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Semi-naked trouser-ironers and the danger of a loosened belt

Paul Finch’s letter from London: Tam Dalyell is made an honorary fellow of the Royal Incorporation of Architects in Scotland

The Royal Incorporation of Architects in Scotland had kindly invited me to speak at its annual fellows’ dinner, which took place in Glasgow last week. It came as a complete surprise to be made an honorary fellow myself – a real privilege.

Another recipient was the veteran Labour politician Tam Dalyell, Old Etonian scourge of Margaret Thatcher over the Belgrano affair, and the famous poser of the West Lothian question about the proper constitutional balance of responsibilities and powers between Scottish and English MPs, which has to yet to receive a satisfactory answer.

In his acceptance speech, Tam made reference to his brief relationship with the AJ no less, in respect of accommodation for MPs in the Palace of Westminster. This occurred after he had been elected MP for West Lothian in 1962, and found, like other newcomer MPs, that the accommodation provided was of the broom cupboard variety. There was certainly no chance of getting an actual room. So put out was Tam by this that he began, with another newly elected Labour MP, Anthony Wedgewood Benn, to find out exactly went on in which spaces in the Pugin and Barry complex, surreptitiously checking rooms and corridors and noting what they found.

Somehow, this spatial detective work came to the attention of the AJ, and Tam was asked to produce a 3,000-word article on his findings (AJ 19.08.64). This was duly published, including one revelation about a room of 640 square feet occupied by a man who the intrepid investigators had found standing in his underwear ironing his trousers. This nugget came to the attention of the Daily Mirror, which reported it with some glee, conferring on Tam the reputation as the man who had found a semi-naked trouser-ironer under the Commons debating chamber. It wasn’t exactly what he had in mind when he entered the Palace of Varieties…

The only other architectural story involving trousers that springs to mind was a dinner hosted by the retiring RIBA secretary, Patrick Harrison (also Scottish), held in the library of the Reform Club. The former institute president Gordon Graham was giving the after-dinner speech from a top table that included the Russian cultural attaché. The repast was obviously of sufficient substance to cause Gordon to loosen his belt; this had the unexpected consequence, as he began his speech, of allowing (or at least not preventing) his trousers to slowly fall down, in the manner of a Brian Rix farce.

There was nothing much he could do or say other than to pull them up and get on with his speech. The sort of impromptu witty remark, required but lacking on that occasion, was brilliantly delivered in the self-same room some years later, though not about trousers, by the late Norman St John-Stevas, chairman of the Royal Fine Art Commission. He was guest of honour at a commemorative dinner for Punch magazine, shortly before it closed. Norman had to leave early because of a whipped vote in the House of Lords, but was presented with a memento of the occasion in the form of a caricature of himself by the Observer’s cartoonist, Trog.

He needed to take his leave, but to do so elegantly. ‘Thank you for inviting me, and for giving me this marvellous caricature which I shall treasure,’ he began. ‘Ladies and gentlemen, looking at it I have to say that it does not do me justice… But then in this world, what we want is not justice, but mercy. Farewell!’

Apart from Tam Dalyell, they don’t make them like that any more.

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