in order to escape; I was aware that I looked like I didn’t quite know what I was doing and thus like I probably shouldn’t be there; I was looking guilty in the Houses of Parliament!
Before panic could set in properly, I flagged down a lone worker and asked how to get out. It turns out the Houses of Parliament are longer than I thought they were and I’d crossed across the first courtyard, when I should have crossed the second. As I crossed the second, I was relieved to spot the sombrero I had remarked the week before; in fact, it wasn’t a sombrero at all but an up-ended red carpet which had been rolled up and shoved in a corner in such a way that it looked like a sombrero on a plinth. Its incongruity had caught my attention the week before and I was happy to see it again this morning. I crossed the corridor and, sure enough, there were the big wooden doors, through which I crossed onto Millbank. A few more paces and I’d arrived at the office having reduced my commute from 55 to 35 minutes!
Today marked the last day of my first week at POST. A productive week, I completed the scope note and left the office with a couple of interviews in the pipeline for the following week. We – some of the fellows and I – decided to head out of our building for lunch today. We made our way into the Palace and over to the terrace café. Thanks to one of our colleagues, Henry, who is permanent staff, we were allowed out onto the terrace – yes, onto the terrace! Sneaky! That’s the bit between the water and the Houses of Parliament (have a look at Martin Robson’s (2012) photo below from Flickr). It was pretty special being out there and the food was good: fish and chips Friday with as-much-as-you-can-eat-tartare-sauce and good conversation; election fever is certainly in the air!
After lunch we headed back to the POST office, taking in a few sites on our way. I returned to the chapel of St Mary Undercroft and took a closer look at a cubbyhole I’d spotted the other day. In fact, the cubbyhole, which is found at the back of the church and can’t possibly measure more than 150 cm x 150 cm, has a rather great history behind it. Emily Davison – that marvellous suffragette who died under the horse of George V in 1913 – spent the night of 2nd April 1911 hiding in that tiny cubbyhole. It was a well thought out plan: by hiding in the cubbyhole on the night of the census, Emily was then able to claim the same political rights as the men of the house of commons. What a great idea! We wandered the corridors a little more (more on that to come) and Henry took us up into St Stephen’s hall. There he showed us a statue of Viscount Falkland with a crack in his sword and a broken spur on his ankle. These idiosyncrasies, Henry told us, were due to another suffragette chaining herself to the statue in the early 20th century. Thinking about Emily and the suffragettes today I was struck by just how much I take for granted my right to vote – it’s something I don’t even question. Just 100 years ago, my foremothers were doing crazy and audacious things for the sole purpose of trying to obtain the right to vote and here I am at Westminster – not only will I have the right to vote in the general election this Thursday, I am a woman working in Parliament. This Thursday 7th May I’ll be thinking about Emily and the suffragettes and all that they did for us.