Hertfordshire and Beyond: Palace of Westminster

[Kat Clements | Contributing Writer]

It was a day off. I was sleeping in, because it’d been a long few days and I wasn’t expecting anything that day. I’d only just woken up at noon when I got the call.

‘Hello?’ I said, sitting up in bed and trying to sound like someone who’d been awake and working for hours.

‘Are you doing anything tomorrow? Do you want some work?’

I’ve never woken up so fast. By the time I got off the phone, I had a job in London – some freelance work, nothing complicated, a client I’d worked for before. They had a meeting in Westminster and wanted some PR. I dragged myself out of bed and found my camera, setting my battery to charge and clearing out the SD card.

‘It’s in the Houses of Parliament,’ I was told that evening. It’s a parliamentary joint lobby on the future of the BBC. Some MPs will be there.

No problem. I buy a train ticket and head to bed early. I don’t need to be at Parliament until 3, no rush.

Image: Kat Clements
Image: Kat Clements

First impressions

When I walked out of Westminster station, I was momentarily overwhelmed. As you head up the steps you get a straight-on, close-up view of Big Ben, which was chiming the hour as I arrived. There was a red bus going past, there were official-looking black sedans with tinted windows, tourists everywhere, the Thames lapping at the edge of the Embankment. It was the most ridiculously British thing I’d ever seen – I had a surreal moment of disbelief, as though I were watching an American filmmaker’s idea of London.

A few hours later, I finally manage to get a call through to my client. I’d been told that I’d be briefed that day when we met in front of parliament, so I only took along my general wide-angle lens; I didn’t know anything about the setup, so I compromised.

Did you know you’re not allowed to carry a tripod into the Houses of Parliament? And you can’t take photos outside of the committee rooms, either. Made my life a little harder, but whatever.

Anyway – finally got the call through.

‘Oh yeah,’ he says, casually, ‘the NUJ want to use your photos too. Maybe the Writer’s Guild. Equity were asking as well.’

Minor panic attack.

‘Might make national news. Don’t stress it.’

By now I’m about as stressed as I’ve ever been in my life, sitting in the Victoria Tower Gardens, watching the Thames lap against the bank. Big Ben strikes 12. In three hours, I’m going to be walking into the home of our nation’s government, with my little Samsung NX200, to listen to MPs debate the future of the BBC, and my pictures could be going to the National Union of Journalists. This could literally be the beginning or the end of my career.

Exploring Westminster

I spent the next three hours exploring Westminster. I’d never actually been there before, so I wanted to take a look around. It’s pretty nice, but I wasn’t really dressed for walking – I was told to dress smartly, so I was wearing a professional suit and some smart, low heels. By the time I headed to meet my client outside St Stephens Gate, I was mostly done panicking. I’d spent a good proportion of that time imagining every possible worst-case scenario; my camera could break; my lens could get smashed; all my photos would turn out out of focus; I’d accidentally say something stupid and embarrassing in front of an MP or dignitary; I’d get lost in the Palace and end up getting arrested; just about any possible thing that could go wrong. I was already berating myself for not having brought my zoom lens; what if I was stuck at the back of the chamber? Maybe I should have brought my tripod. Was there an exception for committee rooms?

In short; I was panicking. I’ve done a lot of photography before; I’ve done a lot of freelance work before. But I’d never been to Parliament, and I had no idea what to expect, and I’d only got the call the day before; I hadn’t had a chance to do my research and prepare.

When I met my client at St Stephen’s Entrance, I pushed all the nerves aside and focussed on one thing: doing my job. This wouldn’t be too hard. I was a journalist. I’d done plenty of things like this before – only the location was different.

The Houses of Parliament, by the way, are pretty fancy. From the outside, mind you, the main impression is that “OTT” would be an understatement. The façade is carved and fluted with more gothic ornamentation per square foot than a Hammer Horror film. There are decorative twists and spikes on every flat surface. From a distance it’s charming; close to, it’s physically exhausting to look at.

To get inside, all visitors have to go through airport security style scanners, X-raying bags and metal detector arches. My client, the director of a non-profit representing the interests of BBC viewers, had a guide dog puppy (he and his wife train them to work with humans from a young age) with him, which made going through the scanners a little more awkward. But once you’re cleared by security, you can walk around to the grand entrance of Parliament and enter Westminster Hall.

Image: Kat Clements
Image: Kat Clements

Inside the Palace

The Hall is the oldest part of Westminster Palace. It was built by William II (the son of the Conqueror) and is one of the few surviving parts of the original parliament buildings; most of what we recognise as Westminster was built by the Victorians, after a fire in 1834. The Hall is massive, and – as was intended when it was built – inspires respect and awe. It was meant to humble any peasant walking inside with the power of the English throne, and the age of the building hasn’t made it any less impressive.

Walking up the huge flights of worn stone steps, we moved into the newer part of Parliament, reaching the Central Lobby. This is a sort of crossroads, with the entrance to the Hall on one side, the corridor leading to the Committee Rooms on the opposite, and the House of Lords and the House of Commons opposite each other. The Houses aren’t open to the public when the MPs are sitting, but the complexity of the architecture and decoration are more than interesting enough.

