All in all, a rather amusing year I thought. In 2015 there were a lot of jaunts to the continent, but 2016 — in true Brexit fashion — was the year of the domestic excursion (or ‘staycation’ if you’re a modern person). I also, through great cunning, managed to get to the theatre fairly often and even a jaunt or two to the opera.
Here are a few photos from the twelve months just past us, in no particular order. (more…)
EVERYONE was at the Opera last night. It was the final performance of a magnificent production of Il trittico, Puccini’s triptych of three one-act operas alluding to the Divine Comedy. While I go to the theatre fairly often I hadn’t been to the opera since many many moons ago when I was dating una Italiana who had a taste for it. These days, the Mad Architect is one of the handful of people I tend to go see things with. His tastes are similar to mine but he is easily irritated and always seems to pick a fight with some other member of the general public (or once, on the Eurostar, the barman – but it was actually deserved in that case). This can provide some intense amusement to the observer so long as you are prepared to disown him totally at a moment’s notice (which I have yet to do).
Anyhow, during the first interval we wandered out onto the open terrace – from whence smoking has since been banned – and who should we stumble upon but the charming and deeply fun Valentine Walsh, one of the finest art restorers in Europe, with a relation of hers. Then, but a few seconds later, our own roving reporter Alexander Shaw appeared with an old school friend. As I sometimes point out, London can feel like a delightfully small town. The Spectator’s Rod Liddle and Michael Portillo of ‘Great Railways Journeys’ fame were also in evidence, but we let them be.
But what of the opera? The first act, Il tabarro, is set on the banks of the Seine and was well sung but more than the singing I admired the highly architectural setting imagined by the mononomical set designer ‘Ultz’. (How one both derides and admires the arrogance of arrogating to oneself a single name – but then, like Hitler and Stalin, I myself am often known by surname alone.)
The second one-act opera in this triptych, Suor Angelica, was the real meat. Here is a deeply intense display of love and hatred, sin and repentance, compounding personal tragedy with the reality of mortal sin. Sadly we were deprived of the vision of the Blessed Virgin called for in Puccini’s original but it was surprising that director Richard Jones played the opera’s Catholicism straight and frank, without any of the usual modern snobbish sneering. Ermonela Jaho was powerful in the title role, convincing. Valentine was in tears.
But if Il trittico is like a three course meal then Gianni Schicchi is the delicious pudding. When Buoso Donati dies and leaves all his wealth to a monastery, his eight predatory relatives are forced to call upon the clever peasant Gianni Schicchi to use his worldly cunning to fake a new will. This is Italian farce at its most amusing but also its most beautiful and as Gianni includes the most well-known operatic song in the world – O mio babbino caro – it’s a crowd pleaser as well.
The Mad Architect noted that the English don’t really enjoy opera: they take it far too seriously, whereas the Neapolitans love it and join in the singing, even if they don’t know the words. Alexander thinks the Royal Opera House has become little more than a giant cruise ship for plutocrats and then descended into telling us his plan to sell Deptford to the French (or was it to Hong Kong?).
My only complaint was the surtitles, which often did not match the original Italian. This happens on Scandinavian crime dramas as well, in which non-blasphemous swear words are inaccurately translated as blasphemous English ones. But this is probably some contrived vogue in the realm of translators, that you mustn’t translate things as they are but to something somewhat similar but not quite the same, thus depriving you of the character of the original language.
What’s next on the agenda then? Sometime at the Old Vic, I think, and then something at the Almeida, and later on this year there’s Ryszard Kapuściński’s book on Haile Selassie, The Emperor – “I was working in the Ministry of Ceremonies then, Department of Processions…” – being done in a stage version at the Young Vic.
My old desk when I was working at The New Criterion in New York.
The bottle of Pimm’s — a gift from “Mr & Mrs Peperium” — was, alas, knocked over and broken by the cleaner.
Rose and Molly are two of my favourite people in the entire universe, and when they announced they were racing a tandem across the Cape Peninsula to raise money for the men’s charity Movember, how could one fail to get behind such an effort?
Movember is the charity that raises money for and awareness of men’s cancer (prostate, testicular, etc.), poor mental health, and physical inactivity amongst men. It turns out Molly happened to meet one of the global charity’s founders in a brewery not too long ago and was inspired to help out. Movember is most well known for encouraging men to grow a moustache and raise money during the month of November, but for obvious reasons this option is denied to Rose and Molly. And so instead they will be competing — on a tandem! — in the 2016 Cape Town Cycle Tour next month.
