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THE FIRST WEEK AS A NEW BOY A LONG TIME AGO
Piece on House of Lords for Nelson Leader by Tony Greaves – May 2010
Ask people about the Houses of Parliament and most of them know it’s next
to the River Thames. What many people don’t realise – I didn’t until last
week – is that at this point the river flows from south to north.
So the building itself is lined up north-south and not east-west as you
might expect. The big clock tower which contains Big Ben is at the
northern end. But why does this matter?
The first very real problem for a new boy or girl is finding your way
around inside the building. It’s a huge maze of corridors, rooms,
chambers, galleries, halls and lobbies, and open courtyards.
The Lords is at the south end, the Commons in the northern half. The main
corridors all run north-south, with the river along the eastern side. The
first trick I learned as a mountaineer was to take my compass!
Before you can do anything as a new Lord you have to be introduced into
the House. The ceremony used to be more medieval and convoluted, 17th
century at any rate, with much kneeling and doffing of fancy hats. It was
simplified a couple of years ago, but it still seemed like an ordeal.
You need two supporters, who have to be peers of the same rank as
yourself, which means no earls or viscounts, just “plain” barons or
baronesses. I was supported by two old Liberal friends, Lord (Geoff)
Tordoff and Baroness (Sally) Hamwee.
The ceremony involves a procession through the House from north to south,
with everyone dressed up in robes and uniform. The authorities lend you a
set of red robes, a bit like a big ungainly dressing gown though most
people don’t add the ermine trimming to their dressing gowns!
As well as the new peer and the two supporters, the procession includes
Garter King of Arms dressed up in his colourful heraldic outfit, and the
Gentleman Usher of Black Rod, Black Rod for short, all in black and
carrying his mace.
You proceed at a slow and rather solemn pace, all five paces apart, to the
table in the centre of the House. You hand in your writ of summons to the
official stationed there and he reads out a long ornate document called
the Letters Patent. I confess I was not listening to a word.
Then the new Peer reads out the Oath from a large card or in the case of a
non-religious person like me may choose to affirm. Again I read it out in
something of a daze and I cannot tell you what I said. Perhaps, for a
latent republican, that’s just as well!
The three peers then line up in the middle of the House and bow (nod of
the head) to the Cloth of Estate behind the Throne before setting off down
what is known as the spiritual side of the House – it’s where the Bishops
As you pass the Lord Chancellor at the Woolsack you shake hands with him,
a curiously modern thing to do, and you hear a strange and sudden noise as
the peers present growl their greeting to you as a new member. Then you
troop off out into the Prince’s Chamber and go back to the Queen’s Robing
Room where you get rid of your fancy outfit, and it’s all done.
The nice part was the trip to London on the morning train from Skipton and
Keighley with Heather and our daughter Helen, and some of our Liberal
Democrats from Pendle – Alan and Sharon Davies, Safdar Hussain and Banna
Bibi, David Whipp, Doris and Tim Haigh – to meet up in London with a few
family and old friends and come to have luncheon as they call it and watch
the ceremony followed by an old-fashioned cruise down the river to Tower
They told me afterwards that our MP Gordon Prentice came and sat in the
gallery reserved for members of the “Other Place”. I suspect he was hoping
I might trip up over my robes, but I was grateful to have him there
The rest of the week? Sitting in the chamber getting the feel of the
House, finding my way round the building (more map and compass work), and
one or two really important jobs. I got myself a badge and a peg in the
cloakroom. I managed to get a locker and a pass for the car park if I’m
ever daft enough to drive to London. And I found my way out!
There’s a brilliant library and there’s a strong rumour they will loan me
a lap-top, but no desk or office for at least six months.
But I’ve survived the first week and discovered it’s really quite a
strange place. Now down to some serious business.