Tiffin in the Tower of Flints

My colleague Matthew raised his head from the file he was perusing, and looked thought-fully at me. He sucked hard on the end of his biro. "They've always reminded me," he said, after a while, "of the denizens of Gormenghast."

The previous afternoon, I'd been for a job interview with the Clerk's Offices in the Houses of Parliament. I'd applied rather by accident, as an after-thought on the application for the job I actually wanted; and when they invited me for a visit, I accepted. After all, it's not every day you get to wander around the Houses of Parliament for hours.

The Clerks are responsible for the smooth running of the Parliamentary machine. They ensure that drafts of bills, amendments, questions and so forth conform to the rules of the relevant House. They service the various Commons and Lords committees, and advise lesser nations on the finer points of parliamentary procedure. Above all, they ensure that tradition is maintained.

I had been to both the Commons and the Lords before. If you're ever in the Palace of Westminster, it's worth knowing two things. The first is that there are policemen everywhere, on the lookout for interlopers. Stride boldly around the corridors of power, looking as if you know where you're going, and you'll never be stopped or challenged. Pause, even for a microsecond, and a policeman will descend on you. "Can I help you, madam?" The second is the tip for if you're really lost. Look down. If the carpet is green, you're in the House of Commons; if it's red, you're in the House of Lords. (Interestingly, this also works on their web site.)

I arrived at the House of Lords at 2pm in my smartest suit, and was met by a clerk with an agenda for my afternoon, planned to the finest detail. I was whisked from clerk to clerk, as they explained the various arcane rituals of their profession. They explained how important it was that everything be done correctly. "We have a word for it, you know -- clerkly. Perfection is the clerkly way of doing things. We call it clerkliness." In the table office, they explained that each day at 4pm, papers are laid before the House of Lords. At 3:59 and 58 seconds, there was a knock on the door from the minion with that day's papers. The odd Peer pottered around. No odder than average, I was told.

I was ushered into the office of a Very Senior Clerk Indeed. I could tell he was very senior because his trousers didn't reach his ankles but instead were tucked into silk stockings. "I think it's quite a nice career," he said. "We do strive for clerkliness. And I would hate to think that any of my staff were under stress." He adjusted his powdered wig and smiled.

I learnt a bit more about how they manage to avoid stress. The two Houses have entirely separate Clerk's Offices, with separate routines, organisations and so on. If this is queried, they explain that the work is completely different and the skills aren't remotely transferable. Each office has only one Clerk, supported by a pantheon of deputy clerks, assistant clerks, principal clerks and so on. The Clerk ranks as a permanent secretary. To give an indication of comparative responsibility, the Permanent Secretary of the Department of Social Security (where I work) has over 80,000 staff and is accountable for some £90 billion of public expenditure. There are less than three hundred people in the clerkly grades, and a few hundred lower grade admin staff.

Speaking of the admin staff, it's almost unheard of for any of these to move into a clerkship. It was explained to me that they tend to lack essential clerkliness. I wondered if they might also find their lower paid and less rewarding jobs stressful.

The third clerk I saw looked at his watch. "It's tea-time. We'll have our chat over tea." In the House of Lords dining room, a waitress brought our tea and cakes. Very Elderly Slightly Important People surrounded me on all sides. "Many of the clerks pop down here for tea each afternoon; it's a civilised way to work."

At some point, I was whisked out of the Lords and into the Commons. The carpet was green and it was noticeably chillier. "Ah, yes," they explained. "The House of Lords is kept very warm, because of all the extremely old Peers. It's an odd place. We like to think we're much more, well, dynamic, in the Commons." I visited the bill office, and got firsthand evidence of this. Rather than use, say, a stapler, the bills are tied together with ribbons (green in the Commons, red in the Lords). When they pass from one house to the other, they are annotated in 14th century Norman French. After all, that was what they used to begin with, and they've never seen any reason to change.

I met various denizens of the Commons. They explained that the job includes unsociable hours; clerks must be there whenever the House is sitting, late into the night during the week. But in return, you can usually get away early on a Friday, and clerks get most of the recesses off (which is to say, about four months a year). To make up for all this hardship, all the clerks are automatically promoted to a grade roughly equivalent to a minor deity after 15 years or so.

I got thoroughly lost as we meandered round the labyrinth, went up and down stairs, along corridors. We came to a door marked This Door Must be Kept Locked at All Times. "It's a shortcut," explained my host. "It's never locked." And it wasn't. Eventually, our meanderings led us to the Strangers Bar. "It's true we have to stay in the House while it's sitting," he explained. "But most of us stay in the bar. Normally we drink in one of the Members' bars, but we can't take you there. So we've come here tonight. Would you like a pint?" I had a few. At closing time, I ambled past Big Ben, and out of the Palace.

Matthew finally reached a conclusion. "I don't think you'd fit in there, you know." Quite.

-- Alison Scott

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