The girls have a blog going to publicise their training and efforts, as well as a JustGiving page to raise money, but they decided to throw a ‘Big Movember Lunch’ yesterday to raise extra dosh for the cause. This caused particular salivation in Cusackian quarters as both of them happen to be excellent cooks of the highest order, skills which draw many to their amusing parties in easterly bits of London.
So yesterday we satiated our voracious hunger at Movember’s UK headquarters in Exmouth Market where Molly and Rose treated us to culinary treats beyond one’s dreams — and Mark from Movember explained a little about the good work the charity does and how it’s expanded in recent years. The good cause and delicious food were only added to by the superb company Molly and Rose had assembled. If you have a shekel to spare, send them some love.
Tostadas with Guacamole and Black Beans and chorizo
Dill Scones with Smoked Salmon and Horseradish
Stilton and Pickled Pear Puffs
Mini Meatballs with Mango dip
Beetroot and Goats Cheese Tartlets
Gammon and Mustard Terrine on Sourdough or Rye Bread
Slow Cooked Chicken and Mushroom stew, Pomegranate and Quinoa Salad, Roasted Butternut Squash and Sweet Potato and Tzatziki on Beetroot and Buckwheat Pancakes
Rose and Pistachio Cheesecake
Petits Fours and Coffee
Sun, sand, champagne, Scotland: there’s not much more you could ever want, but to have an alignment of these four in the month of October is rare. It had been quite some time since the Cusackian feet had last graced the cobbles of the beloved ‘auld grey toun’ – the Royal Burgh of St Andrews – but a friend got in touch on a Monday morning with the provocative text “Scotland Friday?” I couldn’t resist. (more…)
Between the vernal equinox and its autumnal confrère tomorrow there has been perhaps an excess of fevered activity. Aside from the usual time in London, I have been in Amsterdam, the Wolds of Lincolnshire, the Essex seaside, the Pyrenees, Kent, Paris (much scrubbed up since my last stay), Chartres, Oxford, Hertfordshire, Buckinghamshire, Lebanon, Midlothian, Connacht, and Norfolk. And before Christmas I should have two trips to Rome.
Regardless, here are just a few photos from the past six months, arranged in roughly chronological order and lightly explained, in order to keep you up to speed. (more…)
It is truly a sad thing for a summer to end, and yet it is an inevitable part of the endless cycle of life. July was full of its annual rites: two weeks in Lebanon and then the traditional festivities associated with the return of the OMV contingent from Lourdes — jugs of Pimm’s at the Scarsdale followed by the manic dinner, drinks, dancing, and smoking at Pag’s late into the night. Miss S. had always avoided the Pag’s part of the festivities, decrying it as a futile attempt to prolong the jollity. She decided to come along this year, however, and enjoyed it so much she stayed well past two in the morning. In fact, I think she was still there when I left.
So it didn’t really seem like summer really kicked off until August. (more…)
THERE COMES A POINT in every young man’s life when his trust fund manager goes on holiday. It is fitting that what follows occurred during International Poverty & Homelessness Awareness Week and, certainly, I hope that my experience will raise awareness among the demographics concerned as to how they should conduct themselves.
Let me tell you about poverty: there is poverty, there is urban poverty, and there is urbane poverty. The story of my rapid regression through these strata starts in the billionaire’s playground that is Forte dei Marmi. I had already accepted the invitation when I realised I had blown my last €30 on a bottle of Frescobaldi (I’m not a wine snob, but I only buy from friends). We had arrived in Vieri’s 1988 Posche 911 and being a Friday night in early August, Mina’s Bussola club was chocked to the gunnels with a vast array of Eurotrash. There were refugees from Biarritz, Ibiza clubbers who got rich, Moscow clubbers who fell out with Putin, abstract artists, Botox-pumped bankers wives and industrialists’ daughters from Munich and Frankfurt, all vamped up on HRT, champagne, and Prozac. It was as raucous as the bombing of Dresden, and nearly as fun. Imagine someone had pumped laughing gas into the celebrity arrivals gate at Heathrow, and you’ll get the picture. (more…)
THE HOLY VALLEY cuts down like a gash in the earth, with the cathedral city of Bcharré on the clifftop, almost hanging off of it. One almost wonders if you started building at the other end of the town, it might force St Seba’s Cathedral off over into the deep beyond. There is something almost Lord of the Rings about the setting, a Levantine Minas Tirith, if only Tolkein had been a Maronite.
