Dark parliaments: The House of Uncommons and The Other Other Place

The recent silencing, for maintenance reasons, of the bell known as Big Ben met a suitably muted response from the nation. A half-hearted effort by a handful of MPs to lend the moment significance faded on the wind. But, on the day the last chimes rang across Westminster – and the small group held their vigil outside the Big Ben tower – it seems that inside the Houses of Parliament, a disruption may indeed have been felt.

The following is a thread leaked by a member of a messaging app group consisting of trainee political journalists (names have been removed and messages re-ordered for coherence):

A: HOU and TOOP making themselves known today.

B: fuck yeah

C: Decidedly odd in the lobbies

B: ‘Decidedly odd’ is a typo for ‘fucking weird’ right?

D: Old wives tales now? Are all hop groups as hot as this one?

A: Haven’t seen you around today?

D: At home working on a piece. So?

B: So stop wanking sorry working on your piece and come see for yourself

A: You do kind of need to see what it’s like.

E: I take it you guys are willing to break this story? If not maybe keep it offline?

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The Chamber of the House of Lords source

Brief. But the thread hints at a contemporary resonance for a set of phenomena portologists had thought purely historic. Phenomena that, in some cases, go back centuries, and have come to be known collectively as The House of Uncommons and The Other Other Place.

Here are just a few examples:

Lord Alconbury Incident

For several years at the beginning of the 20th Century, the Lords’ Chamber had a gardening problem. A strange plant would grow from beneath the benches along which debating peers sit. Botanists were perplexed – at a loss not only as to how the plant should be categorised, but as to where it was coming from, and how it might be stopped. The vine-like tendrils were tough, sticky and caused painful rashes and bruising to unclothed skin.

Palace staff, armed with gloves and secateurs, did their best to keep on top of it – a risky and unpopular business, the main result of which was that the mysterious weed grew back stronger. On hot and humid days, it grew so fast that the sound of stamping feet almost drowned out debate, as sitting peers attempted to keep the tendrils at bay. Consequences if they failed to do this could be serious, as demonstrated by  the ‘Alconbury incident’ of 1912.

Witnesses record that Lord Alconbury was spending the afternoon as he often did: by sleeping off his claret-sodden lunch while peers debated in the House around him. His slumped figure, gradually disappearing from view behind the benches, did not attract much attention. It was only when it came time to vote on the matter at hand (an act concerning governance of India), that someone thought to give Lord Alconbury a nudge – at which point it was found that several thick tendrils of the vine had wrapped themselves tightly around his left leg. Worse than that, the Lord appeared to be being dragged into a ‘diabolical fissure’ which had opened where the bench in front of him met the floor.

When, after great effort, clerks wrestled his leg back from the tenacious vine, his trousers were in rags, and bruises and sores covered his skin. His foot – when it was retrieved from the strange opening – was lost entirely to some kind of ‘accelerated putrefaction’. It was later amputated.

The extent of the problem during the First World War is unknown, records not being kept, but by the time of that conflagration’s end, outbreaks of Alconbury’s Curse – as the plant came to be known – appear to have died down.

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Houses of Parliament by Claude Monet

The Monstrous Chamber

The Commons Chamber was rebuilt in 1945, having burned down during the Blitz. It is unknown whether these events have any bearing on the chamber’s shaky dimensional footing during the mid-to-late ’40s, but many scholars find the timing persuasive. Throughout those years the newly-built  walls and ceiling would shimmer as if seen through heat – sometimes disappearing entirely for a moment, to reveal another, far more vast interior, in which darkly Gothic galleries ascended dizzyingly. (Less often, a vision of an ‘infinite cosmos’ faded in and out around the MPs.)

It was convention among members of the house that the phenomena, if occurring during a debate, should be ignored. This convention seems to have been observed, with the notable exception of Douglas Clifton Brown, the Speaker of the House. Hansard records him loudly admonishing the ‘monstrous chamber’. More regularly – and famously – he would interrupt the flow of debate to implore the walls around him to, “Hold fast! Hold”.

