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The Collected Parliamentary Reports of Robin Hyde

The Dominion, Thursday, July 16, 1925. p. 10. — Peeps at Parliament: The Day for Conundrums — Putting Back the Clock

The Dominion, Thursday, July 16, 1925. p. 10.
Peeps at Parliament: The Day for Conundrums — Putting Back the Clock

In the course of your long and adventurous career, you may quite possibly have noticed the grass that grows all around the Parliamentary Buildings. I don't mean the evergreen variety which springs up under members' feet, but that which, with the assistance of a little clover and an occasional dandelion, forms the charming lawns in the Parliamentary grounds. There are many outstanding (or sitting out) qualities that might appeal to one in that grass, but what really does strike a sympathetic chord of fellow-feeling in my heart is its greenness. That grass is the only thing within sight of Parliament that is anything like as green as I am.

For example, I really thought, after hearing the first reading of Mr. Parry's Bill, that the House must have settled down more or less comfortably to transact, or, at least to talk business, and as a natural consequence of this, I supposed that the poor old Address-in-Reply was either dead and buried, or that the great personage who is deputed to attend to such affairs had already "signed it and sealed it, all pale as a ghost, and sent it away by the tuppeny post."160 But I regret to inform the community that it has risen again from the dead. An orderly assured me, in deeply sympathetic tones, that there are still at least two members who haven't said their say about it, and that these will, providence permitting, express their views on the question this evening.161

Now, before we proceed any further, let's endeavour, to the best of our ability, to clear up a little point of disorder. When I say "this evening" I mean this evening—the one I'm at present half-way through, and still without my duty done. But by the time you read these notes, this evening will be yesterday evening. My to-day is your yesterday, my to-morrow is your to-day, and our hereafters—no, dash it all, that isn't what I was going to say when I started. Anyhow, it's all perfectly simple, and can be worked out by algebra. You understand this: when I say "to-day" I mean "yesterday." It might be simpler to say "yesterday" straight out, but it sort of throws me out of focus. Now, let's on with the dance.

I believe that I've told you how, every now and again, a member rises and gives warning that he fully intends to ask some Minister an awkward question at some day of reckoning to come. Indeed, the eyebrows of our Labour-Socialist members are in many instances curved into a perpetual note of interrogation—just as their voices are tuned to a note of exclamation. Well, I never quite knew what happened to these questions—whether they were just written down and hidden away in the souls of the members who knew they'd have to answer them one day, or whether they were printed and circulated under the form of amusing conundrums for the very young. It appears that the House has a periodical Day of Judgment—I don't mean a day of bad judgment, those are always with us, but a day when each Minister, instead of sitting all snug and tight and imperturbable in his cushioned chair must rise up and give ear—and answer—to all the things that the House in general wants, and confidently expects, to know. This occasion for loud lamentation and chastening of the soul is known as Question Day. Purely by accident to-day I walked slap-bang into the middle of a Question Day.162

I should, if I could, blush to admit it, but after the first hour or so I didn't listen to the questions. I didn't know the answers to them, and, between you and me, neither did anyone else. But you know that peculiarly vindictive pot-hole which has located itself just outside your front door, and positively refuses to go elsewhere? And you recollect how, time and time again, you have filled the air with your lamentations because your local body can't and won't supply you with wire-netting to keep your rabbits from walking off your farm and getting themselves confiscated by your scoundrelly neighbours? Well, on Question Day, your faithful M.P. rises in his place, and, in impassioned tones, points to his question on the Order Paper and asks some harassed looking Minister what the mischief he has done, and is going to do, about such outrages. And, as a general rule, the Minister sighs a little sigh and sadly admits that he'll be blessed if he knows.

I suppose, if I'd really been the stuff that heroines are made of, I'd have stayed to hear the end of those questions. But examinations—all kinds, from Customs ones to matriculation—give me cold shivers down my spine. Besides, by tacit consent, nearly all the other feminine onlookers had decided that this was an affair between members, Ministers, and, if they have any, their consciences, and silently withdrawn, leaving me all alone with a lady in a hat whose ostrich plume must, when abstracted from the parent bird, have left that unfortunate fowl stark naked. So, after a little deliberation, I decided to retreat in good order, and to call again this evening—yesterday evening, I mean—just to see what really would happen to that Address-in-Reply. So you'll excuse me for treating you to (or mistreating you with) a double-barrelled article, won't you? At the present moment, if nobody minds, I intend to withdraw for the purpose of fortifying my spirit.