The Qadisha Valley (Ouadi Qadisha, وادي قاديشا, literally the “Holy Valley”) takes its name from the Aramaic word for saintly and for over a millennium its natural caves have provided shelter for hermits seeking solitude as well as others seeking refuge and safety. Evidence of human habitation dates back to the Paleolithic era, and the Qannubin Monastery here is said to have been founded by the Emperor Theodosius the Great in the fourth century. While this is the holiest ground of the Maronite Catholics, hermits living in these caves and in these monasteries have been Melchite, Nestorian, Armenian, Syrian Orthodox, and Ethiopian. When the Monastery of St Maron was sacked by Antiochene Monophysites, many monks fled to the Qadisha Valley, strengthening the presence of this Eastern church which has always remained in communion with Rome. For over five hundred years, the Maronite patriarch made Deir Qannubin his seat. (Since 1830 the Patriarchate has been based at Bkerké above the pleasant Mediterranean city of Jounieh).
It was a hot summer’s day when we arrived and as chance had it we couldn’t even get very far into Bcharré.
“A man has died. We can’t go on,” the driver mysteriously intones. (A funeral procession is underway).
Very well. We carry on down circuitously weaving through the outer-lying portions of the town, through a small necropolis, and then finally into the valley proper. While the Qadisha valley attracts many pilgrims and travellers, this is not some easy tourist route, though nor is it difficult as hiking goes (unless, like us, you have a partially blind Paralympian among your party).
Up and down you go amongst small rivulets and meandering paths joining and divorcing from your own, led by a guide who speaks neither French nor English (thank God our Lebanese friends were with us).
Eventually, having passed a considerable way down, and then up a little ways, we are taken to a cave which has been segmented with stone walls into a chapel.
Much to my surprise, murals still survive in this exposed environment, protected by the overhanging rock.
The iconoclastic damage looked quite recent, and our guide explained it probably dated from as recently as the Syrian occupation (1976–2005).
Monasticism began in the East, of course, and Western monasticism is a slightly different kettle of fish. While hermits once lived in these caves, almost all of today’s Qadisha monks are gathered into the formal Maronite communities (Baladites, Aleppians, and Antonins) or into the other non-Maronite monasteries in the valley.
Brushing the dust of the Qadisha Valley from my shoes at the end of the day, I wondered if the first monks slapped their sandals together, discarding the very same sand sixteen hundred years earlier after they finished their Liturgy of the Hours for the day (though I somehow doubt it).
Early evening sun illuminates the pendentives and architraves of the Maronite church. Discoloured prints of numerous saints — of East and West — crowd one of the few side altars. The Arabic numerals indicate the date of its dedication: 1971 — before the war.
Without internet in a remote village in northern Lebanon, elevation 500 ft, we are cut off from the outside world. Word reaches us of a military coup in Egypt. (I hate missing a coup!) The reactions are a mixture of relief and caution, and a little wonderment at how things must have moved very quickly. Curiosity is sparked as to what else is going on in the world outside Sourat.
Dappled sunlight. Unfamiliar saints. A lizard scurries past, its long processional tail trailing behind it.
D.G. of the Financial Times drops in and brings that commodity we most desire: news from elsewhere. I quiz him on the coup in Egypt, how it played out, how it was orchestrated, and what he thinks of it, but there is little time.
At night, reading Ian Fleming’s From Russia With Love on the terrace with a Gauloise and a bottle of Almaza. Two wolves cry in the distance and I remember hearing the snorting of a wild boar a few nights previous. One chased Emmanuel on his way back from ‘the Palace’ (as we have dubbed the Abouna’s house, where the honoured guests stay) and was shot and killed — the photos of the quarry being displayed on an iPhone handed round.
The night is punctuated by the sound of repeated explosions in the distance. Luckily these are fireworks — a particular Lebanese obsession. It seems symptomatic of the Lebanese mentality that — having spent so long being so close to death — it is necessary to celebrate being alive. One may as well have a good time, and the Lebanese are experienced at having a good time.
