Walking round the House of Commons, what strikes you isn’t what you see, but what you don’t see. All around you inside the gothic Palace of Westminster, icons and symbols from the past swirl around your head, drawing your imagination back into the depths of British history.
The eyes of William Pitt the Younger and Viscount Peel follow you from gold-framed paintings mounted against blood-red Pugin wallpaper in the Strangers Dining Room. In the Members Dining Room, the Royal Coat of Arms with its crowned English lion and chained Scottish unicorn cast a shadow over the medieval, arched doorway, bearing the sacred inscription Dieu et Mon Droit. And further down the narrow, oak-panelled passageway, with its rolling Pugin green carpet, you reach the Churchill Dining Room, with its 1965 oil painting of the great man lying in state in the ancient solemnity of Westminster Hall.
These ghosts of yesteryear and emblems of yore transport your mind back to an England that hardly exists anymore – an England of kings and courtiers, of revered statesmen and Empire. You start to imagine the feast for Anne Boleyn held in 1533 in Westminster Hall, the oldest building on the Parliamentary Estate, with Henry VIII watching eagerly from a window high above the doomed Queen.
Then your mind jumps to the coronation banquet of King James II in 1685, with thousands of dignitaries dining on patty pigeon, hogs tongues and sweet breads. Now your mind jumps further to January 23 1806 and you hear William Pitt the Younger declare on his deathbed the immortal last words, ‘I think I could eat one of Bellamy’s meat pies!’ – Bellamy being the deputy housekeeper of the House of Commons after whom the restaurant Bellamy’s in Parliament is named.
You then breathe in ash and soot and find yourself standing in the House of Commons just after the Great Fire of 1834, and all the debris is magically cleared away to be replaced by a new tea room, a smoking room, and kitchens ‘worse than being on board any Indian steamship’, as described by the manager of 1869 Mr Nicholes.
All at once you find yourself thrown into the 20th century, watching the grand opening of the Members’ Dining Room and Strangers’ Dining Room, both of which have large bay windows lit up by light refracting off the Thames. Now you’re sitting in a catering committee meeting, and its 1950, and the committee decides that ‘the cafeteria is unsatisfactory … the Strangers’ Bar uninviting … the tea room badly designed’ and that the House of Commons should be providing a ‘service … and not a business concern.’
Your mind zooms forward and its the mid-1980s, you can hear chatter and clatter, and you’re standing next to Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in the Members’ Tea Room, her favourite place to eat after PMQs, so one former MP said, as its where MPs would meet to discuss the politics of the day over mugs of tea and baked beans on toast. And you sense that the House of Commons is like a boarding school because of the desperately long hours and you laugh when you see one MP walking around the House at 2am in pyjamas and slippers as a protest against the fact he was still at work, or so the legend goes.
Now you’re thrust with a jolt back into the present day and the working hours for MPs have changed to be more family friendly so at night everyone just goes home; and you feel sympathy for the diligent army of staff who serve 8,000 people a day over the bars, restaurants and coffee shops in the Parliamentary Estate; and you marvel at how the food of the Commons now reflects the changing shape of Britain with jerk chicken being MPs’ favourite dish. And you walk out onto the terrace of the House of Commons, where you used to see Tony Benn smoking his pipe by the river, and you reflect on how Charles Dickens described this as ‘the best club in London’ and, more importantly, you think perhaps he was right.