In Iraq, dauntless voters lined up, casting hand-written ballots meant to fabricate democracy. In Manhattan, long enfranchised but pissed-off fans lined the street outside Sony headquarters, demanding the release of Fiona Apple’s new album. In London, I was in a line that would not liberate a nation or even a few tracks of music. My line led, ultimately, to the tourist’s view of the House of Commons, where they wouldn’t even let me sit on the iconic green leather benches.
I had been looking forward to the moment when our British Life and Culture class would visit Parliament because I’ve always been intrigued and - I’ll admit - wildly amused by British democratic displays, like the boisterous “Prime Minister’s Questions.” I’ve watched the floor-stomping chaos that ensues when members of Parliament have the chance to question the Prime Minister on television, and despite countless viewings, the production has never failed to entertain.
I knew that I would not bear personal witness to any deliberate debauchery, as Parliament wouldn’t be in session that morning, and I would have been satisfied to visit the House of Commons and be regaled by a tour guide with several witty anecdotes about Parliamentary high jinx. Instead, we hiked through a gilded desert of cruel kings and unfortunate queens in the Palace of Westminster, where the Houses of Parliament are located. Parched for visions other than stoic painted royalty and gelatinous tour groups like ourselves, we reached the House of Lords. This interested me little, as an American of a certain age who is most fascinated by what she sees on television. I woke up as we made our way into the House of Commons, the spot of fluorescence in this gray-scale pilgrimage.
Here, I would surely learn about the exploits of those plucky commoners in Parliament! Instead, our tour guide spoke about deference in the party system, how the best way to rise to power is never to question party leadership. This deflating speech was delivered while we stood in the place that has been the backdrop for displays of the Parliamentary curiosity that I’ve learned to love. Stood, because we could not sit. The signs and our tour guide warned against sitting on those green leather benches that had been to me an icon of the democratic process at its best.
My disappointment in the visit to Parliament was driven by my entrenched expectations of the place. I had not pictured a stodgy palace draped in a robe of propriety, because American TV had offered me a much different vision. Television, and in fact all forms of second-hand witness, tends to condense or conceal crucial aspects of a place or an idea.
Perhaps that’s why I’ve been most enamored with the parts of London I knew next to nothing about before arriving here. I’ve discovered the dim labyrinthine rooms of the Tate Britain, where William Blake’s enigmatic sketches radiate. I’ve braved the smoky basement of the Notting Hill Arts Club, where an elderly man found his rhythm in the feedback of a painful Brit-punk band. I’ve wandered the windy desolation of Hyde Park, where London’s imperial spirit seems to hold ghostly court.
In reaching these places, I do nothing that others have not done before. But that sort of distinction hardly mattered to Iraqis voting for their first time, or even to Americans protesting for a CD release last week. Being first doesn’t matter to me either. Being where we have never been before, exploring the shaded and rich outer-reaches of our own perception - that’s what’s valuable.
My Two Pence runs every other Monday. Check out the next installment Feb. 21.
To read more about Colleen McCarthy’s experiences in London, check out her blog at http://www.xanga.com/londoncolling.