IT COST only two shillings — for a taxi one way. The performance was so stimulating I walked home.
Matinees begin promptly at 2.30. Long before that, the audience is on hand. It is an audience remarkable for patience and optimism, for since seats for the public are limited to the space of a cramped choir loft, odds against actually getting into the Mouse of Commons are always high.
There is an air of tempered excitement, of pleasant bustle, but almost no noise. It is at once evident that whoever is in charge of casting has an eye for detail. The policemen who keep the streets outside clear of traffic bottlenecks and dissolve clots of the curious with no more than a reproving glance are the largest, the most amiable, and the pinkest in all London.
The fortunate few who hold Orders of Admission are not harried. On the contrary, they are made to feel they are being helped through a period of personal crisis. It would be so unimaginably dreadful to go through the wrong door, or to hang one’s hat on a Member’s peg, a visitor can only be grateful for the whispered hints.
On the stroke of the half-hour the Mace Bearer, robed in black and white, and followed by the Speaker, appears off L. The crowd parts. The last faint whisper dies. The small procession disappears. A door closes. The House is sitting.
At each side of the great oak and gilded Gothic room are five rows of benches covered with red leather. There are no designated places, no crannies for dull papers. Actors here must know their lines. The Speaker’s square, flat table at one end of the long chamber nearly fills the space between the front benches of Government and Opposition.
Mr. Attlee looks rather small and tired. His arms wrapped round him, he sits slumped down so far that several inches of the red upholstery show above his balding head. Later the Prime Minister simply gets up and goes away, unnoticed. Mr. Herbert Morrison, disheveled but happy in this his natural element, alertly lounges.
Attendance on the Opposition side is excellent. Tailoring is in the great tradition. The Lords have deleted t he clause in 1 he Government’s Criminal Justice Bill which sought to abolish capital punishment. Today Government will offer a compromise. Opposition, like the Peers, stands foursquare for hanging.
Since the debate will be long and few expect to be convinced, there is at first only a scattering of Labor Members. (They will come later when a vote is taken.) But there are enough to provide contrast. Like Mr. Attlee, most of them look tired. Like Mr. Morrison’s, Labor’s suits need pressing.
Question Time brings up the curtain, sets the stage, identifies the players.
. . . Lt. Com. Gurney Braithwaite (C.) demands of the Minister of Fuel and Power: “Why Mr. T. Taylor, farmer, of The Bungalow, Sproatley, was refused five extra gallons of petrol for the purpose of visiting the Royal Show at York ? ” Members of the Cabinet answer that query and a list of 107 others, for three quarters of an hour. The pace is fast. Interruptions and witticisms fly like sparks from Roman candles. Solemnity has short shrift and inaccuracy none at all.
Once, there is a tiny pause, no longer than one beat of a conductor’s baton. The Actor-Manager has made his entrance. The round head gleams pink in the light from the windows high above. He puts down a black dispatch box on the Speaker’s desk and sits in the front row. The massive, stooping shoulders, the stalwart, chunky body, are garbed in it short morning coat and sponge-bag trousers. In a House where it is the rule that no one may be addressed by name, it is “the Right Honorable Member from Woodford.” Wlsewhere he is known as Winston Churchill.
Swiftly now, the show begins.
Government’s champion today is as well cast as the policemen at the gates. He is the young AttorneyGeneral, Sir Hartley Shawcross, handsome as a film star. He speaks without notes, and well. He wears about him a hint of shining armor, a flutter of white banners in the sun. He pleads for the sanctity of human life, but he defers to judgments which differ from his own. Because of them, and because “in another place” (for neither is it permitted here to mention the House of Lords) total abolition of the death penalty has been rejected, he seeks to persuade compromise. Let hanging, then, be reserved only for those who more brutally and with most premeditation kill . . .
For an hour the clear voice rings out and is given complete attention.
Sir Hartley sits down. Negligently he crosses his ankles and rests his heels on the edge of the Speaker’s desk. During his long rebuttal nothing will figure so prominently on Mr. Churchill’s usually unlimited horizon as the soles of Sir Hartley’s boots, not six feet from him.
The most famous of living voices broods and rumbles. He wrings uneasy laughter from his audience by mocking inquiries as to how the Gentlemen Opposite propose to separate good murderers from bad. His style is Elizabethan. His comic touches are as broad as a Second Gravedigger’s.
The Leading Juvenile is undismayed. When his giant opponent ends he returns like a terrier to the attack. He begins: “ The Right Honorable Gentleman, in his desire to retain the gallows . . . Fhe flick of the last two syllables almost visibly draws blood. The Star growls in his throat and the broad but rounded shoulders stir under the black broadcloth.
The debate is open now. The afternoon wanes. It is England and it is time for tea but no one leaves. A Member points out that the torrents of talk will spare or end at very most eight human lives a year.
An ill-dressed Government fronthencher with a blond mop of tousled hair and a thick north-country accent is interrupted by a Distinguished Personage. Not only Savile Row but centuries have gone into creating him. He is tall. The lean profile, the clipped mustache, are as impeccable as the crease of his striped trousers. He speaks the English tongue as if he owned it, too. With a few haughty and skillful phrases he disposes of, he totally abolishes, the common little man who stands - is it so incongruously ? - and dares to speak in that great hall.
There is another microscopic pause. Il is hardly longer than the click of a camera’s shutter but it is nevertheless perceptible. Breaths are held. All feel the same question. Here opposed are gentleman and man, the sure past and the unsure future.
The pause ends. Mere man is unshaken. His feet are firmly planted.
“The noble Lorrrd,” he resumes, “with his charracterris-tic impudence . . .” The shade of William Langland smiles.
Dark comes. Fhe yellow electric lights go on. The hour for dinner is ignored as was the hour for tea. Debate - warm and chill, obstinate or pleading - runs on like a turbulent river. Interruptions are frequent. No one is permitted merely to drone on. Speakers will be hooted into oblivion if they bore, or - sin of sins on this broad stage — dare to read a speech.
Not till long after midnight is a vote taken. The Government’s compromise is carried by 332 to 196. The Lords’ further amendment, to retain flogging, is dismissed.
The session has lasted eleven hours. The run—close on seven hundred years.