The Dominion, Friday, June 26, 1925. p. 10.
Peeps at Parliament: "Novitia" in the Ladies' Gallery — Impressions of Opening Day
Great statesmen, it appears, have some kind of uncanny influence over that most unreasonable fowl, the Wellington weathercock, which, charm she never so wisely, is denied to the mere holiday-maker. Yesterday, the date of the opening of Parliament, was one of those still, silver-grey afternoons which must sometimes visit old London when the Lord Mayor and all his red-robed aldermen go driving in state through the streets. Over the facade of Parliament Buildings the flags hung listlessly, with none of the wild disorder in their ranks which usually marks state occasions in the city of southerly busters [sic]. The steps leading up to the big marble doorway were resplendent in a green awning and a most imposing red carpet. Somehow I couldn't nerve myself to tread on that carpet. It seemed destined for the feet of great men and large ladies. So I walked gingerly up the extreme outer edge of the steps, and entered the building.
Even in the entrance hall there was that peculiar, waiting-on-tiptoe atmosphere which invades an empty ballroom an hour before the lights go up and the dance begins. An orderly appeared from nowhere. (Nobody has ever yet seen an orderly enter or leave a room: you just turn round and they're there, and the moment you look the other way they disappear in a puff of smoke.) I clung to him—mentally, that is—as a drowning man does to a lifebuoy. There are corridors in that building in which a man could lose himself and never be seen again until finally his skeleton was discovered and carefully transported to the museum at the extreme end of the building. Indeed, there have been several well-authenticated instances of this…. But the orderlies, thank goodness, are nearly always with us, and are quite prepared to lead our steps in the way whither they should go. One of these days I may see the session when some real humanitarian will introduce a system of sheep-dogs and crooks for orderlies[.]
It is with a feeling of solemnity almost amounting to awe that one enters the gallery of the Legislative Council and timidly secretes oneself behind a convenient marble pillar.1 At least, that's how I did it. The Council Chamber is built on a scale calculated to impress the innocent bystander with a sense of her almost incredible insignificance. But by degrees the cold perspiration on her brow dries automatically, and she begins to see the true stateliness of the place.
Here, too, is the same sense of anticipation—rows upon rows of empty chairs, cushioned couches, all ready cleared for action, and little carved wooden doors, looking as if they were waiting for someone to say "Open Sesame." The Chamber, lit with swinging lamps, is full of the same dim, warm-tinted light which shines through stained-glass windows in a cathedral.
Presently, by slow degrees, the Ladies' Gallery begins to fill. Who says that we are the frivolous sex? On every chair is plastered a grim and forbidding "Reserved" notice. Now and again some uniformed official can be heard saying, "Impossible, Madam!" to some disgruntled late-comer.
One by one the more favoured ladies slip silently into their seats; yes, silently. Here at least is no tapping of little high-heeled shoes, no frivolous and empty chatter. Parliament is the last stronghold of man's old supremacy. There, and nowhere else, the modern woman "Speaks when she's spoken to, turns in her toes, does what she's bid, or out she goes!"2 It is the kind of place where one sneezes in an undertone.
By the way, here in the Ladies' Gallery3 are a gallant and charming few who refuse to be swayed by the whims and fancies of fashion. I had thought that, fashionably speaking, the ostrich was deader than the dodo. But here one sees again the plumed cascades which helped to make the grande dame of the stately days.4 Equally to the fore are earnest young representatives of modern times—bobbed and business-like young women who probably intend to take Parliament in hand and tidy it up one day.
Something is happening down in the depths of the Chamber. Two soldiers, with a glitter of medals about them, stand rigidly to attention at one of the little doors. It seems strange to see the familiar khaki in this abode of dress suits and dignity. In the dim light they look unreal, like figures from a story book.
You know the sound that a telephone bell makes when there's a particularly irate subscriber at the other end of it? Just such a sound galvanises the Whispering Gallery. The tiny silken frou-frou of skirts stops, and everyone is mentally on tip-toe.
Down in the Chamber doors spring open as if by magic. Slowly, and with vast decorum, the members of the Legislative Council—fathers and grandfathers of our country—take their seats. Somehow I had expected them to look a little more grave, careworn, and disapproving. Most of them appeared perfectly cheerful—almost as if they thought that the bad old world was doing as well as could be expected.
Another ripple of excitement in the gallery. Two gentlemen in pale green cravats and superb white waistcoats take the floor, and bow to each other as deeply as the waistcoats will let them. A stentorian voice calls "Mr. Speaker!" in a tone which will brook no denial. Through a suddenly opened door one catches a glimpse of uniform. For a moment the proceedings cease being picturesque and become splendid. There is a metallic clinking of swords as the Governor-General and his retinue enter the Chamber.5 Their scarlet uniforms and plumed helmets make mere women in the gallery sigh for the days of chivalry, when men always looked like that. I'm afraid most of us have a depraved taste for pageants.
And where, may I ask, is the woman who would presume to be impertinent to a man with a wig? (A court wig, I mean, not the marcel-waved kind affected by the clandestinely bald.) The Speaker, in his iron-grey wig and flowing gown, is quite as impressive a figure as the gentlemen in scarlet.6
But I think that the hero of the day is really the Man with the Mace. I almost said the Mace with the Man. If it's as heavy as it looks, that majestic instrument of law and order must weigh tons. And the gallant Sergeant-at-Arms held it throughout the proceedings as though it were nothing more troublesome than a bayonet.
There is a faint "H-s-s-s-h" in the Gallery as the Governor-General begins his Speech.7 Everyone sits up straight, and frowns disapprovingly when her next-door neighbour ventures to blow her nose. Then, suddenly as it began, the quiet voice ceases, and the silence breaks up into a thousand whispers. The ceremony is ended.
Later, one looks, for a moment, into the House of Representatives, with its high-backed upholstered chairs which seem to say, "Business is Business."8 Members bob up and down again like jacks-in-boxes, greatly desirous of catching the Speaker's eye. Already the brand-new wastepaper baskets, where the bad bills go when they die, are beginning to fill. There is something rather pathetic about those waste-paper baskets…
"The House is adjourned." The last lingering stragglers make their way from the Gallery. Next week there will be no uniforms, no pomp and very little ceremony. The game will be on in earnest.
"Well, now, blow wind, swell billow,
and swim bark!
The storm is up and all is on the
1 The Legislative Council was New Zealand's upper house. It was abolished in 1951.
2 I have been unable to trace this allusion.
3 Dominion: Gallary.
7 The Governor-General's speech can be found in Hansard 206: 1-3.
8 A small amount of business was conducted in the House of Representatives on June 25; see Hansard 206: 4.
9 William Shakespeare, Julius Caesar, act V, scene i, lines 67-68.
Cassius: Why, now blow wind, swell billow, and swim bark.
The storm is up, and all is on the hazard.
The Oxford Shakespeare: The Complete Works, ed. John Jowett, William Montgomery, Gary Taylor and Stanley Wells, 2nd ed. (Oxford: Clarendon, 2005).