In the car on the way to the pharmacy, Mahe our indispensable handyman (and a refugee) talks to Niall about Syria. “Syria. Big war. Boom boom. Muslims fight Assad. Assad fight Muslims. Big war.”
BUILD! BUILD! BUILD! Beirut is abuzz with cranes and construction and wood boarding over the site of new projects. That tower wasn’t there last year, was it? No. And doubtless by next year new spires will scrape the sky over St George’s Bay, where the saint slew the dragon. Is he dormant there beneath the waters still? Something lurks perpetually beneath the Lebanon, occasionally raising its head above the surface in open violence. Just then a Hezbollah building in the southern suburbs is bombed. The list of assassinations in this country’s history is long and depressing, from that of Maarouf Saad which (arguably) sparked the fifteen-year Civil War, and of course the former prime minister Rafik Hariri’s killing in 2005. Even since Hariri’s death, no fewer than twelve Lebanese public figures have been assassinated.
Have you ever been to Rafik Hariri’s tomb? It’s a slightly vulgar thing, still shrouded in its temporary marquee, giving it a somewhat transient feel, as if it might up sticks and away to Sidon or Tripoli at a moment’s notice. We nipped in the other day after a trip to the adjacent mosque he had built, completed in 2007 with its brilliant blue dome. The mosque’s design is traditional but not entirely perfect. The massive crystal chandelier hanging from the vast central dome is impressive but perhaps a bit much. Somehow, we are deprived of ancillary spaces: going through the main entrance one feels a certain lack of procession. No narthex, no nave, you just take off your shoes, step through the open doors, and are there. Why not one of those spacious courtyards which grace so many older mosques? Land in Beirut doesn’t come cheap.
Of course, when it was completed it was noticed that the minarets overshadowed the campanile of the adjacent Maronite cathedral, which meant the Catholic bell-tower had to be rebuilt to be at least the same height as the Sunni minaret, or perhaps an inch taller. Just to be on the safe side.
We had arranged to meet G. and the others twenty minutes later at the Grand Café on the Place de l’Étoile, which was a silly idea. A wedding was finishing at St George’s, the Greek cathedral, as we rolled up and we joined in the applause for the happy couple when they exeunted the church. In between, however, we nipped in to Hariri’s tomb, or perhaps shrine is the more appropriate word. It is choc-a-bloc with oversized portrait photographs of the smiling premier in his prime — a mix of political, semi-tribal, and religious devotion. The soldiers guard it nonchalantly and seem glad for some visitors on a Saturday afternoon. One presumes plans are being made for some grand mausoleum to supersed the transient tent with its faint hint of a vagabond yurt. We had to move on to a rather trendy place in Gemmayze, Mo stopping along the way as he ran into friends.
These nuns are magnificent: it is impossible to respect them enough. They do an impossible task taking care of so many physically and mentally handicapped, on very little resources. They take anyone and everyone under their wing — Christian, Muslim, Druze, whatever. Their founder, Abouna Yaacoub (Père Jacques), is up for canonisation and the fruits of his foundation are still flowering. We’ve visited a number of the care homes they run — in Antelias, Dar al Kamar, etc. — and while the conditions are very basic I think the love these nuns have shines through. They have devoted their entire lives to serve these men and women who often, ignored and forgotten, have no one else. They are also completely clued in; you wouldn’t be able to get anything past them. The Mother Superior’s mobile rings, she answers and buzzes off away to put something right.
Arabic is a beautiful language, though at its most beautiful when spoken by women. (But then: isn’t every language?)
“Our relationship to France is completely different. We were never a colony, only a protectorate, a mandate. My grandparents still refer to France as the mother country.” Still, the decline of the French language here is noticeable, as is the concurrent advance of English. The new global tongue dominates billboards and advertisements, not to mention the radio. In some places in the countryside, I’ve seen new streetsigns in Arabic first and English second: no French. (Beirut seems to have escaped this phenomenon).
If Lebanon ever loses the French language, it will lose part of itself. But the Lebanese, who have many admirable qualities, are expert businessmen — merchanting is in their blood — and English is the language of business. Not just business, but culture too: if you’re given a handbill advertising some small art show or exhibition, it’s invariably in English.
