There's something poetic about Parliament in the dead of night

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The extraordinary scenes at Parliament over the Prevention of Terrorism Bill probably startled a lot of people who had forgotten that this sort of thing can happen. The House of Commons sent the Bill to the Lords; the Lords sent it back with amendments; the Commons sent it back, making amendments to the Lords' amendments and adding Reasons thereunto, as the Votes and Proceedings put it; the Lords made further amendments to the Commons amendments of the Lords amendments, the writers of the minutes going half-mad...

The extraordinary scenes at Parliament over the Prevention of Terrorism Bill probably startled a lot of people who had forgotten that this sort of thing can happen. The House of Commons sent the Bill to the Lords; the Lords sent it back with amendments; the Commons sent it back, making amendments to the Lords' amendments and adding Reasons thereunto, as the Votes and Proceedings put it; the Lords made further amendments to the Commons amendments of the Lords amendments, the writers of the minutes going half-mad...

As I write, it has been going on for 24 hours. Probably to most people, the scenes of madness, of 5am votes, of the Clerk of the Parliaments with stately tread walking from one chamber to the other, the Bill bound in red ribbon rather than green, all seem very peculiar indeed. Who on earth conducts their business like this?

Well, Parliament does, and to me it brought back memories of a previous existence, when I worked in the House of Commons as a clerk during the last Tory government. Then, all-night sittings were much more common, particularly during the consideration of the Maastricht Bill, though none of them was as long as this one - the last sitting which lasted over 24 hours was on the Disqualifications Bill in 2000, and before that the Housing Bill in 1988. They've still got a long way to go, as I write, to beat the record set in 1881, when the house sat for 41-and-a-half hours continuously over the Persons and Property (Ireland) Bill.

In the small hours, the House takes on its most Gormenghast-like air. The chamber itself is hardly attended at all, but since the business must be important to be kept going all night, nobody has gone very far. Little pockets of light and warmth can be found in the tea room, where the members go, and the policemen and security staff huddle over cups of tea in the canteen.

Everywhere, in chairs, Pugin chaise-longues, in lobbies, in offices, in the warm and welcoming library, officers, members, staff stretch out and try to go to sleep. It's not wise, I found, to take your shoes off before trying to catch 40 winks; if you are rudely awakened by the Division Bell - the world's most brutal alarm bell - you can waste a good minute struggling into them, and I did once give up and take a division in bare feet.

One colleague was caught out even more badly; having taken the word of the Table Office that nothing was going to happen for another couple of hours, he decided to have a bath. (The House of Commons is full of such odd Victorian amenities.) Predictably, the Division Bell went; he made a dash for it, dressing in the lift, and presented himself in a state of most peculiar damp déshabillé.

Me, I usually spent the small hours working on a novel, and don't miss anything else about the job; but I do rather miss that extraordinary 4am atmosphere, junior ministers snoring on benches in corridors, caffeine-fuelled Whips prowling like tigers, and the slightly dismal small-hours refuelling with a cold meat pie and as much coffee as you could take. It just seemed the moment when the mad palace, with its thousands of corridors and undiscovered rooms was most itself, and I rather miss it. Sensible? No, but only the most unfeeling politician wouldn't think there wasn't something dramatic, even poetic, about such occasions.

Dressed for the part

More déshabillé in California, where Michael Jackson presented himself in court, an hour and three minutes late, in an outfit consisting of a pair of pyjamas and a dinner jacket over the top. The judge wasn't having any of it, and I don't wonder. Mr Jackson's mysterious illnesses have a strange habit of coinciding with his brushes with the law, and this outfit had more of a touch of the semiotic about it.

First of all, it said, more or less, "I am seriously ill," rather unconvincingly; I mean, Mr Jackson was complaining of back pain, but was quite capable of walking from the car. I don't know what sort of back pain it is that you are ordered into your PJs immediately.

Secondly, of course, it said, "I am a suffering star; I have to dress the part at all times, even if it looks rather odd." Mr Jackson has been detached from reality for so long that no one in his entourage, evidently, could say, "You know, people don't necessarily stay in their pyjamas for a bit of back pain, and they certainly don't turn up at court dressed like that."

The judge, Rodney Melville, is obviously not tolerating it. But I wonder whether, behind closed doors, a sensible man like that might not have pointed an obvious truth out to Jackson's lawyer. It might not be altogether a good idea to turn up to a child-abuse case looking as if, even now, you are ready to go to bed in your dear little jim-jams.

Why on earth would anyone want to look 10 years younger?

* FIRST, IN a genre, you get the bold innovators. Then you get the alternative takes on the same subject. Then the genre enters its decadent stage, and you get a complete load of old rubbish.

The TV personal makeover show has gone from the first stage to the last in record time, and is now scraping the bottom of the barrel. Round our way, we are absolutely addicted to the terrible spectacle of a Miss Nicky Hambleton-Jones, a potato-faced Strine bimbo, the hopeless perpetrator of something called Ten Years Younger. The idea is that you take some nice wrinkly old dear, spend a fortune in plastic surgery on her, and at the end of the programme, people think she's 45 rather than 55, and the presenter says for the fourth time in half an hour, "Yow look amizing."

Whether idiocy can stretch any further is uncertain, but we watch it, chiefly, for Miss Hambleton-Jones's ludicrous ideas of fashion, evidently formed in youth in Wagga Wagga and never subsequently altered. "She's not going to foist that old fur gilet on another punter." "She is." "She did that last week, and the week before." "Blimey, not that Motörhead belt, again, surely to God?" "That must be four weeks running." "If not five."

We love it, in a car-crash sort of way, but you do find yourself asking why on earth so unreasonable a proposal as a plastic-surgery show seemed like a good idea. The viewers, mostly, couldn't afford to emulate the makeover; it's hardly a surprise to discover that with a surgeon, you could improve your looks temporarily; and is it the sort of thing which anyone ought to be encouraged to undertake anyway? Why did anyone at Channel 4, having seen it, think that it was anything but a camp spectacle? Most of all, why would anyone sensible really want to pass themselves off as 10 years younger? Amizing, as its presenter would say.

Deborah Orr is away

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