What a whirlwind this last week and a half has been! Between classes, work, and exploring the city, I’ve neglected to keep up to date with this blog. That changes now.
My third day in the office was also my last day of the week. Our program is structured such that we have classes on Monday, work Tuesday through Thursday, and Friday through Sunday are free. I spent my Thursday split between two tasks in the office: attempting to marshal support for some amendments one of our MPs was putting forward to the Armed Forces Bill, and conducting research for an upcoming committee on stalking and harassment. I spent the morning phoning the staff of the various MPs we were attempting to win over to support our amendments – which focus on veterans’ issues. Through some chatting and emails, we eventually gained the support of enough MPs to virtually guarantee our MP would be called on in debate. In the afternoon I turned to the issue of cyberstalking and began conducting background research to prepare a briefing for our MPs. I’ve gained more insight into the phenomenon than I thought was possible, though much of the primary research that is available is quite dodgy.
After a couple of hours of reading through academic papers, I headed out to meet up with friends at the Sports and Social Club, which is Parliament’s very own pub.
Much like everything else I’ve done so far, my trip to S&S was quite unique, and I shall try to recreate the experience at length. Sports and Social is located in the heart of Westminster palace, and one needs to navigate what resembles a labyrinth to find it. The entrance is non-descript, and one might not even know a pub was behind the door if not for the multitude of people standing outside the door smoking (Sports and Social is a smoke-free pub, as are all pubs in the UK).
The bar itself is unique, not just because it is located in a medieval palace, or that one has to pass by multiple sub-machine gun toting police officers (not to mention the metal detectors to and other security measures to get into the Parliamentary Estate in the first place), but for the unique nature of MPs and their staff conducting business or relaxing over a few pints. Passholders – those with ID badges that allow free access to the Parliamentary Estate – are allowed to bring in guests, and so one finds quite the eclectic mix of pub patrons. The place is also extremely small, which also means it is hard to find a seat and even, at times, somewhere to stand. There are four rooms connected by archways, and two of the rooms are reserved for snooker and darts. The remaining two rooms are dominated by the bar, which is built as if the wall had split it in half. On my first trip to the Sports and Social, it was karaoke night, which meant that there was even less room. Despite the cramped crowd, we all enjoyed our time. I had a Guinness or two, which leant extra gravity to the experience.
I spent Friday, Saturday, and Sunday acting like a student. I won’t try to recreate in words these days, since the vast majority of you reading this have spent time as a student and probably remember it quite well. I had a short paper due on Monday, so I spent most of my time at the library researching and writing. I am not pleased with the results, but I also did not put in the same sort of effort I would have normally put in back in the states. It was a very short paper, about a relatively simple subject, and so I simply couldn’t muster the motivation to do a bang-up job.
Monday was a fairly busy day for me. I was at the library early to make some last-minute revisions and print my paper. I turned my paper in and sat through class for an hour and a half before sprinting to the tube station to head to work. We were entertaining roughly one hundred Catalonians on Monday, and I had been invited to have lunch with a few of them. Unfortunately there was little time, as we had a guest lecture in the afternoon before our second class – leaving approximately an hour and a half to get to Portcullis and back. There is no direct line from school to work, which meant I had to change trains. The journey takes approximately twenty minutes if one does not miss a train, leaving a short time to have lunch. So, I rushed from class to Portcullis, only to find that the Catalonians were having a tour of Westminster. I waited for a while, but eventually had to head back to class. Oh well!
We were entertaining the Catalonians because a while ago one of our MPs had put forth an Early Day Motion – roughly equivalent to a resolution in the American political system – condemning the Spanish High Court’s gutting of a referendum on greater powers for the Catalonian government. The essence of the EDM was the expression of solidarity between the Welsh and the Catalonians, both nations within states. The Catalonians may have misread the weight of the EDM, though, as they viewed it as Westminster taking up the issue of Catalonian independence. They’ve used the EDM (which they call the Westminster Declaration) as a way to inject some energy into the movement. An online website, specifically designed for the trip to London, collected close to 12,000 signatures of support (and I’m sure quite a lot of fundraising). The EDM was a big deal in Catalonia.
It was a shame I rushed back to campus and missed the Catalonians, as our guest lecturer didn’t show up! One of the staff for our program was out sick during the week, which led to a mix-up in the plans. I was actually a few minutes late to the planned start of the lecture. At that time I was glad the lecturer was at least late. When it was clear he wasn’t coming, we headed to a rooftop café on campus that we just discovered. I had some curry and caught up on the latest happenings in the word while waiting for class. We went to visit our favorite local establishment, where we played a game of scrabble (a first: I’ve never played a board game in a drinking establishment)
Tuesday in the office promised to be a bit hectic. The Armed Forces Bill was up for consideration and debate on the floor of the commons, and it was very likely that our MP would be speaking, which meant that we needed to be on top of everything. The day actually turned out to be quite dull, as it happened we were already prepared and there were no fires to put out. I turned back to my research into cyberstalking. In the afternoon I attended a meeting with some of the organizers of the committee for stalking and harassment. We tried to work out some strategies for the committee, much of which I can’t go into. It was a productive meeting though!