An evening party at a family home in Bsous, on the hills overlooking the capital. Everything is simply perfect. R, S, and I sit down amidst the grove of olive trees and immediately a small table with nibbly things is moved to just before us for our convenience. Beer, wine, and merriment flow and while the pool shines glows eerily as the lights of Beirut twinkle before us. Our hosts speak little English but we make do with French. P.A. claims (in that way that he often does) that P.’s father is so brilliant he was Minister of Finance to both Lebanese governments during the Civil War. When was this house built? 1890s? 1910s? It’s hard to tell. It suffered during the war but has been restored well and sensibly. Its location is beyond envy and I only wish we were here during the day to see the view across Beirut to the Mediterranean beyond.
It was an unusually warm evening for a night in March, which is to say that it was not horrendously cold and you could tarry a while outside without fear of frostbite. Given the nature of his job, Nicholas is not frequently free to socialise, as he has to be doing certain things in certain places at certain times, which sometimes involves being in Greece or a sudden trip to Anguilla (“I’m not doing any more Caribbean islands — I’m fucking tired of them.”). But when he does manage to free himself from indentured servitude, we often find ourselves at the Phoenix on Smith Street.
All sensible right-minded people love the Phoenix and hate the Phoenix. It is a wonderful place, comfortable and delightful, yet somehow attracts the very worst and most tiresome lot of humanity. “Look at these estate agents,” Nicholas moans in the put-on snobbery which has become one of his traits. “They all live in Fulham I’m sure.” (Which is rich, as I live even beyond Fulham). Kit and H. were dining there with Ivo & la B a week or two earlier (or later) and such was the tiresomeness of the crowd that Kit texted Ivo “What a bunch of overgrown yuppies” (or something along those lines).
It’s delightful during the day, and there was one afternoon not long ago when, sauntering down the King’s Road, I ran into Prof. Pink on his way to John Lewis and managed to waylay him into an enjoyable conversation at the Phoenix over two large glasses of the house white. But during the evening the crowd gets so horrendously up-itself that it almost becomes an attraction in itself. “It’s ten o’clock on a Friday night. Shall we drop in to Smith Street and see how awful everyone is?” The experience ends up infecting one with a reverse snobbery almost as snobbish and pretentious as the pretentious snobbery one is reacting against in the first place.
As I was saying, it was a warm evening and Nicholas managed to find an ideal parking spot within sight just round the corner on Woodfall Street. I think it was a Friday or a Saturday so naturally the place was packed inside and I’m partial to the occasional Dunhill so enjoying an exceptionally refreshing cider outdoors with a cigarette was the obvious way forward. I lit up and Nikolai — very generously, as I’m sure it was my round — went inside to brave the crowds in search of drink. Now the curious thing about the smoking ban is that it has turned previously insular cells of humanity — smokers, that is — into a sort-of fraternité universelle. People who have absolutely nothing in common but for being at the same drinking establishment now, for better or worse, through the medium of tobacco, enjoy a recognisable commonality which can frequently turn conversational.
A little Spanish man with a moustache had a party inside celebrating his birthday — 31st, I think — and he ventured outdoors for a smoke and somehow or other conversation was initiated. A pleasant enough fellow but his chat was unexceptional and was suddenly interrupted by the arrival by cab of two tall-ish and rather fashionable Azeri girls, who may have been friends of friends of his or may have had nothing to do with him at all. Being a chatty Spaniard (and perhaps a bit ambitious) he engaged them in conversation almost as soon as they alighted their cab.
After the innocuous pleasantries of introduction all round he eventually asked the Azeri duette, “So where do you girls live?” “Knightsbridge” they replied. “Ah, cool, I’m in Knightsbridge a lot,” our Spanish friend replied as Nicholas, turning away, launched upon a severe, disapproving rolling of the eyes. “Why?” I interjected, somewhat mischievously pricking the balloon of his pretentiousness. After all: what possible excuse could anyone who neither works nor lives there reasonably have for being in Knightsbridge a lot? He turned towards me and with an irritated smile said “My friend, you are too curious; you ask too many questions.”
The Azeri girls remained unconvinced of him, and the birthday boy, having finished his cigarette (which I think came from my pack), sheepishly returned inside where his presumed friends had doubtless continued the celebration of his birth in his brief absence.
But we still all love the Phoenix.
