These are the lyrics to my constant earworm:
Sometimes my life it feels like fiction
Some of the days it’s really quite surreal
George Harrison – Pisces Fish
I occasionally find myself having meetings in the Palace of Westminster with People From The News. I want to talk about what that’s like.
I’m waiting to go in to an office, quietly rehearsing what answers I’m going to give. Sat over there is a senior politician chatting with their junior (but still recognisable) colleague. The children of the Honourable Member for Somesuch are playing on the stairs outside their dad’s office.
I sometimes sat at the back of my dad’s maths classroom if he couldn’t find childcare.
A man in a ridiculously posh suit – with actual tails! – walks past me. He’s too polite to ask if I’m lost from a tour group, dressed as I am in scruffy jeans and a “funny” t-shirt.
A head pops out of the door “We’ll be five more minutes”. So I nervously sit on an uncomfortable – and no doubt expensive – chair.
Just then, a bloke off the telly wanders past and cordially says hello. He notes who I’m with and says to them, “Oh! Glad you’re here! Could I have a quick chat about…” they start discussing Serious Business.
“Bloody hell!” my brain screams, “I’m in an actual corridor of power! I thought that was a cliche – but it isn’t!”
I deserve to be here. That’s not me bragging, I hope. I am accomplished in my field, I have been interviewed, recruited, and tested in my knowledge. I have been specifically asked to attend, and I carry a pass which allows me to wander unaccompanied throughout the building.
And yet every fibre of my being tells me I don’t belong. No, that’s not quite right. Every fibre of the building tells me I don’t belong.
You see, most of the Civil Service is in pretty boring office blocks. One or two buildings are historic and have wood-panelled rooms with fancy paintings in them. Just like this:
But it’s normally just… normal. I can cope with being in a dull office. A blu-tak marked wall, a broken coffee machine, and an artex ceiling feels familiar to me.
Parliament is unfamiliar.
The first time I had to go to Parliament for work, a friend offered to show me around.
“It must be amazing to work among all this spectacular art and history,” I opined.
“It does my fucking head in,” he calmly explained. “I feel like I’m in a museum and have to be careful and quiet. Tarquin and Tamara went to an Oxbridge University which looked just like this. And they probably went to a fancy school with Old Masters hanging on the wall. I went to a bog-standard comp.”
I knew exactly what he meant. I went a university that even its most ardent fan would describe as “a concrete monstrosity“.
The feeling I have isn’t “Imposter Syndrome” – because I am literally an imposter. The corridors of power are specifically designed for the powerful. You need to spend a lifetime understanding all the arcane acronyms and funny little practices.
(I sometimes worry that hereditary power makes sense. The current Canadian Prime Minister – the son of a former PM – has spent his entire life being groomed for his role. The children of MPs will be used to Mummy’s or Daddy’s office being in Hogwarts. It will, I suspect, mentally prepare them if they ever stand for election.)
The Civil Service is a brilliant place to work – truly – and does an amazing job encouraging diversity of all flavours. It runs a bunch of courses on how to work with politicians – how to write for them, answer their questions, and respond to their needs. It runs courses on how Parliament and her committees work, what a Green Paper is, and what the various organs of state are for. There are occasional tours of buildings and talks by knowledgable people.
But there’s nothing I’ve seen on how to cope with the culture shock.
I vividly remember chatting to a new starter about how he was coping. “I was so nervous about meeting the minister for the first time,” he confessed, “but then I saw half the team went to the same prep-school as me and that calmed me down.”
I don’t even know where to begin with that. How do you bring new and diverse voices into a system which gives a massive structural advantage to one limited set of people?