Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Visiting the Houses of Parliament

One of the very cool free things you can do if you live in London is get a guided tour of the Houses of Parliament. You just contact your local MP, which can be done online, request a visit giving your preferred dates and times and, if my experience is typical, a special permit will arrive to give you the tour you've requested.

It's many years since I last did the tour, as a fairly young child that was part of a school party that had travelled up from Southampton. All I can really remember is that our local Tory representative James Hill MP came to meet us all (quite impressive given that we were all too young to vote) and then someone else showed us around on a rather long, history-laden tour that went on too long. My memory could be playing tricks on me because we appreciate different things as children and adults, but I don't remember there being much about it that was fun.

I'd booked the tour, which I did yesterday (Monday), for my American friends who are over here on vacation (getting four extra passes thankfully wasn't a problem) and had resigned myself to a dull morning experience for the sake of my friends. Fortunately, the tour was anything but, and unless my memory is playing tricks, things have been drastically improved since I last did the tour, probably close to 35 years ago (God, now I officially know I'm old when I start talking about events from 35 years ago as if they were yesterday).

This time round I didn't get to meet my local MP, but the tour itself turned out to be an excellent, entertaining 90 minutes. Our tour guide gave us some of the history I remember from that childhood visit, but it came much more alive because it was delivered, buried in lots of funny stories and anecdotes. We may just have been lucky because the guide - Bill Snaps was his name I think - was a retired former door keeper for the House of Commons, but I think they have learnt that they need to entertain on the tours as well as inform and hopefully all the tours will be up to the same high standard.

The House of Commons was MUCH smaller than I'd imagined and it was fun to stand where Blair usually stands for Question Time, and bang a fist on the little podium box, beautifully inscribed with a message saying it's a gift from the people of New Zealand. On the tour we learnt where the expressions "toe the line" and "it's in the bag" came from, that Dennis Skinner always goes to prayer when he has a question to ask - because that's the only way you can pre-book a seat in the House of Commons, and he knows which seats have the best positions for the TV cameras, and lots of other stuff besides. It's a definite highlight of all the different 'free stuff' that's available in London, so if you haven't done it I suggest getting online and asking your local MP for a tour.

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