The Delphi Committee

It is the 1960s, and an elite club of Tory MPs meet in secret to discuss ways to influence party policy, and better combat the ‘socialist threat’. So far, so unsurprising. Until you learn of their meeting place.

Behind a panel somewhere in the corridors leading to the whips’ offices, there is a door to a silent and unpopulated cityscape, where wide piazzas are bordered by gleaming white columns, and great blank pediments tower over shadowy porticos. There are no clouds in the sky, and no sun. A strange light illuminates the place.

According to the unpublished memoirs of one former member, the practice came to an end when longtime members began to show signs of what they named Delphi Decay, a strange discolouring and weakening of skin, teeth and hair. Until then, he writes, nobody seemed to know or care what the place was – or how the gateway to it had opened. But the secrecy emboldened them: “I balk, in the mellowing of my dotage, at the hate-filled schemes proffered to those unearthly, echoless piazzas; to that deathly, breezeless air”.

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Chamber of the House of Commons  UK Parliament | license

Time Anomalies of The Not Content Lobby

The Not Content lobby – a dark, oak-lined corridor to one side of the Lords’ Chamber, which peers walk through to register their disapproval of a motion – has a habit of living up to its name. Various phenomena are associated with it, in particular a series of ‘inverse’ time anomalies. In 1840, a group of peers, voting on a tabled amendment to the wording of the fisheries convention where it related to the United Kingdom’s standing with France, thought they had spent ten minutes in the lobby. To those outside, however, the peers went missing for a full 24 hours. The subsequent effect on the result of the vote (peers are counted on leaving the lobby, and in this case had done so a day too late), led to a convention whereby the lost votes of ‘slipped’ peers – ie peers who were seen to enter the lobby but not depart it within a ‘natural’ timeframe – would be balanced out by ‘pairs’ in the Content lobby surrendering their votes.

Westminster Hall ‘raftergheists’

The celebrated, seven-centuries old hammerbeam oak rafters of Westminster Hall have been troubled from time to time by spectral breaches. Henry VIII would apparently stand and shout obscenities at the shadowy figures which writhed above trials held in the Hall. Oliver Cromwell’s Protectorate of 1653 to 1659 was particularly troubled by them – attempts by an exorcist to animate the ceilings’ carved wooden angels in order to combat the ghosts were unsuccessful.

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Westminster Hall source | public domain

The Shadow Tower

The speculative fiction of a bored employee? Or an account of one man’s inter-dimensional experiences? Whichever side you fall down on, the diaries of William Pewter are well worth a read.

Pewter was a lamplighter – it was his job, during the last years of the 19th century, to work through the night to keep the gas lights that illuminated the clock faces of the ‘Big Ben’ Clock Tower lit. He recounts that after checking the lamps, he would descend the 334 steps from the belfry down to ground level, and enter a hidden door that led to another 334 steps – down which he would descend into ‘that dread catacomb, the inverted shadow Tower, directly beneath our proud beacon’.

Pewter doesn’t describe the strange ritual he carried out – nor whatever entity or entities compelled him to do so – save to say that it had the outcome of rejuvenating the ‘unearthly glow’ of the ‘hideous insults’ that were the shadow clocks, with their strange symbols in place of numerals.

At times he hints at a larger structure beyond the shadow tower. One passage has become well known to those who study London’s vulnerable dimensional boundaries:

“Dark parliaments whisper in the walls of this place. Dread representatives of night-wreathed boroughs stalk the very shadows. The strong-hearted have nothing to hide. But the venal should know this: the mistruths and obfuscations spoken in this place are breath and blood to the hidden ones, who descend with your black words to their own cursed House to twist and weave them into ever darker meaning in the service of their demonic legislation”.

