This article was taken from the September issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering three issue for just £5.
The House of Commons has been a strange place this year. Some will say that it has always been strange; its ancient traditions, its own language, its impenetrable procedures, they say, render it fascinating and forbidding in equal measure. They say it has been even stranger in recent times — and “they” are right; the coronavirus has taken its toll on our parliament as it has made miserable the lives of our people.
Robbed of its rituals and its residents, and visitors banned to keep its normally industrious society safe, Westminster has been a still and desolate place; a rather dank gothic sanitorium from which the patients had been sent away to recuperate at home. Yet slowly, very slowly, the palace crept back into life of a sort, just as the rest of the country emerged from its own hibernation. More MPs started coming into Westminster; the Chamber tried to rediscover some of its spontaneity before the summer recess; the library opened and even some visitors (with good reason) were allowed in. And just as around the country bars began again to oblige their patrons, so too has the Commons started to serve alcohol.
Some Westminster thirst-quenchers prefer beer, although for what must have seemed the longest of times, the Strangers’ Bar remained closed. Others like their wines and these are available once more, though socially distanced, in the Pugin Room and the Smoking Room (an anachronistic affectation given smoking in it is banned). Robert Maxwell, when Labour Member for Buckingham, infamously sold off the Commons wine cellar and from his depredations, they say, it has never recovered.
But you do not need great vintages to enjoy good vino when you visit the crucible of our democracy. I call in witness Picpoul de Pinet, which is available in all the palace’s bars. This “Chablis of the South” is crisp and cool, fruitily flavoursome and with a lovely honeyed texture as it trickles across the tongue. It possesses a rather richer, more patrician hue than, say, a Sauvignon Blanc, though the finish is nicely dry. I pick up grapefruit as well as lemon in the Petite Ronde, which is my special favourite, but there are plenty of other makers shipping us their precious cargo from Languedoc and they are all very simply priced so as to be enjoyed all the more over the summer.
With August came the recess; MPs returned to their constituencies and Westminster again slipped into a more conventionally sepulchral silence, broken only by the sounds of workmen whose labours do not cease, for parliament is the empire over which the concrete never sets. When we meet again in September we must set to repairing not just the ancient fabric of our parliament but the social and economic fabric of our country. Much has already been done. Much more is still to do — and drink.
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