Portcullis House

Yesterday, I was in London again for the day job.  I had four meetings, all of which went according to plan, and topped off the day by attending the Author Publisher Dialogues, sponsored by the All Party Publishing Group and the All Party Writers Group, which took place at Portcullis House in the early evening.  I have attended author events in the House of Commons before, but I hadn’t previously visited Portcullis House.  It is an ultra-modern construction of steel and glass that faces the House, apparently used as a kind of overflow building.

Unsurprisingly, security was tight.  There was an airport-style scanner, through which my bags and jacket had to be passed, and several security officials were on duty.  (I wonder what they made of the contents of my laptop bag, which by that stage in the day contained not only the computer, but also three books acquired from the wonderful help-yourself stash that sits permanently in the basement of one of the publishers I visit, an assortment of toiletries from Boots, some greetings cards from a nice shop that I know and two packets of apple and cinnamon hot cross buns from the Marks and Spencers in Chancery Lane.)  Belongings retrieved, I was asked to wear a lanyard with a time-stamped badge proclaiming that I had been checked. Now labelled with this cross between kitemark and sell-by date, I was directed upstairs to a sort of glass-enclosed gallery, the walls of which were decorated with portraits of eminent politicians.  I recognised Harold Wilson, Margaret Thatcher and Shirley Williams, all painted to look remarkably like each other, if that doesn’t sound too far-fetched.

The event took place in the Macmillan Room, named presumably after Harold Macmillan, who was both publisher and politician (I met him once, but that’s a different story!).  It was chaired by Tristram Hunt MP, who is Chair of the APPG; he’s also a journalist and broadcaster. One of the speakers, Kwasi Kwarteng, is also an MP as well as being a published author: his most recent book is entitled Ghosts of Empire.  (The two other author speakers were Professor Peter Atkins and Susan Standring, who has been responsible for several of the most recent editions of Gray’s Anatomy.) Hunt is a Labour politician and Kwarteng a Tory, but they seemed to be fairly united in their views on how much government should contribute to publishing.  They were careful to say that the publishing industry is so successful that it needs no financial help from government, but they also indicated that they are staunch supporters of copyright law.  As both are published writers, this was to be expected, but also what the audience wanted to hear.  One of the reasons why publishers have stepped up their presence at such events in recent years is that there are certain factions in government which would like to pass legislation distinctly threatening to copyright as we know it.  I shall write about this in a separate post and I’ll also report on the event itself at a later date, too.  This is meant to be a light-hearted account!

As in the House of Commons itself, each room in Portcullis House is fitted with a television screen that tells the occupants which MP is speaking and on what subject.  A shrill bell rings for several minutes when it is time for them to vote.  Our two MPs rushed off when this happened, leaving the other speakers to hold the fort.  Stoically, they kept on speaking throughout the din and, although it was impossible to hear what they said, their Dunkirk spirit filled me with pride.  Theirs was such a very British approach.

The end of the event coincided with a mass exodus of MPs.  When I emerged from the Macmillan Room, there was a long crocodile of them walking two-by-two down the glass corridor at funereal pace, feet turned outwards, murmuring inaudibly to each other.  Young or old, each was exhibiting this same distinctive behaviour.  It reminded me of the sequences in Jurassic Park of the dinosaur herbivores moving peacefully and slowly through the undergrowth.  I wondered if MPs need training to walk in this way or whether it comes naturally when you are Running the Country.

It was unsettling on my way out to encounter, standing at the exit, a policeman who was carrying what looked like a small Kalashnikov (sorry, I’m not well up on guns).  That policemen in European countries are routinely armed seems unexceptional – it helps that sometimes their guns look like toys – but I’ve always found it disquieting to see officials on UK soil bearing arms.  I remember the sense of shock I felt when I bumped into a group of paratroopers in Northern Ireland once, their weapons at the ready.  This policeman was friendly, though.  When I said, ‘Don’t shoot!’, he replied, ‘No, I won’t, I’m not in the mood tonight!’

The government has been claiming that the recession is ending for so long now that its statistics have lost every shred of credibility as far as I’m concerned.  However, I do have my own very scientific way of taking the temperature of the economic climate.  It involves London taxi drivers.  For at least the past two years, hailing a taxi in London has been easier than falling off a log.  You’ve only needed to step out into the road and six have appeared, their yellow ‘cab free’ lights twinkling.  The successful cabbie has then regaled me for the entire journey with his views on the direness of the economy and his considered opinion that Armageddon has arrived.  It may have been partly because I was in the, for me, more chi-chi than normal environs of Westminster that a good two dozen cabs passed me in the space of fifteen minutes, all with their lights switched firmly off.  I nevertheless conclude that taxi firms are booming once again – and therefore also the businesses that they serve.

Panicking that I would miss my train, I was forced to double back to the underground.  The tube train I boarded chugged along imperturbably, with extra delays at Victoria and Green Park.  Eventually I reached King’s Cross with three minutes to spare and sprinted across the concourse before collapsing in my reserved seat in a most unladylike fashion.  I was so much revived by a steward bearing tea (and, eventually, a gin-and-tonic) that I was even able to attempt a bit of writing on the two-hour journey home.

It was quite an exhilarating day.  At its conclusion, the animals lay in wait, each reacting in his own way to my absence: the dog greeted me ecstatically; the cat turned his back to punish me for my desertion.