The later pages betray an increasingly haunted man. In October, 1899 – two months before he died, aged 38, of unknown causes – he wrote of being harrowed by “those great monsters, the shadow bells, tolling ceaselessly in the darkness and deep within me wherever I turn”

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source | public domain

The centuries have seen many notable phenomena and countless minor discrepancies. But there was little sign of dimensional disruption when PoL visited the Palace of Westminster recently.

Not that our trip was wasted. In the crypt-like visitors’ cafe we met a friend of ours, Susan Macks, Professor of Gateways and the Multiverse at the University of Connecticut, and a leading expert on London’s interdimensional gateways.

Over flat whites and triple-chocolate muffins we got her thoughts on a key debate surrounding the Westminster phenomena. Do the events constitute evidence of ‘shadow’ entities – that is, another Palace (or Palaces) of Westminster, existing in separate dimensions but somehow temporally or metaspatially linked with our own? Or do the various accounts of gateways, anomalies and untetherings share a more tangential connection?

“Oh, put me in the dimensional shadow basket. Hell, yes. Seriously, quote me on this: House of Uncommons is not a catch-all. The Other Other Place is not an umbrella term. The Pewter text is key here, right? There’s something else there. Has its moments, take its holidays, comes and goes. Manifests in a heap of different ways. But it’s there.”

She smiles.

“And yes, I know this throws up a whole load of questions. And no, I don’t know all the answers”.

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A plan of the Houses of Parliament prior to the fire of 1834 source | public domain

Susan has to fly. She says she’s busier and busier in London these days. But we manage to keep her chatting a while longer.

She talks about Westminster in general. She is drawn to the area’s origins as an island, surrounded by fens, where the Tyburn split to join the Thames. Some say the road out west forded here, since Roman times and before. There may have been a place of worship where the Abbey now stands long before records begin in the 10th century.

And we talk about ‘Westminster’, the metonym. The word that describes a place, a system, a community, an establishment, a club. A by-word for democracy that is also an end to discussion. An answer. A means of wielding power, and of ceding it. A beacon. A facade. A hope. A lie.

“I’ve been waiting for this doozy to come back”, says Susan, as she reaches for her jacket. “If what your young reporters are hinting at is true, well – I better clear some space in my diary.”


  • Candidate: The House of Uncommons and The Other Other Place
  • Type: Various
  • Status: Historic (pending review)

 


The featured image is taken from The Fugitive Futurist (1924) by Gaston Quiribet

London’s invisible lines: The Boundary Marker File

In the course of our attempts to catalogue London’s inter-dimensional gateways, PoL has learned to keep an open mind. The unpredictable happens when a Londoner treads too close to the city’s precarious dimensional bounds. We are accustomed to the scattershot nature of the resulting stories.

But it seems we may not be the first to try to impose a sense of order on this chaotic history.

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Image by Graeme Duckworth  (CC BY-SA 4.0)

The boundaries within what PoL terms ‘base London’ can be slippery enough, vulnerable to the whims of restructuring governments or other quirks of history. But that doesn’t stop attempts to set them in stone. Plaques, posts, and kerbside markings can be seen all over the city, manifesting the often invisible lines between parishes and other entities.

For example, the boundary between Hammersmith and Fulham parishes, once marked by a now lost irrigation known as Parr’s Ditch, is carved into tide-weathered stone where the ditch once entered the Thames (the plaques read H.P. 1865 | F.P. 1865):

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It isn’t just the initials of neighbouring parishes that are etched around the city. More obscure symbols may represent historic Guilds with administrative powers over an area.

The photo below left was taken by George Sandeman, who forwarded it to us via Twitter. George found these markings on a kerb in Soho, close to a more traditional boundary marker.

Below right shows a post-type marker from Sydenham Hill, at the borders of Lammas Green, one of a number of Corporation of London estates that can be found far from the geographical constraints of the Square Mile.

 

But it is the possible existence of a set of still stranger markings with which this post is concerned.

