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UK Politics

Andy McSmith's Diary: 2013 - a year of discoveries - from secret gardens to extraterrestrial trysts


It is approaching that time of the year when you take a backward look and think to yourself: what do I know now that I didn’t know a year ago?

I have worked in the Palace of Westminster for longer than the lifetime of a Norwegian Forest Cat (see below), but in 2013 I discovered three astonishing things. In the middle of the complex of buildings is one of London’s greatest lost courtyards. The cloister court, built in the 14th century and renovated during the reign of Henry VIII, is now completely enclosed, with only narrow wooden doors opening on to it. Like so much of the palace, it needs urgent repairs. Getting the necessary equipment into the courtyard will require lifting it, by crane, over the roof of the Commons, seven storeys high.

In the House of Lords, they have their private rifle range. Its cost to the taxpayer is minimal because it is seldom used, but there is something scary about the thought of peers of the realm, whose eyesight is not what it was when they were young, 50 or 60 years ago, being in possession of such deadly weapons.

Third, a centuries-old rule lays down that MPs are entitled to a pinch of snuff as they enter the Chamber. Ensuring that it is available is the responsibility of the Principal Doorkeeper, Robin Fell, who has to pay out of his own pocket. Luckily, his predecessor bequeathed him a full snuff box, and demand is low, so it has not cost him anything yet.

A tale pf two towns

I never knew there was a town called Hawick, until I learnt there are two. One is a place of high-speed car chases, prostitution, drive-by shootings and general mayhem and murder and features on Grand Theft Auto V. The other is a small town in Roxburghshire, on the road that links Edinburgh to Carlisle, a place with 15,000 law-abiding citizens best known for its Common Riding festival, when hundreds of horse riders parade through its streets. Its inhabitants are quite cross with the Edinburgh-based game makers, Rockstar North, creators of the GTA series. John Lamont, the local member of the Scottish Parliament, has asked them to come and see him in his office in Hawick High Street.

Ding dong destiny

Something else I never knew was that the lyricist Yip Harburg was born on 8 April 1896. He wrote the lyrics to “Ding Dong the Witch is Dead”. It was on his 117th birthday that we lost that other great world figure, Margaret Thatcher.

Yoghurt with nothing added

An event I sadly missed was the First Global Summit on the Health Effects of Yoghurt, held in Boston on 24 April 2013, so I am afraid I have no new information to impart on that subject. Apologies.

Unclaimed streak prize

And another gap in my knowledge: Alki David, billionaire founder of the Battlecam website, made an open offer in February to pay a year’s tuition fees to the first student to streak in front of Nick Clegg. I can find no record that anyone has collected the prize.

Ukip’s space cadets...

The May council elections were a triumph for Ukip, under whose banner some unusual specimens assumed councillor duties. Some were nasty, some were – how can we put it? – distinctive. A favourite of mine is Elizabeth Ransome, a 26-year-old Ukip councillor for Boston, Lincolnshire, who took to Facebook with this pertinent inquiry: “I no [sic] this is probably a stupid question but is tuna a real fish like ones that swim in water?” I hope she found the answer.

... and aliens

No Ukip councillor can match the exotic life of Simon Parkes, a driving instructor and Labour councillor in Whitby, Yorkshire. The welfare officer of the Norwegian Forest Cat Society, his mother, he says, was a 9ft-tall alien with eight fingers, and he has been having sex outside marriage four times a year with an alien called the “Cat Queen”, by whom he has a child, named Zarka. “My wife found out and was very unhappy,” he told a Channel 4 documentary.

This Diary is now closing down for the festive season and is back again in January