The Dominion, Monday, July 13, 1925. p. 10.
Peeps at Parliament: Wanderings through the Corridors — Do You Know?
You see that headline up there—the one at the top, in the fat black letters? Well, to-day it is going to be absolutely and literally true, which is more than one can usually say for headlines—or for what comes after them. We are going, by your leave, Messieurs, to take just one furtive peep at the House of Representatives on our way back from an exploratory expedition which will take us into every—or nearly every—nook and cranny in the entire House. It is a long and perilous journey so, again by your leave, I think we'd better gird on our sandals, seize upon our trusty staffs and depart.
I've told you all about the marble stairs and magnificent entry into the Parliamentary precincts. Well, that is quite all right for new chums—the sort of people, if you take my meaning, that one wants to impress. But down underneath the stairs, hidden by a kind of medieval archway, is an unobtrusive little revolving door—and thereby enter the initiated. They—the initiated, I mean—are obliged to wipe their shoes on the nose of a rather harassed-looking mosaic lion, who assists an equally careworn unicorn to hold up a large scroll bearing the quaint old legend Honi soit qui mal y pense.140 Those who are patriotic Englishmen invariably step carefully over the lion and tread on the unicorn instead. Besides, most of us, in time become rather attached to the aforementioned Infelix Leo.141 He has appealing brown eyes, and the most beautiful wavy tail. But let us proceed.
A twisty, twiny, serpentiney corridor takes us to a queer little flight of stairs which, in turn, conducts us to more corridors. Oh, the corridors in that building! They begin somewhere down in a region of Stygian142 gloom, take you for a little way in safety, and then simply turn tail and slip out of sight, leaving you all lost and forlorn. By the way, I suppose some of you believe that the work of Parliament goes on either in the House of Representatives or in the Legislative Council? To be perfectly frank[,] I'd always believed the same myself. But that, as Mr. Bollard persistently informs Mr. Holland, is not at all the case. In the two Houses the talking goes on: when members feel inclined to do a little—a very little—work, just by way of a change, they repair to committee rooms—sort of cubbyholes which are secreted all over the building—and there, by the glow of one or more fat cigars, proceed with the business of the day. The House of Representatives is merely the place where members go to disagree. In committee rooms, peace and comfort—especially comfort—are the order of the day.
Parliament is the not over-proud possessor of a most wonderful old library, with beautifully dog-eared volumes dating back to the days when everybody who was anybody talked, wrote, and dreamed in Latin or Norman-French. The library extends, or seems to extend, over about ninety-nine floors….
You know, of course, that women simply aren't recognised as part of the Parliamentary scheme of things? Well, I'll give an instance of the delightful masculine regime which woman, with her unholy passion for law and order, would probably shatter at one fell sweep143 of her whisk-broom. Up in the reading-room, a most awfully quiet and sanctified sort of place, to which nobody, not even the King, is admitted in squeaking shoes, are little tables upon which studious members can deposit their notes—anything from billets-doux to modernised Magna Chartas. It is an understood thing that these notes, once placed upon the table, must not be disturbed, removed, or tidied up by sacrilegious144 hands even if the member who put them there forgets all about them for months, years, or centuries. There is no such thing as Time in Parliament—no obtrusive Big Bens, no aggravating little tinpot alarm clocks. Warning of great events to hand is given by the sounding of a miniature tocsin145 bell. But otherwise—minutes slip into hours, hours into days, days into years, and years into decades without the least whisper of sound. Even Old Man Time, observing the solemn rule of the place, takes his shoes from off his feet before he comes in. Whiskers are but a day removed from toothbrush moustaches. And talking of whiskers—we weren't, but I've been thinking about them[,] and I'm sure I'll dream about them to-night—on the walls of the staircase leading to the upper part of the House are photos—such queer old unnatural photos—of all the statesmen who have managed and mismanaged New Zealand since the very beginning of things. There was Mr. Massey—first as a young man, with whiskers and a waist, then with the trickiest little pointed beard, and last of all as his own big, good-humoured, loveable self.
"Time goes, you say. Ah, no.
Time stays. We go."146
I haven't time to, but I really must tell you about the little twisty staircase that leads out on the roof, into the starlight and the quiet night. Sometimes, in the heat of debate, members wander out there, and take long, deep, cool puffs at their cigars, and look at the harbour lights, and dream … and then the bell rings, and they slide down the banisters147 of that terribly twisty staircase, all ready to pull the Prime Minister's nose. For that is politics.