A friend of PoL’s, Iqbal Mahmud, has been in touch, to tell us of a file he discovered in a neglected corner of the City of London archives, while he was investigating the strange instances around the Black House.

The file, says Iqbal, comprised several sheets of paper, and about 10 to 15 photos.

“I didn’t think much of it at first. The words ‘Black House’ got my attention. But I couldn’t make much sense of it after that”.

He copied the relevant page into his notebook, and put it out of his mind. But in the months since, it has crept back into his consciousness. And Iqbal has come to believe that what he discovered is very important indeed.

To someone.

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A section of the 1666 map that some say shows the Black House

The page that mentioned the Black House appeared to show a kind of key, comprising a long list of obscure symbols – with text next to each symbol apparently denoting its meaning.

“I asked the clerk about it – he didn’t know what it was. He called a superior over and she didn’t know either”

The superior made a phone call, but whoever she spoke to was of little help. Iqbal went back to his table, made a quick copy of the page, and finished up his research for the day, placing the Black House files back on the shelves where he found them. He never saw them again. Nor has he found anyone who will admit to knowing anything about them.

Iqbal says it seems obvious now. “That was the moment, asking about that one file. Like, someone in there realised what I had, realised what I was on to, and then the files disappeared”.

This is our sketch of the symbols Iqbal copied down, with the meanings assigned to them shown in corresponding grid format below:

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Screen Shot 2018-04-01 at 18.12.49

And then there were the photos.

Black and white prints – Iqbal reckons they dated from around the 1950s – artless and functional, the kind of thing a surveying official might make. They appeared to show examples of the markings in situ – on kerbs, above doorways, placed in brick walls. Frustratingly, the images were close-up. Iqbal doesn’t recall any features that gave away a specific location.

What he’s sure of is that the document he saw was the key for some kind of marking system, and that at least some of these symbols are, or once were, etched on to streets around the city.

Are they boundary markings? The presence of the Black House on the list would suggest that if so, then it could be dimensional boundaries they are attempting to mark.

But who made them?

And do they simply represent a desire to describe known phenomena? Or are they an attempt to exert some form of power or control over London’s doorways?

These are questions to which PoL will return.

Addendum: Graham Herod, a former City of London tour guide with a growing interest in London’s portals, (and a special interest in the Church of All-Corners-Within-The-Wall) tells us he has seen no such symbols in his many years walking London’s streets. 


Featured image : Ogilby and Morgan map (public domain)

Starry mills of Satan: The Waterloo Arches Rift

“The starry mills of Satan are built beneath the earth and waters of the mundane shell”.

Matthew Lindon eyes me over his omelette and chips.

“That was another one of Stewart’s things, the poetry. He’d launch into it on tea breaks. All sorts, but William Blake, mainly. Dark Satanic Mills and all that. He was proud of Blake’s connection to Lambeth”

Matthew speaks often of Stewart, chief mechanic – and, the way Matthew tells it, guardian spirit – at the small metal-pressing workshop under the arches of Waterloo station, where Matthew worked as a young man.

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As well as poetry, Matthew says, Stewart was full of stories. “Some true, some bollocks, some somewhere in between”.

One was that their archway was once a store for London’s dead – a waiting room for bodies destined for the corpse trains of the Necropolis Railway. Another told of a hermit who kept a cave-like home somewhere in the labyrinth of tunnels, left alone by railway staff.

But there was another, still stranger story.

Stewart would lean in close and tell Matthew of how, many years ago, he had glimpsed – somewhere beneath a grate, or beyond a crumbling wall, or within some dark recess – an opening to a strange, hell-like dimension, an industrial otherworld of endless, grinding machinery.

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We are just behind the station, in the last greasy spoon left standing among the fusion street-food outlets and craft coffee places along the old market street known as Lower Marsh. “Waterloo was nothing but marshes in Blake’s day, as Stewart would tell you. If the station wasn’t raised on arches, the whole thing would sink into the mire”.

