This is the runner-up in our recent Shiva Naipaul Memorial Prize. The rest of the shortlist will be published in the coming days.
At the entrance is a pale stone bower of equilateral arches and then a brass-plated door opens into a small vestibule and after a turn there is the Chamber. The golden Sovereign’s Throne: empty. Five rows of long benches, red leathered, are stacked on either side. Above, between sets of bar-traced windows, bronze statues of chain-mailed knights hold broadswords and maces. Some of their faces are cast downward as if watching the proceedings below.
From my seat in the guest area, near the entrance, I could see the Labour peers to the right of the throne and the backs of the Crossbench peers and then the rows of the Conservative opposition. A bewigged secretary bent over a desk in the centre of the room. He was browsing Wikipedia on a desktop computer.
When the House is in session the Peers of the Realm come and go intermittently. One made his way from the low wooden gate to a nearby bench, a hand on his walking stick and the other on the railing. His nose dripped, untended. He then drifted into sleep while Lord Bach announced that, ‘the Government does not support or approve of polygamous marriage’. There had been a question tabled by a Baroness concerned about the rights of Muslim women.
The House often sits late into the evening, rising at ten or eleven at night. It’s a strange thought, the upper chamber lit softly by pendulum lights while the Peers lounge opposite one another, holding forth on polygamy, after the Thames outside is moon white and quiet.
That afternoon was my first glimpse of the House of Lords in session, the first time I saw the Chamber, the wood and brass carvings so intricate and detailed it was as if the room itself was a slot for a giant pin-tumbler key. A former Captain in the 101st Airborne Division of the US Army, I was now a speechwriter for one of the noble lords though I was beginning to fear I lacked the required stamina. Climate change and the Homeowner Mortgage Support Scheme and then the turmoil of the Scottish banks were debated for over two hours. When Lord Tunnicliffe rose to repeat a Statement on Armed Forces: Reserves first made in the Other Place, I began taking notes, but it wasn’t long before my attention wandered again. My eye was drawn upward to the eighteen knights, armour clad, dispassionate, their weapons lowered or resting on their shoulders. They are life-size, almost shrunken.
The statues in the chamber have been the topic of much debate. In 1850 Lord Osborne said that, ‘such narrow shouldered barons would never have wrung the Magna Carta from the crown’. These icons represent the original signatories and Lord Osborne wanted them to appear more imposing and fearsome. In a similar way, I expected the Peers themselves would be larger than life somehow. One of the Lords I met had been shot by a German machine gun in the Second World War. I was so nervous when I shook his hand that I’m unable to remember his name. Above his breast pocket, on his suit jacket, were loops of black thread used for holding his medals, which seemed to weigh him down. He was bent, unable to stand up straight.
There was something stooped about Lord M as well. We’d first met in the Peers’ Guest Room, a wood-panelled salon with bay windows that face the Thames. Oil paintings of naval battles hung on the walls. He was slouched on a wooden bench, his double-breasted jacket undone and his pocket square halved in a soft triangle. I expected him to be aloof and superior, an Eton educated hereditary Peer quoting Latin epigrams and complaining at large. Instead he listened with an almost embarrassing intensity as I discussed a recent article on the Territorial Army. After Eton he had volunteered to serve in the Household Cavalry rather than attend University.
He had been in Malaysia and Northern Ireland though with a British manner given to understatement, he made light of his experience. ‘It wasn’t like Iraq,’ he said, and went on to describe his time in Northern Ireland as hours of waiting about and setting up checkpoints. He said that his father’s parting advice before he left for Sandhurst was, ‘the whole thing will be ghastly, just stick it.’
‘Did your father talk very much about his service?’ I asked.
‘He was in Palestine with the Guards when the unit was mechanised. The order came down to kill their horses and he said that was the worst moment of his career. Many of the men took it badly and couldn’t do it themselves. They were brought to the desert and he said the horses knew. They knew what was coming.’
It was an anecdote that haunted me. Later, I tracked it down in the library and found a reference in Jane Wellesley’s Wellington: A Family History. Her father Valerian, also an officer in the Household Cavalry at the time, said: I had to take fourteen old black horses of my troop into the Judean hills and shoot them… those fine old creatures who had taken part in all the great state occasions of the last ten years, including the 1936 coronation, ended their days on a desolate Palestinian hill, as fodder for the vultures and jackals.