"There was once a most beautiful lady,
Light of heart and step was she("148
She wore an evening dress that was just once removed from the crinoline, and the tiniest slippers, and little nestling bunches of curls. She used, just once a year, on fete nights, to dance in the big ballroom that was once the pride of the old-time Governors' House, adjacent to the old Parliament Building, and now linked up with the new. And I can tell you that the swaying of her fan, and the turn of her ankle under her soft, clinging dress, and the way that the light of the great chandeliers was reflected in her eyes, was a thing for you modern young men to dream about. Then, one day, the old Parliament House was burned down, and they turned the great ballroom of Government House, with its lights and its polished floor, into a kind of make-believe Parliament Chamber, in which ladies had no part nor lot.149 At long last—by that time my lady had been dead for ever so many years—Parliament packed up its troubles and emigrated, bag and baggage, into its splendiferous new home—the present House. The old ballroom was left empty and desolate and bare, and nobody goes there now except by mistake. Well, just as I turned the corner to-day, in my wanderings through the corridors, I heard the soft frou-frou of silken skirts, and caught just one glimpse of my lady coquetting with a gentleman in scarlet, over the edge of an enormous feathery fan. Has the old ballroom its ghosts? or, maybe, it was just my imagination….
This really won't do at all, at all. Let's talk of something absolutely materialistic. I simply must tell you how, on my way back, I took a wary peep into the lions'—I mean the Labour Party's—den, and saw Mr. Monteith hurriedly conceal something which I took to be the very small remains of a Cabinet Minister who had, in a fatal moment of absentmindedness, wandered that way unarmed. Mr. Fraser, on my approach, hastily swallowed what resembled a large bone button—the sort that comes off the waistcoats of highly important personages. I really hope it did not disagree with him. Happily, he was quite himself again by debating time.
There are hundreds of old customs that I'd like to tell you about, if only I had time. Do you know, for instance, that across the door of the House of Representatives is a bar past which even the King dare not come—that is, not unless he puts on false whiskers and shaves the crown of his head, thereby disguising himself as a bona fide member? And were you aware that Mr. Speaker, Mrs. Speaker and all the little Speakers are obliged to live on the premises? No wonder the Speaker looks so—so kind of unbending. I looked out for Mrs. Speaker's clothes-line, but couldn't see it anywhere. That House is full of dark secrets.
There's one room marked "Strictly Private" into which the public must not come. I was told, in a reverential whisper, that it was the Parliamentary Holy of Holies—the inner sanctum where they withdraw to commune with their deepest thoughts. From it issued forth a faint clicking—probably a typewriter—but which sounded to my inexperienced ears oddly like the musical chinking of billiard balls. Impossible—quite impossible—wasn't it?
Well, I think this is a good place to leave you. Most people would prefer it to the labyrinthine corridors, anyhow. Maybe we'll go exploring again on yet another rainy day. P.S.—About that peep into the House of Representatives that I promised you. Well, I looked through the keyhole and saw—what do you think? Mr. Atmore! He was addressing the House and the Labour-Socialists were not enjoying it a bit. I think that's all for to-day.150
140 Shame on him who thinks evil of it (Oxford Dictionary of Phrase and Fable).
141 "Infelix Leo" translates as "barren lion" or "unproductive lion." Hyde might have been implying that Britain itself was barren and unproductive.
142 Related to the river Styx (Oxford English Dictionary). The implication is that the corridors are very dark.
143 Cf. William Shakespeare, Macbeth, act IV, scene iii, lines 219-20.Macduff:
What, all my pretty chickens and their dam
At one fell swoop?
The Oxford Shakespeare: The Complete Works, ed. John Jowett, William Montgomery, Gary Taylor and Stanley Wells, 2nd ed. (Oxford: Clarendon, 2005). The phrase has since become proverbial.
144 Dominion: sacreligious.
145 Dominion: toscin.
146 Austin Dobson, "The Paradox of Time," lines 1-2.
Time goes, you say? Ah no!
Alas, Time stays, we go;
The Complete Poetical Works of Austin Dobson (London: Oxford University Press, 1923).
147 Dominion: bannisters.
148 Walter de la Mare, "An Epitaph," lines 1-2.
Here lies a most beautiful lady,
Light of step and heart was she
The Collected Poems of Walter de la Mare (London: Faber and Faber, 1979).
149 Cf. Acts 8 v. 21.
Thou hast neither part nor lot in this matter: for thy heart is not right in the sight of God.
150 Hyde is still referring to the debate on confidence on 10 July. She might be pointing to Atmore's second address, which began in the evening session; see Hansard 206: 440-47.