Matthew is supposed to be walking me around the undercrofts and hidden tunnels. But he seems to be putting this off, wringing every last minute out of our late breakfast, and every last memory from his time at the ‘miraculous little workshop’ he once worked at.

“How the gaffer kept things going I don’t know. He was mates with the railway guys, I think. Didn’t seem to pay any rent. I don’t think many people knew we were there. Despite the noise”.

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The ‘noise’ came from three pedal-operated electric-hydraulic presses, shaping metal near continuously for 8 hours a day. “There was a nice kind of equilibrium, for a while. Gaff in his booth with his paperwork. Me and couple of others working the machines, ear defenders on”.

And Stewart, eyes sparkling, overalls slick with grease, flitting from machine to machine, with a wrench in one hand and oil can in the other.

“That’s what made me grow apart from Stewart. Him and those machines. I’d catch him whispering to them sometimes. Freaked me out after a while”.

But in the evening, in the quiet of the shop, as the things stood there – huge and looming in the twilight – Matthew admits there was something about them. A presence.

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Matthew started leaving early, avoiding being left with Stewart and the machines. Avoiding the subject he knew Stewart would raise. “He got more and more obsessed with this place he’d seen. Haunted, I’d say. Said he still searched for the – the rift he called it”.

But Stewart had never found it again. And he began to get the idea that he was too old, somehow. That because Matthew was young as Stewart had been, perhaps he could help find it. “From the way he described it, God knows why he wanted to”.

Matthew avoided Stewart, and things carried on for a while.

Then the accidents began.

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A series of failings in the presses’ safety mechanisms. A few near misses: bad cuts from flying metal that should have been stopped by the steel guard. And then worse. A man’s hand got in where it shouldn’t. “Crushed all four of fingers. Funny way to request early retirement, as someone put it. And after that – “.

But Matthew trails off. I sense there’a part of the story he isn’t yet ready to tell. He drains his tea and we finally make it out into the streets.

Matthew says he can’t remember exactly which set of arches the press shop was under. There are half-forgotten railway storerooms behind peeling-paint doors, passageways you’d need a torch and a hardhat for, arches bricked up entirely. And then there are bars, performance spaces, theatre companies.

As we walk, Matthew brightens, and a free-flow of associations fills the air between us: pints bought with pence, a 7-inch of Waterloo Sunset, a girl he used to meet for sandwiches by the river.

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Then we stop. We’re in a tunnel filled with a wash of sound made from hip-hop from speakers in the ‘legal-graffiti’ arches of Leake Street, and the drills of construction workers turning nearby arches into new restaurants and event spaces. This isn’t the Waterloo Matthew remembers. But he seems to approve of the noise.

And it’s here that it finally spills out.

“This lad started, a school leaver, few years younger than me. Stewart takes him under his wing, of course. Whispering in his ear the way he used to with me. One day the lad didn’t turn up for work. His Mum worried sick – he hadn’t turned up at home either. They found him a few weeks later – found his body, anyway.

“In a locked store, I think it was. Nobody could explain how he had got there – and nobody could explain the state his body was in. His poor Mum had to identify what was left of it”.

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What Stewart knew of it Matthew never found out. The mechanic never returned to the workshop.

“Gaff saw him once, I think. A shell of a man, is all he would say. None of us suspected him or that. We’d all been questioned. Like I say, they couldn’t explain how a person could even do that, let alone prove that anyone had”.

The business didn’t last much longer. Matthew learned the Knowledge, and spent a career “praying the fare doesn’t want Waterloo”.

We walk out from under the arches, past the construction workers, past Upper Marsh. And then back under, to where we part company beside a series of mosaics depicting Blake’s paintings and poetry – Dark Satanic Mills and all that.

“When the factories came it must have seemed like they would be here forever”, says Matthew.

“But it’ll all be marsh again some day”


  • Candidate: The Waterloo Arches Rift
  • Type: Interdimensional breach
  • Status: Irratic