Speechwriting in the Lords was my first job out of the army and I thought it would be a way for me to get beyond the military and start something else, something new. But I kept seeing things in the Palace of Westminster that reminded me of military life. Sand from the Normandy beaches is enshrined in the Royal Gallery. Their names are printed on tiny gold plates: Juno, Sword, Gold, Utah, and Omaha. Standing in line for lunch, with a plastic tray in my hand, I noticed the glass cases outside the Terrace Cafeteria are filled with medals from British military history. The most recent is the Elizabeth Cross, given to the next of kin of slain Armed Forces personnel.
Even the palace itself is scarred. It is built on the ashes of the Old Palace. And the stone archway leading to the antiseptic green carpet of the Commons shows teeth marks from the Blitz. Names of peers who gave their lives in the First World War are carved under the stained glass window that fractures the medieval hall with light.
The hallways are labyrinthine. The moulded arches increase in complexity as they rise, giving the feeling of a stone forest shading wooden doors with the names of Peers written outside in a sloping white script. To my embarrassment I was always getting lost.
Once, when hopelessly wandering along the corridors, I introduced myself to a thin, energetic peer, Lord R. He spoke hurriedly as if he expected someone might interrupt him and, as I later learned, they often would. Despite this ever-present threat, I enjoyed his stories. He was very excited when he heard I had been in the US Army and said he had visited the United States once as part of a NATO defence tour and was flown to Colorado Springs and on to Washington D.C..
‘That’s where I went to University. The Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs.’
‘Gorgeous place, that chapel built like a spaceship and the Garden of the Gods and NORAD — Hall of the Mountain King, I like to call it. And we went to the John Rutherford Stadium to see a rodeo and all the lights went off and we all had candles and sang the national anthem and when they announced our visit the spotlight shone on me and I’m standing there with my candle and Horst, the German Chancellor says, ‘Ach, don’t lose your light’ and I said back to him, ‘Horst, your fly is undone!’ and would you believe he looked! He actually looked down! And this beautiful blonde girl who I suppose was no more than seventeen was standing with her parents and she asked me: are you a British Lord? And I said, ‘Yeah, Groovy’, isn’t it?’
‘Do you know the way to Central Lobby?’ I asked.
Later I spent the day with Lord R and several other Peers during a visit to the 16 Air Assault Brigade. We took the train to Colchester and were met at the station by the XO and his staff. There was a tour of the barracks and a meeting with the Brigadier and the unit was fully manned even with their string of deployments to Helmand Province.
Lord R asked about morale.
‘We’re carnivores, my lord,’ one of the officers said.
Still there were problems with off-post housing and one corporal’s family had gone weeks without hot water. The Government had contracted out the maintenance of the rows of duplex homes and Lord R listened patiently to concerns from spouses and soldiers. If he could help at all it relied on the good graces of an absent minister who was thinking all the time about reducing spending. The families supposed him more powerful than he really was.
It was early winter then and so when we returned to London it was already cold and dark like the city was underground. I sat in a pub with a friend who worked in the House of Commons. He was tipped to become a Special Adviser and thought all the time about the forthcoming election and what line to take with reporters.
‘The polls are saying we’ll win easily and it will be the first Conservative Government since ninety-seven,’ he said.
There was a coal fire in the pub and I had to take off my sweater. It made me think about the families of the men in Colchester, who were without hot water, and we argued about the futility or otherwise of the fighting in Afghanistan.
‘This is the thing,’ his sleeves were rolled up and his fingers were holding his temples. ‘We think about the polls all the time and the speeches and how to posture but after our victory, after the ballots, on the next morning all those men will still wake up on patrol bases.’ He crossed his arms. ‘Nothing changes for them. It’s easy to forget. What does anything we do change for them?’
The eighteenth of November was the day of the Queen’s Speech for the Opening of Parliament and I was given a ticket for a seat in the Royal gallery. The cabinet with sand from the Normandy beaches had been hidden away. Tiered benches were set up in the hall under the murals showing the Death of Nelson and The Meeting of Wellington and Blucher and a blue and ivory carpet was laid down.
The Sword of State and the Cap of Maintenance were set in place. The Yeomen of the Guard were solemn and somehow dignified in their outrageous uniforms: their red stockings and ruff collars. Television monitors showed the progress of the ceremonial procession. And when she walked off screen, disappearing into an arched doorway, there she was before us, ascending the stairs, Her Majesty the Queen.
Everyone arose on cue. As she passed there was a ripple effect, in the audience, as the women curtsied and the men bowed their heads. I panicked. Was it right for an American to bow? I decided it would be respectful and so nodded distinctly.
