By Jennifer Barclay
‘You getting wet, love?’ asked the policeman outside the Houses of Parliament, where it was drizzling on the evening of 25 October. I was early and getting a little damp, but sure my ticket bearer would show up soon. Instead, the policeman ushered me inside, giving me an opportunity to gaze on the oldest part of the Palace of Westminster, where royals lie in state when they pop off.
For me, the most exciting thing about the Anglo-Korean Society Annual Dinner at the House of Commons on 25 October was the setting. I’d been fretting about my Lounge Suit, but the fascinating guided tour of the House of Commons and House of Lords took my mind off all that. I learned what ‘toeing the line’ really means: it’s the ‘sword line’ that keeps the MPs on the front row from getting into fisticuffs with the opposition. I also learned that an astonishing number of people don’t turn off their mobile phone on a tour of the Houses of Parliament. I’m surprised you’re allowed in with one.
The oddest thing about the Anglo-Korean Society Annual Dinner for me was that, given that this is an organisation devoted to friendship and networking, there was so little time for Anglo-Korean socializing. By the time we’d had our tour and made our way to the oddly named Terrace Pavilion (not a pavilion, and no sign of a terrace), there was only about half an hour of reception, which meant a sort of speed dating was necessary for me to get a sense of the people I might meet as a member of the Anglo-Korean Society. I was whipping out business cards like there was no tomorrow.
Grabbing a glass of wine, I chatted briefly with a friendly Korean woman who worked for a London law firm, and would have liked to get to know her better but she got pulled into another conversation. Her company was a member of the society, so perhaps there was business to be done and a writer / publisher wasn’t the kind of new client her company wanted her to meet. Swiftly flipping business cards en route with another friendly Korean woman, London correspondent of Yonhap News Agency, I took the opportunity to accost a member of the Anglo contingent.
He turned out to be a banker who’d lived in Korea for three years in the early eighties. It was a time, he recalled, of air raid practices at night, raids on the Blue House, a shoot-out in Panmunjom. I was curious to know more but my notebook made him nervous. His wife had learned to speak the language — there were very few foreigners there at the time, 13 Caucasians in all of Pusan — and his children, young then, now remembered Korea ‘by and large with affection’. He had kept in touch with Korean friends in Seoul, but didn’t know anyone in the Terrace Pavilion that evening. Perhaps he would make new friends over dinner.
To dinner at the Churchill Dining Room, where I was seated at an almost exclusively Anglo table. It seemed odd for an Anglo-Korean Society Dinner to be segregated into Anglos and Koreans. Nevertheless, it was fortunate to meet the Birmingham-based director, director’s wife and producer of Hanyong Theatre Projects, creators of an inspired bilingual play called The Bridge — about collaboration, conflict resolution and communication beyond language. The Korean National University of Arts had noticed Peter Wynne-Willson’s work and invited him to teach a course, and this was what developed. It’s been performed in the England and South Korea (Seoul and closer to the border) and may be taken to Adelaide, Australia next year if funding can be secured.
Peter Bottomley, an MP for 32 years and Secretary of the Anglo-Korean Parliamentary Group, kicked off the speeches by neatly comparing politics to the fluctuations of the Thames and reminding us that this room dedicated to Churchill was a good place for exchanging ideas. He handed over to the guest speaker, the Right Honourable The Lord Richard QC, among other things a past President of the UK-Korea Forum for the Future.
After observations that Koreans were industrious, disciplined and economically successful, he commended the Korean workforce for accepting discipline in the short term in order to emerge from the economic crisis. I’m sure he was just being polite in not mentioning how that ‘discipline’ was enforced occasionally. An interesting question nonetheless, whether Koreans as a society have a capacity for determination in the quest for long-term goals. He finished by commenting on how the North-South meetings have brought ‘remarkable’ changes, and the importance of taking baby steps towards solving the North Korea problem. It perhaps wasn’t the meaningful exchange of ideas that had been set up, but perhaps the annual dinner is not the place for serious debate.
His Excellency The Ambassador of the Republic of Korea, Dr Cho Yoon-Je, showed his customary grace as he thanked the speaker and said he was placing a strong priority on enhancing the British people’s understanding of Korea. Hear hear.
Perhaps the annual dinner is not the place for discussion in any case. It’s for celebrating friendship and meeting people, so I did a spot more speed dating as we hovered around the dinner table. Failed to hit it off with an Anglo in business development who bought art from a North Korean he met in Zimbabwe. Did better with an Aussie Anglo, also in international business development, and his charming Korean lady friend.
Social Events Secretary Sylvia Park does a wonderful job of organizing four events through the year, and the society offers bursaries to UK graduates studying Korean culture and history. Try to support them if you can by joining — they’re doing excellent work and you might just make some new friends.