The strangest thing about being in the Palace of Westminster is that, in my somewhat hurriedly formed impression (I was there for two hours on Wednesday afternoon), it’s a bit like being at your nan’s. There’s tea and coffee in proper china cups and saucers. There were sandwiches (although not, I suspect, filled with tinned salmon and lashings of vinegar) with their crusts cut off. Like every institutional building in England I have ever been, there is the faint waft of boiled cabbage. Like every church, there is a hint of must and dead flowers long gone.
I imagine politicians from the pages of history books striding across the sunken plaques that declare their dead presence. It’s as if time is all rolled up, crushed and stuffed into the maze of rooms at the centre of power. The echoes of experience stalk the corridors.
There’s a room like that in every school I have ever been in, one that carries the echoes of the past, and reminds you of days gone by and how the world has changed, turning around the point of stillness. Like the Pugin extravagance of the Houses of Parliament, these public buildings have undergone renovation over the years, but not so that they can remain, gold corbels glowing in the autumn sunshine, in an unchanged state, but instead to meet the changing demands of a twenty-first century education.
There, in the corner, hides the unchanged space; quietly frozen, an architectural testament to its time. It’s usually stuffed with the things that only come out once a year. Christmas costumes. The larger of the games for the summer fayre. The currently unused set of orchestral instruments. Or gym mats and buckets of old plimsolls smelling of new rubber and old sweat.
It’s not usually a cupboard, although teachers’ cupboards in primary schools are treasure troves that hide the text books of days gone by, the interesting objects that might come in useful one day. No, it is the disabled toilet (although, I have noticed, over the years, that the staff toilets are much the same in their time capsule qualities). There it sits, the same 1980s colour on the walls, the same 1980s lino on the floor as the 1980s day it was built. The original soap dispenser hangs on the wall but it no longer squirts that strange smelling pink slimy stuff.
There’s plenty of room in there (hence the storage), presumably so that wheelchairs could be wheeled in. There’s one of those uppy-downy white handle things (although there is no dangling alarm) and the taps don’t twist at the top. They have handles (and spray that soaks your mid-section if you are particularly unlucky). There is more than a whiff of the hospital about it.
Back in the early 80s, this was the height of inclusive technology. New schools were ready to take on their first disabled kids. Metaphorical sleeves were rolled up. In 1981, when I was nine, I would have been impressed. At that age, with rather more time spent in hospitals (one ancient, one modern) than your average Year 5, I’d have been taken in by the shininess of the taps, the ease with which you could turn them (and soak yourself) in a not-dissimilar way to my own children’s delight in those automatic soap dispensers, especially the ones that fill your bathroom up with foam.
But these days I can see that forgotten space, a room of the most basic requirement for what it is, and what it has become. I can see how it stands testament to a fossilised view of disability; one where a person, or a child, needs nursing. An illness to cure, a problem to be fixed. Ramps and a couple of taps and Bob’s your Uncle. Job done. A single solution to a single problem.
But the well-intentioned provision of an unused space is just that. Unused. Unloved. Cluttered up with the detritus of Other Stuff. The shining veneer peeling off, the soap dispenser redundant and unused. A funny, empty, echoing smell.
I don’t feel cross when I come across these rooms. I don’t feel affronted at the conspicuous use of public funds. I don’t feel annoyed in the same way I did when I was confronted by the guilded tower tops or observed the exclusive view of the Thames. These unloved spaces aren’t for show, their purpose isn’t too impress with echoes of grandeur long gone and power dribbled away. Or I hope they aren’t, anyway.
I’m not quite sure how it is I feel because, as I did when I came away from the launch of the Driver Youth Trust’s report, ‘Joining the Dots’, a report into the state of provision for children and young people with SEND, I wonder how it will be when the razzmatazz is all over. When the doors have been opened, when the building gets on with its job, when the rhetoric has died down, the speeches spoken and the words that everyone knows but that no one seemed to dare to name before now, I wonder what we will do now? What next?
I talked with a friend while I was there, this making of a world fit for my son to take his place. We talked, and we discussed together what the next steps might be, now that the stories are being told. We thought that it might just have something to do with us.