Thursday, 25 October 2012

House of Lords, UK Parliament - Reception for VocalEyes

17th October

I was invited by VocalEyes to a reception in the River Room of the House of Lords (The second chamber in the UK Parliament).  The River Room is part of the area of the Palace of Westminster with a connection to the House of Lords and the Lord Speaker. These apartments had reached some notoriety when under the control of Lord Irvine of Lairg, a former Lord Chancellor.  Lord Irvine had supervised the installation of some very expensive wallpaper in the River Room and which we were able to admire during the reception. 

Nowadays the holder of the Lord Chancellor is the head of the Justice Ministry and sits as a Cabinet Minister in the House of Commons.  The issue of “Lords Reform” is currently stuck in the stasis of the present coalition government and the membership is appointed (for life), with some residual aristocratic input of (blue blood) just under 100 being eligible for election from a pool of hereditaries. 

During the State Opening of Parliament the Queen arrives in her coach which enters via an opening of the Victoria Tower.  The Victoria Tower is at the opposite end of the Palace of Westminster from the Clock Tower and the famous bell, Big Ben.  I entered the Palace of Westminster through gate 10, which is Black Rod’s Pass Office.  Black Rod is always shown marching down the Lobby to the House of Commons where the door is slammed in his face.  This part of the building harks back to many customs and yes, anachronisms, in the constitution which has evolved.  I went through security and joined James White from Guide Dogs. 

James had just finished a gruelling 3 weeks at the political party organised conferences in England - someone has to do the lobbying.  We chatted about items of common interest such as their anti clutter campaign, noises for electric cars and shared space issues. We were soon joined by Toby Davey the deputy director of VocalEyes, our hosts for the evening.  I had met Toby at Sight Village last year and also a couple of times at the Wellcome Collection. (We are pictured in the Grand Staircase of the Wellcome Building - )

After a few more arrivals we were escorted through the courtyards inside the complex and entered the approach to the apartments.  We walked along the passage way within the Victoria Tower which can take a coach and horses in procession.  I was greeted by Marylou from VocalEyes and my name badge was pinned on.  We were led to a lift and escorted to the River Room by the verger of the chapel.  

We entered the River Room which is decorated by paintings and sculptures.  There is a view across the River Thames directly and with another window there is a view downstream of the Millenium Wheel.  I could make this out along with Westminster Bridge.  I touched a Nymph (made of marble) as Roz Chalmers described it. There is also a statue of Narcissus and Roz described him to me. 
Roz was scheduled to demonstrate audio description in practice to the guests, some peers, some funders (Arts Council of England), other museums with interests in audio description (The Imperial War Museum) and contributors to the London Beyond Sight project.  The room was filling up and the VocalEyes supporters were introduced to me by Roz and Louise Fryer, who quizzed me about my lunchtime talk at the Wellcome Collection on synesthesia.  (Louise is doing a PhD at Goldsmiths and was interested in mirror neurons)

We were served with drinks and canap├ęs and I wore my new hat as my hands were full with cane and glass.  I prefer to stand at networking functions and if I did not know to whom I was talking, I simply asked.  I recognised some voices from the theatre so having met Andrew Holland a few times at the National Theatre, I could simply greet him on a prompt “it is Andrew”.  Context is everything and I recognised the voice of Shami Chakrabarti of Liberty, though I had to ask Julia Neuberger who she was again.  I knew I was speaking to a member of the House of Lords but which one? 

The speeches were started by Lord Harrison, who asked the Lord Speaker, Baroness d’Souza, to say a few words. Toby Davey then gave an eloquent speech on access to galleries, museums and heritage sites.  While access to some collections was excellent in some cases (Toby cited the Wellcome Collection as being an exemplar), others were sadly either inadequate or assumed something to touch was all that was required.  We have both had some instances of inappropriate action on someone seeing a person with an obvious sight disability. (In case you do not know me, I am not deaf and do not respond to hand waving or being told I can only be accommodated on the day for the visually impaired which I should have looked up on their website before risking life and limb to get there.) 

Roz Chalmers then described the skills of an audio describer by demonstrating these through an example, in this case by describing an object from the British Museum African collection.  The object label gave context but I had no idea what it looked like, let alone how it worked.  A playback with Louise Fryer made the object appear to me as a two headed dog with a carved fur effect etc.  

It was time to continue ‘working’ the River Room and I was soon talking to Judy Dixey, the executive director of VocalEyes.  Judy had promoted the concept of London Beyond Sight and I was aware of it through both twitter and my local visually impaired group.  For more details of London Beyond Sight go to

Next, I was introduced to Lord Harrison and Lord (Earl) Howe.  We were chatting about the Olympics and Paralympic legacy and like many disabled people I expressed the view that with huge funding and sponsorship, many disabled people can achieve their potential.  Unfortunately not all of us can run 100 metres.  I steered the conversation to the cultural Olympic legacy and audio description in particular and asked Lord Howe to describe his tie, which he did quite well. 

The introductions continued and I met Vidar Hjardeng who recently stepped down as the chair of VocalEyes.  Both Judy and Vidar can be heard on an audio CD about London beyond sight.  Soon it was time to go and Marylou escorted me back to Westminster Underground making sure I was on the correct platform. 

Some of the people I spoke to and was introduced to were as follows:

Shami Chakrabarti
Roz Chalmers
Neil Darlison from Arts Council England
Toby Davey, Deputy Director of VocalEyes
Judy Dixey
Michael Elwyn
Louise Fryer
Lord Harrison of Chester
Vidar Hjardeng
Lord Howe
Marcel Jenkins
Marylou Lousvet, Chair of VocalEyes
Julia Neuberger
James White of Guide Dogs
Many thanks to VocalEyes for adding me to their guest list.  I have since added two of the London Beyond Sight audio descriptions to my Waterloo Sunset post ( Both audio and text files on the site are useful in adding that piece of appropriate description for many London landmarks.  Judy Dixey would like to extend the concept of London Beyond Sight to other geographic spots and I think personally some Science Beyond Sight should be within reach if enough enlightened people can be found to do it.