By the time I'd reached Parliament this had turned into a question "I wonder if you can visit the public gallery in the Commons?" which after speaking to a policeman on the gate and then a steward who handed me a giant laminated green ticket found an answer in the positive. While the chamber is in session it's entirely possible to simply ask for entry and assuming they believe you to be of good character, carrying no knives or pepper spray, visit our key place of government and watch proceedings live. So after standing on the street and listening to the epic spectacle of the massive clock singing, which was just as a breathtaking as I'd always suspected, I joined the short queue snaking downwards to the reception were the security checks are carried out.
After my belongings had passed through the x-ray machine and I'd stepped through the metal detector, I took the short pathway up to the larger building and not predicting the geography stepped straight into Westminster Hall. You know the slight moment of disorientation you feel whenever you unexpectedly see a famous person in a context other than on a screen or in a photography or both? My gasp was loud enough to echo around its walls. "Westminster Hall!" I said out loud, arms outstretched. "Westminster Hall!" A steward approached and asked if I needed any help. I told her I was visiting the public gallery of the Commons and she gave me a green slip on which I would declare my intention to disrupt proceeding and directed me towards the large steps at the far end.
Anyone who's seen the innumerable documentaries filmed in this space and The Complete Walk's version of Richard II will know just how vast this space is, and unlike religious architecture, almost unbroken by furniture with the potential to diminish the spectacle. Even having seen the former at state events, it's impossible to imagine its stone walls ever being full. There were perhaps at least a hundred people in there last night milling around, waiting for various events and yet this looked like a small gathering. As the Parliament website explains, the hall has been rebuilt and restored numerously since opening in 1097 and the result is frankly awesome and impossible to describe as this paragraph has demonstrated.
The walk to those stairs towards the chamber appeared to take little time. Unfortunately, only as I reached the bottom step did I realise I needed to visit the toilet and found myself asking the two policemen with large rifles (only the second time I think I've seen guns in real life) where the bathroom was. At the other end of the hall near the gift shop which meant I'd be making that walk a couple more times. On the upside it also meant I visited the gift shop and bought a jar of jam and a Christmas present. It's worth pointing out that this shambling about always happens when I visit tourist spots. Usually when I reach a Tate or V&A it's at least half an hour before I even look at a painting.
Back across the hall, up the stairs and some more stairs and yet more stairs, more security checks and eventually I'm standing in the public gallery at the House of Commons. The seating is slightly disorientating. The front couple of rows aren't accessible from the back but it takes a little bit of mental somersaulting to notice and so you're stuck searching around the seating area trying to find a way through. Eventually I took a seat at one corner with an angle across the all too familiar commons chamber, which is protected by large sheets of what looks like bullet proof glass that also has a noise cancelling effect. Fortunately audio from the space is piped through speakers on the back of the benches, near invisible behind brass grills which seem otherwise decorative.
There are screens fixed to the wall above the public gallery relaying the feed which also is also broadcast on BBC Parliament, mainly concentrating on whoever's speaking. The chamber was pretty empty, the bill under discussion is Technical and Further Education Bill proposed by Justine Greening, the The Secretary of State for Education. When I arrived, David Rutley, Tory representative for Macclesfield was speaking although I was too busy simply enjoying being in the space and watching the routine of the chamber to listen. As you enter, you're handed a card which explains some of the traditions on one side and the geography of the space on the other, although we're sat too far back to see anything but about a quarter of the space, certainly not the bar of the house.
Architecturally the public gallery is the same as the chamber. For some reason, I'd expected wooden benches ala many courtrooms, but the seating is just the same as in the chamber, which gives the space a sense of unity. Worth noting that the chairs aren't especially comfortable and like you often see with MPs who're there for a long session, I found myself sitting diagonally with my arm across the back. Which isn't to say there isn't plenty of legroom, but not enough to cross your legs and it's impossible to sit backwards which is philosophically important, I suppose. Would we want our MPs to forced to sit to attention or have the facility to recline. Not that the MPs did seem to be paying much attention anyway. Many of them were sat looking at their iProduct screens.
But don't ask me what this Bill was about other than something, something education. There was some "Order! Order!" when one of my favourite MPs, Lucy Powell, heckled her way into Hansard:
Progress in technical and further education and in apprenticeships is vital for the life chances of those seeking first-time employment. I therefore strongly support the Bill. I support it because it seeks to open clear, defined, aspirational paths to success, and it has the potential to help create much-needed parity of esteem between academic education and technical education, as has been talked about during the debate. That is further evidence that we on the Government Benches are the real workers party and that my right hon. Friend the Minister for Apprenticeships and Skills is at the vanguard of that movement.
There is nobody behind him, though!
Let us move on—[Interruption.]
Madam Deputy Speaker (Mrs Eleanor Laing)
Order. We cannot have sedentary remarks and remarks from behind the Chair. That is simply impossible.
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker.
I apologise, Madam Deputy Speaker. I want to put it on the record that it was I who was speaking from a sedentary position. The Minister is indeed at the vanguard, but the only other discernible member of the Government is the Minister for the Armed Forces, who is standing behind the Speaker’s Chair.If only all of life had a Hansard and everything you say one day could be accessible on the internet the next. You'd never need to remember anything. Although wasn't there a Black Mirror once about just this? Ok forget it.
Once you've sat down, there isn't an awful lot to see that's new if you've spent much time watching BBC Parliament. People shuffle in and out of the space constantly, both in the chamber itself and the public galleries, guided tours and groups of college students on what must be Politics courses. Most don't stay very long and neither did I, about ten or fifteen minutes. But there's something about being in a space, smelling the air, creating a memory. I can't deny despite my slightly frosty attitude to the main parties that I wasn't a bit starstruck on seeing Greening herself, Powell and Tristram Hunt in the chamber, not to mention Robert Halfron who was so impressive in Michael Cockerell's BBC documentary, Inside the Commons.
The House of Lords wasn't in session last night so I didn't get the chance to also see the snoozers. After leaving the Chamber I wasn't sure where else was open and quickly discovered not much after I attempted to walk towards a door only to quickly be chased after by a security guard who directed by back up towards Westminster Hall just in time to hear the seven o'clock chimes from inside the building, which didn't vibrate in the way I'd expected it to. Nevertheless, whenever I watch those feeds now, I'll have an idea of how it feels, rather than having to imagine it. The closest I thought I'd ever get was visiting the set used for television's First Among Equals and other projects at the old Granada Studios Tour in Manchester, yet there I was in the real thing last night.