Her Majesty proceeded into the Lords where both Houses were waiting, the Chamber filled like a sold out concert hall. I held my pen ready to make notes. There was a pause as if some difficulty had arisen but then the television monitors were switched off, and Her Majesty’s voice came over the loudspeakers, ‘My Lords and Members of the House of Commons. My Government’s overriding priority is to ensure sustained growth to deliver a fair and prosperous economy…’
I was prepared for a long oratory but at nine minutes the speech was shorter than the procession. On my paper I had only written ban cluster munitions. Afterwards, I went down into the Hall and, to my surprise, a Household Cavalry officer called my name.
‘McGregor,’ he said.
I looked him in the eyes trying to remember where we’d met. But it was my tartan tie that he recognised. Even in my civilian suit the military could pick me out.
In the Whip’s Office there was champagne and canapés. The Peers were putting away their Ermine capes and the atmosphere was more akin to a Hollywood party, with glamorous women in evening dress and long white gloves.
‘Did you see Harriet Harman?’ one of the civil servants asked, as if he had to take his rage out on someone.
‘No, was she there?’
‘Yes, in the procession. Wearing a trouser suit. Is there no respect anywhere, anymore?’
‘I was looking at the crown,’ I said. ‘It’s magnificent.’ My champagne flute was refilled.
‘After the election they’ll get rid of these fine old creatures,’ my newly acquired friend reminded me. Rumours of the next reform bill to eliminate the ninety-two remaining hereditary peers were in circulation again. My thoughts went back to that desolate hill, in Palestine, and the vultures circling above the fodder.
In the spring the Household Cavalry returned from Afghanistan. Lord M arranged a tour of Parliament for the men who had been wounded. I wish I could describe them better but I was so surprised by them. In my journal I wrote that they appeared average in every way and their dark suits made them even more average. They were narrow shouldered and wore their striped blue and red regimental ties. It was a group of about twelve men and only some had been obviously wounded. One had been badly burnt on his face and maybe more. He wore a watch cap. Another had to walk with crutches. One soldier had a cane because of an injury to his leg. He pointed with it several times and one of the NCOs corrected him and said it wasn’t polite to point with a cane. I thought only an NCO would be able to say something like that so evenly.
They asked about what had happened to me, in Iraq.
‘Shrapnel on my left hand,’ I said, feeling like an imposter.
‘Crushwire and a bag of homemade explosives.’ I said, keeping my hands in my pockets.
Afterward we sat on the terrace and Lord M bought everyone pints of Fosters and the sun burned dry and warmly and contrasted with the breeze from the river.
‘What’s the most special part of the palace,’ the corporal next to me asked.
Right away I said, ‘This right here.’
He was surprised that it was just the terrace.
‘You can’t be out here at midday unless a Peer is with you. You need a peppermint striped pass like Lord M. I just have a red one.’ I indicated the card around my neck. ‘During lunch I often try to eat here but the steward usually kicks me out. They’re all old NCOs, the stewards.’
The soldiers asked if I knew any US Marines? They’d been with them in Helmand. I said no and that the Marines were wannabes who all wished they were in the army. They laughed at this and we traded stories about living on patrol bases and the camel spiders in Kuwait and how the war wasn’t what we expected. We thought there’d be firefights all day but instead we were mainly hanging about killing time and setting up road checkpoints.
They were disappointed not to be with their men anymore.
‘I’m always around the house,’ the one with crutches said. ‘My wife tells me to go pick up the kids or the groceries. It never ends.’ Everyone laughed again.
The corporal beside me had been shot. He loosened his tie, ‘Do you want to see it?’ Without waiting he pulled open his shirt collar to show the bullet wound. Into our next round he leaned towards me and said, ‘Something I’ve always wanted to know but was too embarrassed to ask.’ I nodded, expecting some remark about the war. ‘It’s an expression the Marines used. What’s a douche-bag?’
‘Are you serious, bro?’
‘They said to ask an Officer.’
I realised he was putting me on. ‘Very funny,’ I said.
There was a shout from the river. It was the London duck tour boat, cutting up the Thames. Tourists on the deck waved and we waved back. From that distance, in our business suits, we must have all looked similarly distinguished. But I felt a growing unease.
Lord M was across the table drinking white wine. He was sitting next to the soldier who had been badly burned. They talked about the Palace of Westminster tour and what he enjoyed most? The soldier thought and then asked, ‘That archway outside the House of Commons. It’s crumbling down.’
‘Bomb damage from the Blitz.’
‘Why hasn’t it been fixed?’
‘Churchill didn’t want that,’ Lord M said. On the table were wet rings from our pint glasses like sets of transparent coins and the wind quieted down. The men were listening, leaning forward. ‘He wanted it to serve as a reminder of what had been endured.’