Friends are continually sending me postcards from Rome, such that they have gradually accumulated in a pile in my room. An English friend sent me one, and then an Irish friend saw it while visiting and, doubtless moved by the spirit of one-up-manship, sent one himself, whereupon the first friend sent another, to be followed by the most recent one (which arrived today) of the Chiesa di S. Agostino in the Campo Marzio. A miniature St Peter’s Basilica was recently added to the mix as well.
My written views of the city you will have to wait for (presuming they ever see the light of day), but here are a few photographic impressions from my jaunt to the Kaiserliche Hauptstadt. (more…)
Culinary skills are not prominent among my varied talents, though I was pleased that the guests at the last dinner party I held in my riparian West London abode received the evening rather well. (If the food was only so-so at least the thought behind the choice and mixture of guests was appreciated). In my limited (but slowly expanding) experience, I have found haggis a rather useful addition to the repertoire.
T’other day I cooked a haggis for supper, alongside some chips and peas — an unjustly neglected vegetable I can’t help but feel. (Boring old botanists insist the pea is actually a fruit, but never you mind). Unfortunately I lacked a suitable gravy or sauce, so had to make do with ketchup and mayonnaise (plus a dash of HP).
But what to do with the leftover haggis the next day? I tried spreading it on oatcakes but that was far too dry — oatcakes must be reserved for pâté, it seems. So instead I crumbled bits of haggis into a pot of tomato sauce, dobbed it with oregano, some mixed herbs, sea salt, and freshly crushed peppercorns, and enjoyed a surprisingly delicious meal which I’ve decided must be christened linguine alla scozzese.
From a Pimlico rooftop, Friday afternoon.
At lunch, Friday.
A Saturday Mass in St Wilfrid’s Chapel, the Oratory.
A surprisingly sunny afternoon, yesterday in Ennismore Gardens.
IT WAS LATE summer, neither particularly warm nor cold, and a bit rainy. I hadn’t seen Nicholas in a while but he wasn’t particularly keen on travelling into London. “Why not meet in Winchester?” he suggested, and, never having been to England’s former capital, I thought it was a good idea. I popped on the tube to Waterloo, got on a train, and in no time at all was in the county town of Hampshire. It’s a humanely size town, admirably located, and most famous for its medieval cathedral.
The thieving Protestants, not content with stealing all the cathedrals we built throughout the width and breadth of the land, highten the insult by charging admission to these former shrines and places of worship. I had arranged to meet Nicholas in the Cathedral, though, and the blighters got a good £6.50 out of me. I had a good wander round, though.
These mortuary chests contain the remains of the Saxon royalty of the kingdom of Wessex and later England.
Norman architecture is woefully underappreciated, and might form a useful style to return to today given its relative simplicity. So much Norman architecture was destroyed and replaced by Gothic during later periods of medieval prosperity, but at Winchester the Norman transepts remain.
William of Waynflete, buried here, was a high-flyer in his day. He was, varyingly, Bishop of Winchester, Headmaster of Winchester College, Provost of Eton, Lord Chancellor of England, and founded Magdalen College, Oxford. Not a bad innings.
Richard Foxe chose a more macabre memorial, but enjoyed similar success in this world: he was Bishop of Exeter, then of Bath & Wells, then of Durham, and finally of Winchester. He was Lord Privy Seal and founded Corpus Christi College at Oxford. Foxe and Erasmus sometimes wrote to eachother, and his elaborate crozier is on display at the Ashmolean.
The tomb of Henry Cardinal Beaufort is my favourite memorial in the cathedral. Beaufort — a Plantagenet — was Dean of Wells, Chancellor of the University of Oxford, Bishop of Lincoln, Lord Chancellor of England, and finally Cardinal Bishop of Winchester. He was a sometime papal legate for Germany, Hungary, and Bohemia, and most famously presided over the trial of St Joan of Arc.
One of the walls was inscribed with graffiti.
The cathedral is also the final resting place for the earthly remains of Hampshire native Jane Austen, but nevermind that.
Tours of the College were available, but we decided to leave it for another visit, and went on a wander in the direction of the Hospital of St Cross.
The Hospital of St Cross and Almshouse of Noble Poverty is the oldest charitable institution in England and the largest medieval almshouse. The church could be a small cathedral in and of itself, but as we arrived an interment was taking place, so we thought it best that it, too, was left for another day.
