Friday, 9 October 2015

St. Ermin's Hotel.

Last weekend I was a long way out of my comfort zone - Robyn's cousin's wife was in town and she'd brought Robyn some stuff from the USA that she can't get here.

So, Sunday afternoon I drove up to London and we went to the hotel to meet her;

Now this is not my kind of place, for a start it's the kind of joint I usually get thrown out of.

The St. Ermin's Hotel was built in the 19th century as a complex of expensive apartments, just by Parliament Square. It didn't go as well as they expected and a few years later it was bought out and converted into a hotel.

The design was by a leading theatrical architect and it shows.

It's classy;

It's also historical, in an unconventional way.

They have a division bell which rings whenever there is due to be a vote in Parliament and that means that M.P's can get over in time to vote without bothering to do any actual work.

Division bells are common in 'gentlemen's clubs' and even in some very expensive houses in this area - rich, lazy M.P's like to be within walking distance of a vote;

This one is special - there are rumours that there is a tunnel from the hotel directly to The Houses of Parliament. I can't say whether that's true or not but there is a tunnel from the new 'Portcullis House' office complex and in the 1970's I walked along the tunnel that then linked Parliament to the Underground station so that M.P's didn't have to walk there on the street.

There is a whole complex of secret tunnels under Whitehall, so why not?

It's not far away;

However, the hotel is even more historic - during the war office space was in short supply and the top two floors were taken over by The Secret Intelligence Service (Mi6) because their main office (a short walk away at 54 Broadway) was full.

In 1940, Churchill attended a meeting at the hotel to set up 'Special Operations Executive' and, naturally, when it came to working out where they were to be based they took over another floor of the hotel before moving to Marks and Spencer's offices on Baker Street.

S.O.E. was a clandestine intelligence and sabotage network that operated throughout occupied Europe. Sometimes using questionable methods and with variable levels of success they were undoubtedly some very courageous people.

St. Ermin's hotel just happened to be right in the middle of Britain's secret world until the 2000's when much of it was relocated to bigger and better offices.

Mi6 used rooms to interview potential recruits, the Bar and Grill with its cosy, quiet little alcoves were used for endless conferences and meetings over drinks or meals;

Most of 'the Cambridge ring of Five'; Philby, Burgess, Maclean, Blunt and Cairncross would have been here on one kind of official business or another.

The flamboyant Guy Burgess used to meet his Soviet controller in the bar, right under the noses of his colleagues.

How's that for courage?

As I said, this was the meeting place of Britain's secret world for about 70 years.

If you come out of the hotel and walk just a few paces you find yourself outside 'New Scotland Yard', headquarters of the Metropolitan Police (and their 'Special Branch' the political police) although they are soon to sell up and move to cheaper premises.

We thought we ought to look suitably serious for this selfie;

They are on 'Broadway' and if you walk a few more yards you are at the once famous office block at 54 Broadway, for many years the headquarters of Mi6.

In the 1930's, German intelligence positioned a 'match seller' on the other side of the road to take down details of who went in and came out.

A bit further up the road is 'Queen Anne's Gate', the 'Home Office', which deals with internal security matters.

During the war, 'Mi8' (now part of GCHQ) was also based in Broadway, tracking down illicit radio broadcasts.

Up until this century, 'The Security Service' (Mi5) had a variety of offices all around town but their main one was at Curzon Street, not a million miles away.

We walked down to Parliament square taking tourist photos and waiting for 'Big Ben' to chime six o'clock.

In passing I took a picture of Nelson Mandela's statue.

I was thinking about how, for most of my life, the various people who had been spying on me were based in this little corner of Whitehall, within easy reach of each other's offices.

Nelson Mandela and the African national Congress were spied on by GCHQ, Mi6 and their office in London was monitored by Special Branch and Mi5.

Margaret Thatcher described him as a 'terrorist' while a young David Cameron actually campaigned for his execution;

Then I took a look at the statue of Gandhi, unveiled only last year;

Gandhi came back to Britain in 1931 for the 'Round table' constitutional talks on home rule for India. He was here for about 12 weeks and he was a sensation, closely followed by Mi5 and 'Special Branch' who would have attended his meetings to take notes and record who was there.
Gandhi defied convention by choosing to stay at Kingsley House in Poplar in the poorest part of the poverty stricken East End, where he was taken into the hearts of the local people.
Despite calling for a boycott of British cotton goods, he was also met by thousands of supportive cotton workers when he visited Blackburn and Darwen in Lancashire.
There have been a few changes in the last few years but not enough.
Neil Harris
(a don't stop till you drop production)

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