London: the Houses of Parliament with Thomas the Tank Engine

The Houses of Parliament by Claude Monet
The Houses of Parliament by Claude Monet









Unsurprisingly I like having breakfast and I like spreading old English marmalade on my toast. Did the English invent marmalade? I don’t know. Anyway, as I eat my toast and marmalade I sometimes listen to Radio 4 and, because an election is on its way, I tune in to a programme called ‘Yesterday in Parliament’. It’s a well-wrought programme and the astute editors somehow manage to piece together a precis of whatever of note took place during the political debates in both the House of Commons and the House of Lords. The editors provide a narrative that is supplemented by recordings taken during the debates themselves. It’s strangely beguiling – although I’m not quite sure why.

There’s often a current of humour that characterises the utterances, the speeches of the parliamentarians; the humour is often wry or sardonic, witty or laconic – and sometimes very clever. Sometimes it’s just knock-about; sometimes it verges on farce. One of the great things about this humour is that it reminds everyone that most of life is arational – and not to be taken too seriously. (I think this is one way in which the French and English differ.)

Last week during Radio 4’s ‘Yesterday in Parliament’ the editor decided to include a short piece on a debate about the actual running of the Palace of Westminster – the famous building which accommodates both the House of Commons and the House of Lords. It’s all rather expensive: apparently it costs £200 million pounds to keep the show on the road and there are something like 200 staff whose job it is to maintain the buildings and help with the overall management and administration of the place.

Members of Parliament then pitched in with their ideas about the future ‘effective and efficient’ management of the distinguished Houses of Parliament – and this is when things started to get funny in a typically British way. This and that (processes and procedures) were in need of an overhaul.

One former semi-socialist Home Secretary complained about the failure of proper project management and took as his example the refurbishment of the gym. (Goodness! I didn’t even know that there was a gym in the Palace of Westminster.) Anyway, the plans to enhance the gym had been revised and then re-revised several months after the original work had commenced; the whole project was a shambles.

Then, in the same debate a Liberal Democrat MP (from heaven-knows-where) urged the house to grapple with the fact that much of the Palace of Westminster was ‘redundant’: he then added that the problem was trying to determine what actually was truly redundant. No one knew how to pinpoint the irrevocably redundant. So a project group was necessary to identify the genuinely redundant bits of something assumed to be redundant. (I laughed.)

But the piece de resistance in the debate occurred when a notoriously right–wing Conservative Member of Parliament voiced the result of his thinking about what, indeed, to call the creation of a new post that would have responsibilities for managing the Palace. The Member in question is almost a caricature of an ‘old-style upper-class Englishman. He came up with the suggestion that whoever was appointed to fill this demanding and imperious role might be called ‘controller’. What about having a ‘controller?’

However, he had tested this idea with a well-known journalist of a national newspaper. He had asked the journalist what would come to mind if he thought of the word ‘controller’.

Without a moment’s hesitation the journalist replied ‘fat’. (I laughed again.)

The right-wing Member of Parliament noted that the subsequent conversation took a detour – it went down a metaphorical branch line – but that he would desist from making any more references or allusions to Thomas the Tank Engine. (I laughed again.)

Yesterday in Parliament’ may not be a comedy programme but it certainly has many comedic moments. And the association with a children’s book reminded everyone of the hidden meanings lurking just below the surface in jokes and repartee.


The Fat Controller is one of the distinctive figures (he’s fat) in the children’s book series featuring the industrious Thomas the Tank Engine.

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