The House of fun: Dreadlocks in Parliament

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I recently took a tourist from the counterculture around the Palace of Westminster.

At about half past four on a cold Tuesday afternoon, with PM's Question Time over, there was no queue outside the Commons. The area round neargap of the half-open door was thick with policemen. They sized up my companion warily. Although only just over 5ft,3in, you can't be too careful when white people wear dreadlocks, particularly if they're topped off with an 18ineighteen inch multicoloured (Dr Seuss cat) hat.

I had instructed my friend to be on her best possible behaviour and not to shout out even if she saw someone in a fur coat. One of the policemen called her 'darling' as he indicated which X-ray machine she should pass through.; She merely scowled., but the Patriarchal Sexism lecture was not unleashed.

Having been through before, I declared my Swiss Army knife before it was detected. It has never raised an eyebrow in the past, but this time the policemen?y gathered round matily, sucking in their breath. 'Just make sure if you throw it, it's at an MP?, with all the blades out,' another jokedput in another. 'Right,' I said, wondering if these instructions would constitute a legal defence. In eight years of owning the knife, this non-advertised, 27th function had never occurred to me. Still, ask a policeman. Mind you, at 50fifty quid a throw, you'd have to be keen.

I looked around, and my friend was involved in a an excited discussion with several more officers. She wanted to see her bag on the X-ray monitor, but it wasn't possible. She's a people person, never passing up a chance to get into a long conversation. The trouble is that long conversations lead to the exchange of ideas, and that could be tricky here.

Eventually we got through to wait in the corridor leading to the lobby. Here we sawnoticed that the statues of the people of power lining the walls had two things in common; they were all men, and they were all fat. No change there. The marble likenesses, each one a testament to corpulence, looked down on their modern counterparts and saw themselves.

We got up to the strangers' gallery and took our seats. The chamber itself is surprisingly small, and looking down on it from the back of the gallery it resembles a cock-fighting bearpit from an old etching. Unfortunately we witnessed a mismatch; Robin Cook's wide-eyed cockerel did its best to rile the graceful Heron of Heseltine, but the taller bird wasn't listening, and simply left the arena. The debate was on the privatisation of coal, and the Beast of Bolsover, as usualwas at his usual position. This most formidable animal would surely liven the proceedings. He leaned forward promisingly a few times, but decided to hold his peace. Perhaps as a former miner he had too much to say.

As I pointed out the part of the gallery where MPs store their guests, Nicholas Fairburn popped his head - possibly the ugliest on the shoulders of a renowned ladies man anywhere - around the corner to collect his brood.

We decided to try the Lords. In the lobby we were stopped by a policeman who reminded me that this was the Palace of Westminster and asked me to d would I pleaseremove my hat. My friend could keep hers on, though, 'because she is a lady'. Rather than demand equal rights for all, she revelled in the privilege.

The splendour of the Lords reminded my friend of the Mosques of Morocco. She was also struck by their Lordships' politeness to each other compared with unlike in the Commons, where speeches were rudely drowned out by other conversations. 'You'd think they'd behave a bit better for the money they get,' she said. When I told here how much they actually got - pounds 31,687 - she was amazed that it was so little.

On the way out, one of the wing-collared retainers (all former sergeant majors)had broken his glasses. Ha] A chance to deploy the trusty Swiss Army knife. It has a screwdriver small enough to fit the tiny screw holding the arm in place. As I repaired the spectacles, my friend remarked how friendly the police were. He remarked, 'They're scared they might have to go back outside,' came the reply. 'And on thirty three grand, you can afford to be friendly.'

So the headquarters of the Establishment was inhabited by underpaid rude poeple, guarded by overpaid polite people

(Photograph omitted)