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The Dustshoveller's Gazette: June 2011

Monday, 27 June 2011

On the Burning of Parliaments

I'm just back from Berlin where I was attending a conference run by the ECPRD - the association of European Parliamentary libraries. Usually I don't go to these events as they're not often about archival stuff; however, this year the theme was "Parliamentary history and its communication to the public" which was right up my street.

Anyway, working on Conflagration has raised lots of questions in my mind about what Parliamentary buildings are for - beyond housing their restless inhabitants. They can be symbols of democracy or tyranny; secrecy or openness; bureaucratic inertia or thrusting innovation; all these and more.  And when they burn down the symbolism is enormous, as are the decisions taken afterwards to replace them (or not).

Few Parliamentary buildings in the world can be more moving than the Reichstag in Berlin, which is where last week's conference was based.  The burning of the Reichstag in 1933 (staged as a "Communist" arson attack by the Nazis) ushered in Hitler's rise to power. It was never used by Hitler or his regime, and lay derelict throughout the war. It was then further damaged in the Allied bombing of Berlin in the last days of the war, its dome reduced to a phantom skeleton and its walls scrawled with graffiti by the Red Army who had captured it.
As if that wasn't enough of a metaphor of the abandonment of democracy, after 1945 the building was situated only just inside the British zone of occupation.  Subsequently, the Berlin Wall ran 7m from one of its flanks, placing it barely inside West Berlin.  Close to a bend in the River Spree, the opposite bank of the river was in East Berlin, and a considerable number of people were killed by DDR border guards trying to swim towards the Reichstag building and - therefore - freedom.  The West German government had decamped to Bonn but continued to use an undamaged part of the building for committee hearings (much to the annoyance of the DDR government).

On reunification, a massive project was launched to reinstate the Reichstag as the Parliament building of the Federal Republic of Germany.  The Bundestag (MPs) would meet there, and the Bundesrat (ministers representing the German Laender) would have seats in the chamber, even though their building was on Leipziger Strasse (and had been unused during the DDR era).  Just like the competition to rebuild the Houses of Parliament after 1834, entries from architects were anonymous.   First prize was won by Sir Norman Foster, the British Architect (in fact, the top three winning plans, unknown to the judges at the time, were from non-Germans - the others being a Spaniard and a Dutchman).  More symbolism: former enemies helping to rebuild its neighbour's shattered Parliament building.

Foster made the portico which had originally been intended  for the Kaiser into the main entrance for the public (it was never used by the Kaiser in an act of contempt).  The inscription Dem Deutschen Volke (To the German People) over its entrance says it all.  The design of the dome was finally agreed on after 27 attempts, and Foster himself was not keen on the idea of a dome at all, having originally designed a tent-like canopy over the whole building.  But despite his reluctance, it was built, and the dome has now become one of the major tourist attractions of the whole city, pulling in 2m people who walk round its spiral construction each year.

Just as striking, for me, were the buildings of the Parliamentary administration.  The Marie-Elisabeth Lueders Haus and the Paul Loebe Haus were both built in a deliberately concrete brutalist style redolent of the DDR.  It was intended as a way of never forgetting the past, but the difference is that these buildings are punched through with glass walls: for transparency in every respect.  The M-EL Haus is built right over the site of the former Berlin Wall itself and memorials to those who died crossing the river outside can be seen from its window.  To cross from there to the main Reichstag building you have to move from the former East to West Berlin via a footbridge.  The whole site is a memorial to Berlin's past, present and future Parliamentary history - immensely thoughtful, stimulating and moving.

Even the Soviet graffiti from 1945 on the interior walls
has been uncovered and restored: looking as fresh as the day it was written. 
Inside the Dome

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Wednesday, 22 June 2011

The Man Who Saved Westminster Hall

Today is the 150th anniversary of the death of Superintendant James Braidwood. He was the man who saved Westminster Hall in the great fire of 1834 through the innovative firefighting techniques he had first developed when fire chief in Edinburgh.

His death was both tragic and horribly ironic. He died at the enormous Tooley Street warehouse fire in 1861, when he was buried under a falling wall - his body was retrieved only two days later. The iron firedoors which he had designed and recommended for all such premises had been left open, causing his death. If there was one other fire between 1666 and the Blitz which deserves the dubious accolade of being the 'greatest', beside the 1834 blaze, it was the Tooley Street conflagration. The Westminster fire was certainly the more significant, but Tooley Street was bigger and more prolonged: the tallow inside the warehouses melted, and set fire to the Thames for two weeks afterwards. A plaque marks the spot of the 1861 fire, today close to London Bridge station.

In 2008 a statue to Braidwood was finally erected on Parliament Square - but not the one in Westminster, the one off the Royal Mile in Edinburgh. But perhaps his greatest memorial is Westminster Hall, still standing after 900 years, because of his efforts and those of his men.

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Wednesday, 15 June 2011

Talking Titles

A yummy lunch today with Lady Antonia Fraser at the Whistler Restaurant at Tate Britain. Tate sits on the site of the Millbank Penitentiary where Joshua Cross (one of the labourers who started the fire) did time.  And of course it houses the Turner watercolours of the 1834 fire, along with the rest of the Turner bequest, so all very evocative.

We talked about the old Palace of Westminster in relation to the Great Reform Act: that's to be the subject of her next book, entitled "The Perilous Question".  Should I rethink my title? Perhaps "The Day Parliament Burned Down" would be better? It certainly does what it says on the tin. It might be a better subtitle at any rate than "The Burning of the Houses of Parliament in 1834". On the other hand, as my agent points out, "Conflagration" is nicely historical and has typographical possibilities for a strong cover.

The bottom line is: which option will sell the most books?

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Wednesday, 1 June 2011

Dustshoveller joins the Twitterati

Very exciting news on the book emerging over the last week, which I hope to be able to divulge shortly...

In the meantime, I have joined Twitter @dustshoveller...tweet you there!

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