John Walsh: And they call this democracy?

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The Independent Online

Waiting for the Tube on Monday morning, I met a friend I hadn't seen for a while. He was a successful barrister last time I saw him. How was the advocacy business? "It's fine," he replied, "but I'm spending most of this week at the House of Lords, staying up all night dealing in minute bits of legislation." Indeed, I said (adopting a grave expression), I respect your commitment to helping the Upper House pass vital bills...

"It's not like that," he said. "The Labour peers are tabling at least 50 amendments to a Bill about electoral reform, in the hope of talking it out. They will go on and on all night about really nothing at all. It's called a filibuster." Hang on, I said. Do you mean these skilled debaters will argue for hours and hours about amendments they don't actually want?" He smiled at my indignation. "The only point is to kill time. There will be lots of amendments about which, after a couple of hours, they'll say, 'Under the circumstances I withdraw the amendment'."

But, I asked, isn't this all incredibly childish? Isn't it like a five-year-old putting his fingers in his ears and humming to drown the voice of another five-year-old? He gave me an old-fashioned look. "It's called democracy, John," he said.

I've enjoyed the lobby reports from the front-line of the Great Lords Talk-In: the stories of toasted sandwiches at the all-nite Bishops' Bar, the ad hoc dormitories gallantly divided into Lords and Ladies, the card games and Scrabble sets for the enervated, the snoozing figures of Neil Kinnock and David Puttnam on the red benches, the fringe events like a talk by Julian Fellowes, writer of Gosford Park and Downton Abbey, on "A Life on Stage and Screen".

I loved hearing about the thoughtful provision of free Anadin along with the complimentary wine, and the use of camp beds, as if a couple of hundred Noble Lords were revisiting their schooldays when they went on cadet-force manoeuvres in the New Forest on just such canvas divans... How charming. How terribly British, to adopt this bunker mentality (vide the Blitz, vide Dunkirk) to stop the opposition forcing through the immensely gripping Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill 2010-2011. But isn't it all a bit foolish? What were the amendments that Labour lords were trying to vote through? I looked them up.

They sound like this. Amendment 74D runs: "Page 10, line 15, at end insert 'in Northern Ireland, considerations arising from the co-terminosity of parliamentary constituencies and the multi-member constituencies for the Northern Ireland Assembly under the Northern Ireland Act 1998'..." Whichever lord proposed this opaque addition is allowed to discuss it for an hour or two, wandering down random lanes of digression, bringing in fantastically irrelevant subjects. Yesterday, one lord chattered on about numerology, another about Scottish football, a third about cannibalism. There are 126 amendments, and lords can drone on about each one of them until the Committee Stage of the debate runs out of time.

Political commentators mostly produce a wry smile at these goings-on. The rest of us might legitimately wonder about a democratic system that's temporarily run by the rules of Radio 4's Just a Minute, in which you can talk whatever old bollocks you like, on randomly chosen subjects, just as long as you keep on talking and don't let your rivals get a word in. And you enlist the country's finest legal brains to draw up legislation that nobody actually cares two hoots about. Doesn't it all seem the biggest waste of human talent since the Large Hadron Collider?

How the tale of the whale proved a reporter's dream

Next week sees the opening, at the Natural History Museum in Tring, Hertfordshire, of the Thames Whale Story. Remember the tragic little news tale in January 2006, about the northern bottlenose whale which lost its way and gradually swam up the Thames, hotly pursued by TV crews and attentive crowds? The museum tells the story of the hapless mammal and displays its skeleton.

It's a happy event for me because it recalls one of the best bits of reportage of recent years. A Sunday paper reported, from Chelsea embankment, overhearing these words from an indulgent Chelsea mother to her (unseen and unheard) small son: "Yes darling, the poor whale looks a bit sad. He's sad because he is lorst. He's lorst because he has become separated from his pod. (Exasperated) No-oh, darling, not his iPod...".

Ban these ridiculous contraptions for good

Mr Phillip Coates, an unemployed factory worker from south Yorkshire, has become the first UK citizen to be nicked for riding a Segway, on a Pontefract pavement. The judge at Barnsley magistrates' court fined him £75 after ruling that the device is a motor vehicle and therefore has no place on a public walkway. Yes, but that's not the point, is it?

The Segway has no place on a pavement because it is the most irritating moving object in the entire actual universe. It's impossible for anyone to ride this two-wheel monstrosity without looking both a) a ridiculous pillock and b) ineffably superior. It's a sort of motorised Gyles Brandreth.

I think it's because the rider stands up on the thing, with his hands just so on the handlebars, and glides past the rest of us pedestrian toilers six inches above the ground, that one is irresistibly reminded of a priest clutching a pulpit and looking benignly down on poor sinners. The fact that Lembit Opik and George W Bush are fans says it all. The only thing that stops us from seizing Segway riders and tearing them limb from limb is the happy recollection that the owner of the Segway company drove one of the bloody things over a cliff last October.