Well, we might have known it, mightn't we? Known what? That the Labour-Socialists would once again start something that they couldn't finish. Another thing that the collective energies of the entire House don't seem able to finish is that Address-in-Reply. I did hope that this time, on my return from the seats of the mighty, I'd be able to say to you, "Gentlemen, the Address-in-Reply has quietly passed away. Heaven rest its soul!" But what do you think that Mr. Savage, Labour-Socialist de luxe, has gone and been and done? He has moved yet another amendment, and one which, as he himself candidly admits, hasn't the faintest chance of being carried out.163

Here is the sum and substance of his amendment—that is, as far as I could make it out. Mr. Savage came (why, I don't know), from Lancashire or Aberdeen—some place like that, anyhow—and in consequence there is a kind of chestnut burr about his speeches which makes164 it a little difficult for the foreigner to follow him.165 So he must forgive me if I've cruelly misunderstood his amendment, which I took to mean just this: we should, by fair means or foul, put back the clock of the Arbitration Court so that wages should equal the purchasing value of those of 1914. Well, it really is a bother that the great big world keeps turning, and it must be terribly trying for some gentlemen—not naturally very quick—to even endeavour to keep up with it. In 1914 we'd had no war, no war debt, no repatriation expenses, and no slump. It was really quite a good old world in those days, and I'm sure that if we could step back into it we would. But we can't, and the only thing is to go on, and keep a stout heart while crossing the stony places.166 For political and economic purposes, 1914 is as far away as the Stone Age. If Labour would turn a little of its attention to 1934 everyone all round might be better satisfied. It is a poor recommendation for Labour-Socialists if they can give their followers nothing better than the past to look forward to. Even the most credulous worker surely couldn't put much faith in a party whose future was all behind it.

Truth to tell, I was more interested in the Ladies' Gallery itself than in the worn, weary, and disheartened benches. For some reason or reasons unknown, the wives, daughters, stepmothers and maiden aunts of the entire House had put in their respective appearances, and those long, haunted circles of usually empty chairs were filled with life and merriment: subdued merriment, of course. By the way, to put it slangily, Penelope had nothing on the wives and families of our members.167 While their respective, respectable, and respected Ulysses encounter strange adventures and face fiery (and fire-eating) Socialist dragons down in the Chamber, they one and all, with perfect unison and harmony, knit. It must be comforting for some member who has to sit right in the middle of a draught to feel that just above his head his wife, faithful as ever to his interests, is knitting him a cosy little woollen vest.

If I may venture to make a prophecy, when next I enter the Ladies' Gallery the Address-in-Reply will still be there, still in the same old place, awaiting the touch of a little hand, etc.168 One day, if I live, if you live, and if it lives, I really will tell you how it came to pass that the Address-in-Reply got past—I mean, got passed by the House. In the meantime, when the House adjourned for supper, I unaccountably disappeared, and was never—until the present moment—seen or heard from again. The third Labour member in succession had just reached the climax of his speech, and I felt that if I stopped to hear more I would probably upset the whole House by screaming like a woman.169

And outside, the least little bit of a silver-scimitar moon cut through the edges of a cloud, and helped the big orange lamps, clustered together like bunches of golden apples, to light up a white marble palace, with dark purple sky behind it. For the moment Parliament Buildings looked just exactly like an enchanted castle straight out of a fairy tale. Well, well, well! Appearances are deceptive, aren't they?

160 Thomas Ingolsby [Richard Harris Barham], "The Tragedy," lines 77-78.

She directed and sealed it, all pale as a ghost,
And De Guise put it into the Twopenny Post.

The Ingolsby Legends, or Mirth and Marvels (London: J. M. Dent, 1922).

161 See Hansard 206: 535-77.

162 See Hansard 206: 516-35.

163 Fraser proposed an amendment "[t]hat the following words be added to the motion moved by the honourable member for Franklin: 'That this House expresses the opinion (1) that all awards of the Arbitration Court should provide for a wage at least equivalent in purchasing-power to the 1914 standard, (2) that wages and salaries in the public services, beginning immediately with salaries of £300 and under, should be restored to at least the pre-war standard, measured in purchasing-power.' I do not think, Sir, that any one in this House will say that this is an extravagant demand, and, after listening to various honourable gentlemen on the Government benches and elsewhere, I feel sure that my amendment will be carried" (Hansard 206: 542). Hyde is probably right to imply that Fraser was being facetious in his confidence about the success of the motion.

164 Dominion: make.

165 Savage was actually born in Australia to Irish parents.

166 Hyde might have in mind the Scottish adage "to set a stout heart to a stey brae." A stey brae is a steep slope. The phrase connotes perseverance. For other uses of Scots dialect, see the columns for 4 July 1925, 22 August 1925 and 2 September 1925.

167 In Greek mythology, Penelope was the wife of the hero Odysseus (Ulysses in Latin).

168 Eugene Field, "Little Boy Blue," lines 17-20.

Ae, faithful to Little Boy Blue they stand,
Each in the same old place—
Awaiting the touch of a little hand,
The smile of a little face

Poems of Childhood (New York: Airmont, 1970).

169 Probably Parry, who spoke after Savage and McCombs; see Hansard 206: 549.