It’s easy to feel overwhelmed in this kind of environment. When the Palace was built it was filled with all the wealth and trappings of the Empire, and although the buildings are now falling into ruin in some places – estimates of repairs needed run into the millions – it’s hard to see unless you look closely. There are policemen at every corner, some carrying guns, and the corridors are filled with smartly dressed people. MPs, dignitaries, businesspeople, lobbyists, minor royals, ambassadors, and an awful lot of people wearing suits that were clearly worth more than my house. Naturally, as a seasoned reporter, I didn’t feel at all out of place.

OK, I might have been a little nervous. Most of my earlier panic had faded, but I’ve never been anywhere this fancy in my life and there’s something about the presence of policemen that can disquiet even the most honest citizen.

In the company of Prime Ministers

We headed up the stairs to the committee rooms. On the way, I noted marble busts of former Prime Ministers – Spencer Perceval, the only British PM to have been assassinated, Robert Peel, who started the very first Police Force, and a life-size statue of the great Gladstone, who led the British Empire in its heyday. There were oil paintings of various past dignitaries, stained glass windows, and generally a whole lot of expensive decoration. The committee rooms themselves were ranged along a narrow corridor, with benches outside to wait on, rather like lecture theatres but with wooden panelling. And stained glass. And oil paintings clearly worth more than my student loan debt.

The rooms themselves are the only places you can take pictures in the Palace. They’re wood panelled, with old fireplaces mostly bricked up, and ancient wooden desks – they have brass inkwell fittings still set into them and are scratched and dented with age. The high windows look directly over the Thames – it’s more than a little disconcerting to look out and only see water. There are old clocks, in elaborate wooden settings, ticking away over the doors, and the walls above the panelling are covered with velvety wall paper. The light fittings are chandeliers, retrofitted to contain fluorescent bulbs. Crudely wired into the walls are two TV screens, one green and one red, showing the business underway in the Houses. Any MP or Lord sitting in a committee meeting can easily see when a debate begins that they must attend, or if the House retires for a vote that they must be counted for. When the Houses adjourn for a vote an alarm rings to alert them. The ceilings are fitted with drop mics so that the proceedings can be recorded if required. The whole place is clearly otherwise unchanged from Victorian days.

The meetings themselves were relatively boring. Most of my day was spent following my client around, taking pictures of him talking with other attendees. The lighting in the committee rooms was better with natural light; as the sun began to set, the light in the rooms dimmed and became more artificial.

I was introduced to the head of the NUJ, who had asked for my photographs. I think that, despite my business suit and neat makeup, she could see how young I was. It wasn’t until the first meeting began that I realised that I was the youngest person in the room by a comfortable margin. I had turned 19 only the previous week; the next youngest person couldn’t have been less than 24 or so. I have to say, although by this point I was focussed solely on my photography, I was acutely aware that my camera wasn’t as professional as it should have been and I was not as experienced as I ought to be. This was the biggest job I’d ever really had.

The second meeting dragged on. There were representatives there from everyone who dealt with the BBC on a regular basis – Equity, the Writer’s Guild, the Musician’s Union, the NUJ, Broadcast, employees from 5Live and a coalition of independent radio stations, a foundation for children’s media, PACT (the association of independent production firms, who are often subcontracted by the BBC), and a huge range of other non-profits.

Image: Kat Clements
Image: Kat Clements

Raising the important issues

Shadow Culture Secretary, Chris Bryant MP, attended to make the opening speech; MPs Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell arrived later. I tried my best to balance out the orange tones of the florescent lights in my photography. I took notes as well, practising my shorthand, on the points that were raised. Although it was pretty boring, the subjects raised were important; raising, freezing or scrapping the license fee; replacing it with subscription or taxation models; comparisons with European models of state-funded broadcasting; the value of the BBC’s work (the BBC, for instance, is the single largest commissioner of new music worldwide, and the biggest employer of Musician’s Union members; it is also the source of Britain’s biggest exports, programmes like Sherlock and Doctor Who, which bring in millions in revenue and help expand “soft” or cultural power overseas); and discussions of the role of government in state-funded public service broadcasters and their ability to compete with commercial models.

Rules of freelancing

I spent much of my time searching for perfect shots of speakers, although as the light was dying it became harder and harder to balance the necessary aperture and shutter speeds. I came away from the meeting with a full SD card, the knowledge that I needed to upgrade my camera, and a much better understanding of our democratic process.

I was exhausted by the time my train pulled into the station, and my feet were killing me; it was lucky I hadn’t worn higher heels. After turning my SD card over to my employer, I fell fast asleep, ready to sort through my photographs the next day.

I haven’t yet learned the final distribution of my photographs; whether or not they’ll be used by any of the other attendees is unknown but looking increasingly unlikely. But I did learn some important lessons and gain vital experience (and met some important contacts). Have I been paid? Not yet. First rule of freelancing: don’t get too attached to your paycheck! But there are other jobs lined up in the future, and being able to put this kind of work on my CV – or my LinkedIn page, more accurately – is priceless. Probably.

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Hertfordshire and Beyond: Palace of Westminster