How many times have you seen a politician going in or out of number 10 Downing street? Is the number 10 straight? Why are the walls black? Are all the chairs perfectly lined up in the Cabinet Room? Whose picture is everyone given a postcard of when leaving? What does it say about the British?
We were lucky enough to be given a tour of 10 Downing Street by Chris Martin the permanent under secretary to the Prime Minister. You won’t be surprised to know the Romans built there first. When it was refurbished in the 1960s the usual Roman artifacts were found but the architects could not resist putting some mock Roman Corinthian columns in the basement cafe. Which, highlights the point to me, that much like most of the history of these islands, that maybe they could all be called the silly isles, you are never more than 10 feet away from a little joke.
Number 10 is more of a muddle through made up theatrical improvisation with a self deprecating smile than some grand presidential palace of an Empire. Originally, a badly made Georgian house of a property speculator, what else could it be, this small town house was given to the first Prime Minister by George II. The first Prime Minister gave it back to the nation, probably when he realised the amount of work that needed doing and how difficult it was to get a reliable builder… and so it began two hundred years of muddling through to create a Tardis of rooms behind the facade of that black door and black walls. Why black walls? Well they were blackened by the London’s smog and people got used to the black walls so like any good theatre set they are painted on now. The number zero on that famous number 10 is wonkey. Why? Because the first builder, in Georgian times, put it on wonkey and well, everybody since has kept it that way.
Each Prime Minster moves in and chooses their favourite room to have as an office, no grand Oval office here. Just a mix of rooms with different styles and full of wonders like moonrock, late paintings by Turner and nick nacks from everywhere, all still being used. Wellington’s traveling campaign chest sits there holding a few bit and bobs like all spare draws in any busy house. This one just happened to be at the battle of Waterloo. Talking of busy, Churchill, the only Prime Minister with two portraits, insisted that his chair on the cabinet table be kept facing out so he could sit quickly, after all he was quite busy fighting Fascism and no one has thought to change it since. It still faces out waiting for that busy leader.
Which is my point our traditions aren’t all imperial pomp but mostly little affectionate jokes; ‘well that is how we used to do it and it’s quite amusing to keep it that way’. I think I miss this sometimes when looking at history seeing only the histrionics and forgetting the daily affectionate amusements we share on these four seasons in a day Islands.
So of course, which inhabitant is it, that everyone agrees, is the right one to have on a postcard memoir? None other than Larry the Downing street cat. Long may he defend our freedoms and long may our humour be a leveler for equality. 10 Downing Street is like the man who stood behind the Roman Emperor on the Triumphal parades saying’ Remember you are only a person.’