Press gallery falls victim to “cold hand of health and safety”

By Chris Moncrieff (via PA Mediapoint)

One of the few remaining bastions of political incorrectness, unbridled revelry and occasional 18th century-type debauchery is falling victim to the cold hand of advocates of health and safety and other agencies of misery.

The demolition men have already marched into the historic Press Gallery of the House of Commons wherein dwell the “feral beasts” producing what Tony Blair called “media froth”.

Already, the entire catering area has been obliterated, although the bar still stands (but not for long). The rest of it is being “overhauled” over the next few months to the extent that, when the Commons returns after the summer recess, it will be unrecognisable. It will have been “modernised”…

One group of officials tells us we occupy too much space. Another group tells us we are too crowded together. But whatever the outcome we are assured that life will never be the same again.

Some of the events that have taken place in the bar would not normally be acceptable to innocent ears before the nine o’clock watershed.

The police used to be regulars at the bar until their senior officer barred them. It was not a place conducive to good order and military discipline. It has also been the scene of amorous frolicking.

One police officer, the late Constable Ken Thomas, a blood relative of the then Speaker, George Thomas, consumed an entire vaseful of daffodils in the bar on St David’s Day. He was in no worse a state than usual the following day.

A butchery service was also available in the Press Gallery, with the finest cuts at the lowest possible prices. You were not encouraged to ask where they came from.

I was once arrested in the House after illegally climbing up a tower to get a view of the body of Winston Churchill being placed on the catafalque in Westminster Hall. My “reprehensible conduct” was reported to the Lord Great Chamberlain, Lord Cholmondeley, who wrote a letter of such searing ferocity that I feared I was for the Tower. There followed a dressing down of monumental proportions.

Some 30 years later, a taxi driver asked me if I was Chris Moncrieff. When I said I was, he replied: “Welcome to my cab: I was one of your arresting officers.”

Before the arrival of electronics, there was no infallible record of what was said in the Commons.

So, after a rowdy exchange between, say, Harold Wilson and Harold Macmillan, we would gather outside the chamber and go through the exchanges. Sometimes there was a single word which none of us could either decipher or hear properly.

One of us would raise his hand and cry out: “Let’s make him say…” We would pick what we thought was an appropriate word and we all ran with it. We never had one complaint.

On another occasion the Speaker, hearing the pitter-patter of what he thought were raindrops on the canopy above his head, assumed the roof was leaking. It was nothing of the kind.

A young female reporter arrived clad in a close-fitting little black number, buttoned at the front. As she painfully tried to climb into her front-row seat, her every move was being studied by ogling MPs down below, for whom it was like a gala performance at the Leeds City Varieties.

Suddenly there was a “ping” as a button flew off and landed on the Speaker’s canopy, then another ping, and another, and another.

The young woman stood there, covered in embarrassment and little else. The business of the House suddenly became irrelevant and stopped altogether as MPs accorded her a round of applause to the bafflement of the Speaker.

Charles Dickens did not enjoy the Press Gallery, saying: “I have worn my knees by writing on them in the old back row of the old Press Gallery. I have worn my feet standing to write in the preposterous pen in the old House of Lords where we used to huddle together like so many sheep, kept in waiting until the Woolsack might want restuffing.”

Daniel O’Connell, the Irish firebrand, constantly protested about the way he was “misreported”. Once he complained to The Times about the “scandalous” misreporting of a speech. The reporter said his notebook had got wet in the rain on the way back to his office and washed the words away.

O’Connell raged: “That was the most extraordinary shower of rain I ever have heard of. For it not only washed out the speech I made from your notebook, but it also washed in another and entirely different one.”

He paid the price. The journalists imposed a reporting ban on him as a protest against his “false and calumnious charges”.

But all is to change. When the Commons returns after the long summer break, and the modernisers have done their worst, we will be singing, tunelessly maybe, but with passion and nostalgia, “Fings ain’t wot they used to be…”

Nor will they ever be.

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