Today would have been my mate Paul's 41st birthday. Because of that it seems appropriate to write something. Not necessarily about Paul, but just something. Something I can look back on in six months from now and know that I marked the occasion by doing something I enjoy doing and should do more of. I think he'd like that. Whether he would think I should do more of it is another debate.
I've had an odd sort of day. Work is work and I'm not allowed to write about it anyway, but it was just one of those days when I spent much of my time talking to the backs of people's heads while they consistently failed to respond. Part of that is due to my almost soundproof barrier of a desk, and the rest is either because my colleagues are ignorant or because I have nothing interesting to say out loud. Which is possibly why I write.
So anyway let's talk about London. Having spent much of my time dismissively referring to it as England's toilet I have changed my view completely. I hadn't experienced it properly before. My previous experiences amounted to the odd basketball game in Hackney or wherever and a few trips to Wembley to see Saints. With varying degrees of enjoyment. For every Goulding-inspired Ultimate Comeback of '96 there is a 27-0 thrashing by Wigan of '89 to look back on. During the latter, Saints played very much like you might imagine Blackbrook Under 10's would have done against Ellery Hanley and company. It wasn't pretty. Which made the joy of Bobby's bombs and Nathan Graham's generosity in repeatedly dropping them seven years later all the more enjoyable. Before Super League, success for Saints was about as frequent as a referendum on Scottish Independence.
Refreshingly, my enjoyment of a weekend in London with Emma did not depend on the fortunes of an incredibly unreliable rugby league team this time. We drove down on the Thursday before the August Bank Holiday. We weren't doing this on the cheap. I'm not sure it is possible to do London on the cheap, not if you have access needs. But also we wanted to stay somewhere that would give us reasonable access to the Jubilee Line. Only certain stations are accessible so you have to do a bit of research. To be fair, Emma did the research. She's very good at that. Left to me we'd be staying in the first hotel to show up on a google search. In the event we stayed in the Marriott at Canary Wharf. It is conveniently located very close to a row of bars and restaurants so the first night was spent getting a feel for what was around. After a couple of drinks in The Slug & Lettuce and The Cat And Canary (we passed on the Dog And Bollock) we ate at La Tasca. You might think that such a Johnny-Come-Lately, bandwagon-jumping organisation would be all kitted out with disabled access but I regret to report that when it was time to spend the proverbial penny I had to be led out to a restaurant three doors down because the disabled toilet in La Tasca wasn't working. Or maybe it didn't even exist. I think it did exist but either way if it is not usable then it may as well not exist. Like a Manchester United defender. The whole thing was massively undignified and it did nothing to change the negative view of London that I had lazily held until then. A friend of mine had messaged me earlier in the afternoon to let me know that his cousin has a bar in the same area. Henry's Bar. I should maybe have taken his advice and paid them a visit instead. Thankfully the La Tasca episode was not a sign of things to come.
On Friday morning we were booked in for a tour of the Houses Of Parliament. The route from the Marriott to the underground station at Canary Wharf is not a particularly long one but it is littered with dizzying twists and turns, making it impossible to find your way from one to the other without making at least one navigational mistake. We made several over the course of the weekend and we cut this first journey pretty fine as a result. We were due to start our tour at 9.20am and the advice is to get there 20 minutes before your tour starts. We failed to do this, especially since we had to pass through the kind of security that would make New York's JFK Airport's look like the border between England and Scotland now that Mr Salmond's bid for freedom has hit the buffers. Fortunately the tour had not begun by the time we had finished being checked over by armed policemen and passed through security doors which don't let you through until a painfully slow door has shut behind you. I remember being a little awed when we moved through towards the accessible exit at Westminster and caught a glimpse of either Westminster Abbey or the House itself. Last time I felt that way when seeing such an iconic building with my own eyes was when my dad first took me to Wembley in '87. We lost that day too. Oddly, I didn't feel quite the same way about the Statue of Liberty or the Empire State buildings. Not when I first caught sight of them, impressive though they are.