Wednesday was more of the same. Even though it’s only been two weeks in the office, I’ve settled into a routine, more or less. I spent the morning doing more research. The afternoon brought more research, a trip to the card store to buy a couple of cards for people in the office (so much pressure is involved in finding a greeting card without political overtones!). When I returned to the office, one of the researchers offered me a trip up Big Ben the next day, to which I agreed. I then went to a briefing on Sudan, and chatted with the researcher a bit about likely scenarios post-independence of South Sudan. There are so many challenges to overcome before anything that resembles peace might be achieved – every day brings some sort of perspective. After the briefing I went to the weekly meeting with the Scottish National Party.
Our MPs and staff decided that it was a good night to have some drinks after work; I agreed. We began with a few pints on the terrace, which is a portion of the Palace that is off-limits to passholders unless you are with an MP or Lord. It overlooks the Thames, and rivals the Memorial Union Terrace in terms of view. It is easily an instant favorite of mine. Unfortunately on this day the weather would not cooperate (who knew it rained to much in London!), so we headed inside to the Sports and Social. A few friends of the Party joined us, so it turned out to be a fairly late night for us. It was a great night of unwinding and ‘team-building’.
Thursday morning was kind of rough – an early wakeup and a slight headache made me regret agreeing to climb Big Ben (332 steps!). I soldiered on though and made it to the appointed place at the appointed time. What I didn’t realize, and the guide made clear to me, was that I was actually there to guide and sponsor a Londoner’s access to the tower. I apologized to the girl whom I had been sitting next to the whole time, and then got on with it. Apparently climbing Big Ben is a big deal: non-UK citizens are rarely allowed the honor (unless you happen to be a passholder like myself). UK citizens must apply for the tour and undergo security checks before they are allowed to climb. I won’t relate the fascinating history of Big Ben or the tower here, but please feel free to send me a message if you want to know more.
I spent the remainder of Thursday finishing my research into cyberstalking and preparing a briefing for the rest of the staff. I headed out relatively early and took the rest of the night easy.
Friday was one of the most interesting days I’ve had so far, and definitely one of the more fun days. We attended the Royal Ascot, which is where the Monarchy, the elite, and the commoners dress up and watch few horse races. It has been said that horse racing is the sport of Kings, and I believe it.
The adventure started at approximately 8:18 a.m., when one of the flat mates came into the common room where I was eating breakfast and asked, “dude, what are you going to wear today?” I honestly hadn’t thought about it till that point, but the Royal Ascot is not somewhere you want to show up underdressed. What’s more, the girls in the flat had been dress and hat shopping for a week or so in preparation for the event, so it was a bit comical that we had waited so long. The Ascot is a place for fashion, and the name of the game is hats (also called fascinators…?). Depending on where your tickets are (Royal Enclosure, Grandstand, Silver Ring), the dress code changes. For example, if you have tickets to the Royal Enclosure, you can’t wear brown shoes. Men have to be in either black or grey morning suits, with waistcoat and top hat. If you don’t meet the code, you don’t get in.
I had been planning on khakis and a blazer, but at the last minute we decided we would go all out, depending on if we could find top hats. We had originally planned on catching the train at 9:30, so we would need to hustle if we were going to make it to the Ascot in time.
Us guys donned our best suits and set off for Oxford Circus, which is a tourist trap where a lot of fashionable stores are. Unfortunately, the tube line that we take to Oxford was severely delayed, and also packed, as it was rush hour. Everyone in our party eventually found a place on the train but me. Being that we were crunched for time, I anxiously awaited the next train. The announcer came on and said it would be between five and six minutes. Ten minutes later he came on and announced the line was closed, there would be no more trains from this station, which presented a large problem for me as there was no direct line to Oxford and no time to change stations. I decided to grab a bus, though I am not very familiar with the bus system here. I asked an attendant at the station which bus was the best, ran and caught the bus, and somehow only lost fifteen minutes in the process. I met up with the guys down at Oxford Circus, where they had found top hats to hire. We then spent some time finding waistcoats (vests). We were only an hour and a half late, which wasn’t too bad considering when we set off on the adventure. We then ran through the tube station to catch a train (we missed it), then changed at the next station and ran to catch our connection (we missed it), then hustled to buy tickets and get on the train to the Ascot (we just barely made it). An hour later we made it to the racetrack.
The thing about the Ascot is that it is just the same as any large festival back in the states: live bands, food and drink, and a party atmosphere. The only difference, really, is that everyone is very, very smartly dressed. Apparently the outfits we pulled together at the last minute worked, as we had several official and candid photos taken of us. The other difference is that betting was actively encouraged – after all this was a horse race. I placed a couple of small wagers, but didn’t win. We had an amazing time there, even despite the rain. At one point the guys all lit up some cigars, and the cameras really came out then. There are some great pictures of us that, if put in black and white, might be indistinguishable from pictures taken in the 1920’s. I’ll try to post a few.
We topped off the night with a visit to Gary, where we retold our stories in detail. He had been gracious enough to supply us with umbrellas and coolers, all of which came in extremely handy. We had some food (steak and ale pie), and the group slowly melted back to the flat. A few of us stayed later, and eventually there were two of us. At that point Gary was intent on keeping us there for a while, so it turned out to be a very late night for me, though the focus was on the conversations with Gary rather than the alcohol he was providing. I can’t think of a better way to cap off an amazing day or an amazing month.