Westminster Gothic: Power and perversion in the body politic
When I was fourteen, we went on a school trip to Westminster. I don’t remember too much about it, only that, as we trooped through the Commons’ vast debating chamber – not quite smelling of cigar smoke for all its gentleman’s club leather buffed to an improbable sheen – my friend Peter picked up one of the massive volumes which sat on the desk in front of the Speaker’s Chair. He opened it at random, spat a wodge of chewed-up paper into the pages, and closed it. On the coach on the way home, we mused on what would happen when some lofty politican had cause to refer to the book on some obscure, arcane point of law, only to find Peter’s mastications splattered across the text.
Maybe it was something about the institutionality of the place that encouraged our disgraceful anarchic act. We had, after all, come from a monastery school whose long corridors and ancient classrooms weren’t unlike the lesser chambers of Westminster itself. As schoolboys used to subverting the system under which we daily laboured, it was logical that we should exhibit a similar reaction to the nation’s democratic locus.
Like some mythic narrative of atavistic gloom, Pugin and Barry’s palace looms large in our collective memory. Populated by medieval figures in stockings and tabards, processed about by archaic ritual, it stands foursquare in the heart of monumental London, flanked by the grey Portland stone of Whitehall, the authentic gothic of Westminster Abbey, and the cappuccino waters of the Thames. It is the embodiment of the establishment: an expression of democratic state, yet hemmed in by the Church of England and the residences of governance; a psychic space controlled by such leviathans of state which leaves only one escape route for any potential renegade, any parliamentary anarchist, to cast themselves off the terraces behind, and into the river, there to float downstream with the rest of the detritus, the floatsam and jetsam of history.