There is one part of the tour that is not accessible. Our guide explained this to us before we started but again we were already armed with that knowledge thanks to Emma's research. St Stephen's Hall used to be the site of the House of Commons until a fire in 1834. I'm really glad that it isn't now because it is this part of the tour that I wasn't able to see. Our guide had just finished explaining that we would be taken down a different route to meet the others in the group once they had finished at St Stephen's. I remember thinking it ironic that Stephen did not have access to St Stephen's Hall. Not even 180 years after it was rebuilt following a fire. I didn't dwell on this unhappy coincidence for long. My attention soon turned to our guide again who was instructing a member of her staff to 'come and get my wheelchair' when the group arrived at St Stephen's.
Her wheelchair? Where was her wheelchair and why wasn't she telling her staff to come and get the gentleman using a wheelchair, HIS wheelchair? Later, when we arrived at the House of Lords and she waxed lyrical about it and how the system isn't broke so why fix it I wanted to ask whether someone could come and get my elitist bag of a guide and replace her with a much younger, less prune-faced member of the parliamentary staff. By the way did you know that when you see an elderly, overweight Lord slumped into his chair in the house it is because he is trying to listen to the reading of the bills through the speaker in the back of the seat and not because he's grabbing a cheeky Friday afternoon nap? I know. I was skeptical too.....
In the Members' Lobby there is a terrifying sight. The Members' Lobby is used by MP's when they are not busy filling in bogus expenses forms or engaging in sexual activity with fruit. It's a place to congregate for discussion. It houses a number of statues of former Prime Ministers and there, at one side of the room, looking down on you and pointing as if to once again give the order to destroy industry, start a vote-winning war, sell off every playing field in sight and take milk away from schoolchildren is Mrs Thatcher. I had a passing fantasy about beheading the statue there and then. Only my respect for an historic institution, the fact that the building was swarming with armed police and the fact that I haven't done anything illegal since I recorded the top 40 on Radio 1 in 1982 persuaded me to let it pass. We're shut of her now anyway. Dragon. Also represented in statues here are Winston Churchill, David Lloyd George and Clement Attlee.
The House of Commons itself is surprisingly small. Six hundred and fifty members were elected at the 2010 General Election and there isn't room in the house for many more than 400. It's pretty much first come, first served at Prime Minister's Questions on Wednesday lunchtime. Those not in listen from outside if they wish but what is more likely is that they find a television. Probably in the pub around the corner. The House's green seating and speaker's chair are as iconic to me as the outside of the building, Big Ben and all. I must confess though that a combination of work commitments and a growing disaffection with all political parties and the system itself mean that I haven't seen it for a while. You don't really feel part of the political process if you've had to vote in a Tory defector to New Labour who then proceeds to do whatever the Whips tell him to for the sake of his career. All without a second thought for the actual wishes of his constituents. They could put Peter Sutcliffe up as their candidate for election and I'd still vote Labour. Perhaps I'm at fault but the system is hugely flawed.
In the corridors behind the House of Commons is Hansard, a painstakingly accurate record of everything ever debated in the House. Our guide then told us about the aforementioned pub, where MP's go for their swift halves or sherries. Seeking a bit of history, we paid a visit but before I tell you about that I should mention the Queen's Robing Room. It is here in this slightly wilting, decoration requiring and small space that Her Maj prepares for the State Opening of Parliament. As a committed republican I'm not that taken with the idea of being in a room frequently occupied by our long-reigning monarch, but if we're going to have a royal family then the least they can do is continue to uphold English traditions. The State Opening qualifies. Apparently they stopped chopping off their spouses' heads some time ago.
And so to the pub we learned about by Hansard. The Red Lion is just a few streets away. The sense of history is palpable. Any politician, Cabinet Minister or Prime Minister you care to name has probably been here for a pint. Probably not Thatcher, actually. Fun Loathing Criminal Thatcher. As we entered there was a man with a familiarly flabby gut and bald pate stood talking on his mobile phone. No, not me. It's Stevo. No, still not me. Mike 'Stevo' Stephenson, Sky Sports' rugby league summariser and champion of the mythical momentum rule. I remember meeting him once before at Wigan. I was there with Paul. He would have had something to say as Stevo and I briefly discussed the following day's Challenge Cup Final between Leeds Rhinos and Castleford Tigers. Some kid, somewhere was going to have his own first experience of a newer Wembley, which seems a reasonable place to stop.....