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The Collected Parliamentary Reports of Robin Hyde

The Dominion, Saturday, June 27, 1925. p. 8. — Peeps at Parliament: From the Ladies' Gallery — The Past and its Memories

The Dominion, Saturday, June 27, 1925. p. 8.
Peeps at Parliament: From the Ladies' Gallery — The Past and its Memories

Ichabod, Ichabod! The glory is departed:10 That's just how I felt yesterday afternoon, when climbing the imposing marble steps that lead up to the House of Representatives11 and the inhabitants thereof. Shorn of their Magic Carpet, the steps looked rather bare and businesslike. Gone were the flags, the frills, and the furbelows—tucked away in some secret hidey-hole to await the coming of another gala day.

You know, it's wonderful how the first fine, careful awe vanishes like morning dew from the mind of the average female frequenter of Parliament. On her first entrance through those historic portals she wipes her shoes reverently on the mat and proceeds upstairs with the feeling that the collective eyes of the entire establishment are fixed in cold contempt on the back of her neck. But by degrees this wholesome sense of her own insignificance begins to pass. On her second visit—or should I say visitation?—the marble pillars have perceptibly dwindled in height; the orderlies—previously almost as impressive as the marble pillars—seem friendly folk; and even the Great Men themselves look a little less god-like and apart than they did at first glance.

Up in the Ladies' Gallery the empty chairs look rather desolate and forlorn. Where are the girls of yesterday?12 The young ones, I suppose, are trying on silver slippers for to-night's dance and the older ones are laid away in lavender until next year's opening ceremony brings them out again like butterflies after winter.

After all, perhaps it's just as well that Youth is out in the sunshine, gathering roses while it may;13 for to-day, in the dim-lighted gallery, it would look just a little out of place. This is Old Timers' afternoon—a day of memories, of statesmen past and gone.

Very little business was transacted. Later on in the year, I suppose, Bills fly thick and fast, if not very far, but just now it is hard to believe that the quietly dignified gentlemen on the benches could bring themselves to the point of arguing with, and even flatly contradicting each other. They all look—and sound—such exceedingly good friends.

Squarely confronting each member is a little desk, very smart and workman-like in its new coat of varnish. One wonders if sometimes, in moments of temporary mental aberration, sedate members dream that they are irresponsible schoolboys again and, with drawn penknives, set out to explore the internal anatomy of those priggishly shiny desks.

I think that when first I saw the beautifully neat, clean, and tidy abode of our Elders and Betters, I thought with a passing regret of the deplorably ramshackle old building in which by-gone members said their say and went their way. It's not that I don't like marble columns and swinging lamps—I do. But being a mere unreasonable woman, I wished that we could find some way of persuading the memories, associations, and ancestral spirits of the old House to take up their residence in the new and more commodious quarters. Perhaps they have done so—one can at least hope that the tributes paid to-day to the men who have gone were not lost in those dim recesses of the great Chamber.

The knitting needles stop, with a little click, as the new Prime Minister pays his14 last tribute to his old leader.15 Others follow—political enemies, perhaps, in the old days when so much seemed to hang upon little victories in the party war. But, as one member said, "Death levels the landscape. It sweeps away all the little things."16 Mr. Massey is remembered, not as a politician, but as a friend of the people, and a man who laid down his life for his country.

Other names, familiar to old campaigners and newcomers alike, are placed on Parliament's long roll of honour. Very simple and very touching are the tributes paid to departed comrades. One sentence—quoted in honour of a distinguished Maori statesman—has lingered in my mind, "The canoe of death, built from the tree of sorrow, must visit every house."17

There were men in the House this afternoon who had known Mr. Massey when he was a mere M.P., sitting at the feet of his elders absorbing Parliamentary wisdom, men to whom Ballance, Seddon, Atkinson, and Grey were not mere golden pages in a history book, but living beings[.]18 An hour of their reminiscing19, after they had forgotten to talk about "My late colleague," and spoke of "My friend—" made me feel incredibly young and unwise.20 It was as if I had lifted a hanging curtain, and looked for a moment into the good old days—a far cry from our turbulent world of to-day.

The lonely occupants of the Ladies' Gallery are beginning to feel the strain of this quietly fatalistic atmosphere. For to-day at least women are not included in the Parliamentary scheme of things. The House is a rendezvous for old comrades—both the living and the dead. A very human touch was given to the proceedings by a speaker who, in paying tribute to a friend who had "gone west," forgot to say "the late honourable member," and said instead, "the honourable member," as if his comrade was still sitting on the bench opposite, ready to take part in some new debate.21

One by one the younger and less patient members slip away from the benches, leaving the old-timers to talk of the days when all the world was young.

The place becomes very cold; through a suddenly opened door a little wind steals in, as quietly as a memory. I think nearly everyone is glad when the Speaker, magnificent as ever in his iron-grey wig, adjourns the sitting and leaves us to our memories.

10 Robert Browning, "Waring," lines 99-100.

Ichabod, Ichabod,
The glory is departed!

The Complete Works of Robert Browning, gen. ed. Roma A. King, Jr., vol. 3 (Athens, OH: Ohio University Press, 1971).

See also Robin Hyde, Journalese (Auckland: National Printing Company, 1934), p. 114.

11 Dominion: Representatves.

12 Cf. Francois Villon, ["Ballade of the Ladies of Bygone Times"], from "The Testament," line 336.

Mai sou sont les neiges d'antan?
[But where are the snows of bygone years?]

The Complete Works of François Villon, trans. Anthony Bonner (New York: Bantam, 1964). See also the column for 19 September 1925.

13 Cf. Robert Herrick, "To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time," line 1.

Gather ye Rose-buds while ye may.

The Poetical Works of Robert Herrick, ed. L. C. Martin (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1956). See also the column for 1 October 1925.

14 Dominion: has.

15 As was customary, the House presented tributes to deceased members and prominent citizens at the first debate. This formality was especially newsworthy in June 1925 because many of the tributes were for the late Prime Minister, William Massey, who had died on 10 May. The new Prime Minister Gordon Coates and another dozen members spoke about Massey; see Hansard 206: 5-15. Hyde gives a short account of Massey's funeral procession in Robin Hyde, Journalese (Auckland: National Printing Company, 1934), pp. 17-18.

16 Hansard records Leonard Isitt as saying: "In the moment when death severs life's thread it levels life's landscape. With one stroke it sweeps away all those smaller issues of life that we are so wont to unduly magnify…" (Hansard 206: 14).

17 Maui Pomare, speaking in a tribute to Eparaima Te Mutu Kapa: "The canoe of fate, fashioned out of the tree of sorrow, has visited the house of this chief, as it must visit the house of every man…" (Hansard 206: 22). Hyde attributes this line to Sir Apirana Ngata in Journalese (p. 39).

18 The four men mentioned were all former Premiers of New Zealand. Harry Atmore particularly mentioned the resemblance between Massey and these statesmen; see Hansard 206: 12.

19 Dominion: reminisencing.

20 This is most likely a reference to Thomas Wilford's tribute to Oliver Samuel, whom he claimed as "a personal friend of mine" (Hansard 206: 16).

21 Hyde is perhaps thinking of Sydney Smith's tribute to Oliver Samuel; see Hansard 206: 17.