England, 1981, Part 7

London, Saturday, 3/21/81

We really needed some rest, particularly Cheryl, so we slept late and had a lazy morning of coffee and conversation with Diane and Tom. Around 1:00 we headed off for Westminster Palace, where they have tours every Saturday. The tour began with the Queen’s Robing Room, where she puts on her robes to open Parliament. Westminster Palace (the original one) was a royal palace and residence. During the reign of Henry VIII the Parliament was first allowed to use parts of it, and it gradually became almost entirely a Parliament House. Nevertheless it is still the seat of the Royal government. The only throne in England is here, in the House of Lords, and it is from Westminster that the monarch officially reigns. The Queen comes here every November to open the session of Parliament. She puts on her robes in the Robing Room, which is decorated with paintings depicting scenes from the life of King Arthur, each picture portraying some event that exemplified the virtues of this semi-mythical Cornish tribal leader. The reigning monarch is supposed to reflect on these virtues, which every good monarch should have, such as mercy, religion, etc.

The Queen then walks down the Royal Gallery, which is filled with portraits of England’s monarchs. The only exceptions are two large paintings depicting the battles of Trafalgar and Waterloo, because if England had not won those battles there would not be monarchy in England today. The Queen then enters the House of Lords, where she reads a speech written by the House of Commons outlining the legislative plans for the session. She then leaves the Palace, without entering the House of Commons. In the House of Lords she sits upon her only throne (the other chairs she sits in, which may look like thrones, are called chairs of state).

Westminster Palace is divided into two sections, one-half for the House of Commons, the other for the House of Lords. The two are seperated by the Central Lobby. Through a corridor on either side are lobbies for each House, and then the Chambers for each. Any person has the right to call his M.P. into the Commons lobby to urge some action on him, or to criticize some action he’s taken. This is the origin of both the term and the practice of lobbying. Both chambers are very similar in layout, with visitors galleries open to the public. There are no closed sessions of Parliament — everything is open to the public. However they must certainly have ways dealing privately outside the chamber.

The real political power in England is the House of Commons. The House of Lords is essentially an advisory group, although their advice is often taken since they are not elected and so are insulated from public pressure. The Lords may suggest amendments to any bill that does not concern finance or taxation (that being the sole prerogative of Commons), and Commons can either accept the amendments or wait twelve months and then resubmit the bill, which the Lords must then accept as is. However, Lords can use this device to kill a bill if an election is near, since unfinished business dies with the old Parliament, and all legislation must begin anew with the incoming Parliament. Of course the incoming Parliament may be of a different political complexion than the old one. All bills also have to be signed by the reigning monarch to become law, but since 1707 no monarch has refused to sign a bill duly passed by Parliament.

Commons and Lords, with very few exceptions, never meet together or deal directly with each other. They communicate only by means of formal legislation. The Queen may enter the House of Lords, although in practice does so only for the ceremonial opening of Parliament. But no monarch has ever entered the House of Commons. A royal sceptre is placed on the table in front of the Speaker of the House to symbolize the royal authority, and all legislation is made in the name of the Queen.

Voting in Commons is rather interesting. There are no voice votes and no electronic aids. When a vote is taken, the House is divided, with members filing into one of two lobbies, the Aye lobby and the No lobby, depending on how they wish to vote. They are given eight minutes to assemble. Bells ring all over the Palace to announce this. Members who live within eight minutes walk of the Palace may have a bell in their homes, and bells are installed in the more popular restaurants around the Palace. Once assembled, they file past two clerks, one for A-K, the other for L-Z, to whom they must give their names and show their faces (In the past people tried to rig votes by having ringers go through and mumble something while keeping a handkerchief in front of their face). The names are crossed off on a list and a tally is made. A one vote difference is sufficient to decide any question. There is thus a complete voting record for every M.P., which his constituents may examine.

Westminster Palace is the site of the Star Chamber, but this was not on our tour. But we did see Westminster Hall, which is the only part of the original Palace of Westminster. First constructed by William II in 1097 – 1099, it was reconstructed in its present form by Richard II between 1394 – 1399, and has survived both the fire of 1834 and the bombing during World War II. The main point of architectural interest is its hammer-beam ceiling., which they claim was the first of its kind, and is today the largest wooden ceiling still in existence. Westminster Hall is considered to be the birthplace of English justice, since this was the place where the kings would come to deliver judgement. Hundreds of people at a time came here to plead before the king to rule in their favor, or to ask for mercy. This hall is the site of some of the most famous trials in history, including those of Thomas More (1535) and King Charles I (1649). It is the place where English monarchs lie in state upon their death. The only other person to be so honored here was Winston Churchill.

After touring the Palace we walked along the embankment to Trafalgar Square, then up Haymarket, where I bought a beautiful leather tobacco pouch at the firm of Fribourg and Treyer, which has been on this site since the 18th c. We looked for a film show called London Experience at Piccadilly Circus, which we had heard was very good, but unfortunately it was closed down for the season.

We continued up Regent Street, window shopping, and had coffee and pastry at a Swiss confectioners called Verrey’s, on Regent Street just south of Oxford Circus. This place also has a long history, and we can enthusiastically recommend it for rest and refreshment. We filled out some postcards there, and then walked down Oxford Street to Soho Square, where we made a real discovery. Just south of Soho Square are lots of restaurants of different kinds. We selected for our evenings pleasure the Rasa Sayang, an Indonesian restaurant at 22 Bateman Street. We ordered a la carte, and had a wonderful meal. Cheryl had Lonton soup, a spicy soup with vegetables, and orange chicken with coconut rice and mixed vegetables. I had fish ball soup, Malaysian fish curry, and Singapore beef curry with coconut rice and spicy pickled vegetables. For desert we had the highly recommended Malaysian shaved ice. The entire meal was delicious, one of the best, and the tab reasonable at £14.40. I should also mention the decor, which is very clean, with white walls, butcher block tables and hanging plants. Very nice.

After dinner, we rushed down to the Piccadilly Theater to see “Educating Rita”, a production of the Royal Shakespeare Company. The play, with only two characters, concerns a working class woman, about 26, in Liverpool, who decides that there is more to life than hair-styling and enrolls in the Open University. It is very funny, but also very true to its characters. We enjoyed it immensely.

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