A Bill Committee meeting in one of the richly decorated committee rooms of the Palace of Westminster. The Minister is standing, rattling on in an explanatory defence of his government’s bill. Ostensibly these committees exist so that MPs can examine legislation in line-by-line detail and raise questions about whatever points or aspects they believe might cause problems if enacted.
“The question is that Clause 15 stands as part of the Bill.”
The Chairman, an MP of considerable experience, presides, assisted by a retinue of civil servants. He chews a pen and stokes his brow, frustrated by the boredom of the subject at hand. He is perhaps thinking of the weekend and the extreme unlikeliness that he will get down to the coast, and his sailboat, given the inclement weather.
A Scottish Member rises on a Point and the Minister yields the floor. Concerns are expressed about the precise meaning of Subclause 36 Paragraph C and insinuations made about potential costs. The Minister rises and suggests the Member’s criticism is excessively harsh. He then concedes he may have been imprecise in his explanation of the process involved in Subclause 36 Paragraph C.
The Doorkeeper, absurdly and arcanely attired in white tie, tails, and with the royal arms hanging from a gold chain round his neck, wears thick-rimmed glasses and leans back on a desk in a carefree fashion, blissfully paying little attention to the point the Hon. Gentleman has made in response to the proposed amendment.
“Just for the sake of clarity, we are not now talking about Amendment 13?”
“I have no intention of moving Amendment 13.”
“On a Point of Order then, Mr Chair, is it proper that the Member discuss Amendments 21 and 26 when he is not moving Amendment 13, which is the first Amendment to be considered?”
The Chairman corrects that it is perfectly alright for the Member to discuss whichever amendment he would like.
There are at least eleven civil servants in the room. One on the side hands a paper to another. He reads it and nods approvingly before passing it on to the civil servant next to the Chair. Another Member rises to discuss Amendment 54 Clause C.
“There’s an important role for an independent body to exercise scrutiny over this area and it would be wise for it to have a statutory basis.”
The entire proceedings are overshadowed by the continual sound of shuffling papers. One Member doodles on the day’s order-paper. A journalist leaves. The Member stops doodling and consults his iPhone. Then the Minister is grateful for that point. He is surprised but aware, since he was given this junior ministerial role, by the frequency with which this matter has arisen and has spoken before the relevant Select Committee.
Another Member’s face is illuminated by the glow of the iPad he is leaning over.
“Now before I become too Churchillian,” the Minister continues, “I think we’d better turn to the matter of the Amendments. Now the Honourable Member has, perhaps understandably, raised the point…”
A female Member smiles and shares a jest with one of her party colleagues. The Doorkeeper’s shift ends and he is replaced by one of his bearded confrères. The civil servant beside the Chairman folds a paper and stares unthinkingly into the distance.
“In respect for the Hon. Gentleman’s desire for continuing debate and discussion with the relevant authorities…”
“He hasn’t addressed my point about Subsection 2!”
The portly Doorkeeper moves with surprising adroitness in delivering a note from a Member to a civil servant across the room. The Minister’s PPS hands him a relevant paper. The Chairman smiles in response to one of the Minister’s light-hearted remarks.
“I’m sure the Minister will agree that this is not the beginning of the end but merely the end of the beginning.”
“If only!” a Member interjects.
It is 3:32pm. The MPs will be here for hours yet.
Such has been the massive exodus from Facebook that I am forced to return to my previous practice of sharing random photographs via this platform. I suppose it’s just as well, as it will assure relatives in other places that I am actually alive. Keen observers will note that there are, in fact, more than ten photos, but nevermind. Apologies for the lack of explanation and the occasional in-joke (that’s in-joke… with a ‘Y’).
Burns Supper, Fulham.
Reunion of Scottish University Students, outside the Brompton Oratory.
Me and Johnny at Lourdes.
Party chez Jabre in the Lebanese mountains.
Marian procession, Malta pilgrimage, Walsingham. (Photo: Stephanie Kalber)
Autumn Drinks afterparty (disaster!) & Chabrouh fundraiser the next night.
A midwinter night’s run-into on the KR.
Yuletide, the West Country (…with a ‘Y’).
The Photo of 2012: Don Finiano convinces our favourite Member of Parliament to try out his new motorbike.