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Parliament's Transatlantic Tour Guide
Diane Green tells us about being an American Tour Guide in the Houses of Parliament
All photos © Houses of Parliament
Hi Diane, thank you for talking to The American magazine. Can you start by telling us about yourself - where in the States are you from?
Atlanta, GA is home. I spent my early childhood years in Florida and studied in North Carolina, so I’m definitely a Southerner.
How did you find yourself moving to the UK?
Love, of course, but via Germany. I was fascinated by people who could speak another language and said to myself: I want to be able to do that! So I moved to Germany with the intention of staying "a couple of years" and 30 years later I never quite made it back to the States. In the meantime I also learned Spanish, so I well and truly achieved my goal. While teaching English in Germany I met my husband from Liverpool. Eventually we moved to London, where we’ve lived for nearly 20 years with our two wee bairns. (Scottish for children… and they’re not so wee anymore).
You're working as a tour guide at the Houses of Parliament - how did that come about?
After doing training for Delta Air Lines international reservations for years, a job I loved, I worked in an HR office for a while. My husband noticed I wasn’t as happy, and he started looking for museum or heritage jobs for me, considering our love of history. The Parliament job came up and the rest… is history, as they say.
What's it like coming to work at a venue as iconic and filled of history as the Palace of Westminster? How does it feel working there?
I’ve worked here for 8 years and I must say the wonder hasn’t worn off. It is just amazing to be in this splendid building where history is not a thing of the past, but where history is being made every day. For example, I witnessed Theresa May giving the press conference when she confirmed she would take on the leadership of the party and the country. I’ve seen the Dalai Lama’s radiant smile, heard the King of Spain give a speech and met my own home state governor and 39th US president Jimmy Carter.
The Houses of Parliament are open for all members of the public to visit. What can visitors see and do on the tour?
You can see all three parts of Parliament: the House of Commons, the House of Lords, and the Monarch. Well, ok, you don’t actually see the Queen, but you see the Sovereign’s Stairs she comes up during the State Opening of Parliament (until she started using the lift when she turned 90, two years ago) and the magnificent Robing Room where she puts on the crown. You see her throne, shimmering in gold leaf. I love to watch people’s reactions as they walk into the House of Lords and catch their first glimpse of all that gold.
You get to stand where the MPs stand in the House of Commons. I say "stand" because, out of respect for those who have been duly elected, we don’t sit on their seats. It’s a very special and surprisingly small room, the House of Commons. Everyone remarks on how much bigger the TV makes it look. When it was rebuilt after bombing in WWII, Churchill insisted it stay the same saying it was "just the right size for intimate debates."
Speaking of debates, when Parliament is in session, (more or less the same as the school schedule) this is a working building and tours are only on Saturdays (when politicians are not using the building). However, many people are unaware that anyone may come to watch the political debates, live, anytime either House is sitting. I mean, that’s what Parliament is really all about – the work they do making laws and keeping the government on their toes by asking questions. It’s free and you don’t have to make a reservation, although you may have to wait in a queue depending on the time of day and how busy it is. But you’ll see more of the fabulous building by getting a ticket and going on one of our fabulous audio or guided tours.
Do you have a favorite part of the tour?
The House of Lords. It’s a magnificent room visually, but I enjoy explaining who the House of Lords actually are. I like to call it weird and wonderful. Americans may find a few aspects of "shock – horror". The House of Lords is not elected, but appointed, and bishops from the Church of England are an essential element. This may seem strange for those of us who grew up with a strong sense of democracy and separation of church and state. In fact, although the bishops are officially there, the House of Lords is very diverse with members from all major religions represented. Only 92 members are hereditary nowadays with the majority of its approximately 800 members being experts from all walks of life: business, sports, medicine, architecture, culture, law, science, technology and yes, politics, too. You name it, we have an expert in the House of Lords to make our laws better. It’s like a chamber of consultants.
Are there any American connections to Parliament that you like to tell visitors?
Yes. Nancy Astor, a socialite from Virginia, was actually the first woman MP to take her seat in the UK Parliament in 1919. (There had been an earlier woman elected, but as an Irish Republican she wouldn’t swear allegiance to the King.) Nancy’s husband, Waldorf Astor, became a Lord when his father died, so his seat in the House of Commons was then vacant. The people of Plymouth said your wife has worked with you together on all these projects, she knows our issues, she should run for election. Nancy was hesitant at first, but then said, actually, you’re right… if you have confidence in me, I’ll do my best. She served for 26 years. It wasn’t easy at first as the only woman in Parliament. So that she would be taken seriously and not thought of only as a rich party hostess, she always wore a simple black suit and cream blouse at Westminster which she called her "Parliamentary uniform".
What do American visitors to Parliament make of the experience?
Oh, Americans love it here, first of all, like me, because of the history. Considering American buildings only date back about 300 years, walking into Westminster Hall is tremendous! I like to joke about how the hall is 900 years old, but the roof is new. It’s only about 600 years old.
What's the best part about working in the Houses of Parliament?
To be honest, I think it’s myth-busting. Parliament inevitably gets a lot of bad press and dire headlines. There’s a lot of confusion out there about just what Parliament does. But I’m here every day and see how much work goes on, not just in the chambers, but in committees as well, not to mention all the campaign and lobby groups who continue fighting to improve our world.
There’s a beautiful modern art installation here called New Dawn, commemorating the suffrage movement. It is made of glass disks, shaped like parchment scrolls, which are lit up. The lights change slowly in rhythm with the tides of the Thames, reminding us all that in life, in politics, in the world: things are constantly changing. Just look at me. Who would have thought this girl from Georgia would end up working at the Houses of Parliament?
Tours of the Houses of Parliament are now available Monday to Saturday until September 1. Tickets can be booked online at www.parliament.uk/visit or by calling 020 7219 4114.