As we pushed open the heavy meeting room door, what met us was a row of dour, insolent faces ranged around the two far sides of the meeting table, and a heavy fug of stale human breath. This is Ledbury Town Council's camarilla, a characterful Hogarthian assemblage, some craggy, some bloated but all with pinched expressions and more or less up to no good.
Here is the liar Bob Barnes who likes to think of himself as the Father of the Town Council, its intellectual and moral dynamo, bulwark of traditional Ledbury values. He sits next to Ledbury's shortest-lived mayor, the ill-fated Martin Eager, perennially red-faced and embittered by the public reaction to his crimes. There is the Mother Crowe, centre stage, tossing her blond tresses triumphantly like an Aryan goddess. Her nemesis, Jayne Roberts is uncomfortably at her side with a curled lip: perhaps she is remembering Annette's nasty line of comments about her resembling a slug? Citizen Tony Bradford looks to his friend Debbie Baker who is stony-faced and unblinking. With something of the Toby jug about them, the slightly disheveled pair have common cause in a range of occult pursuits. Finally, the inscrutable Andy Manns stares straight ahead, creating the strong impression of someone who knows a very great deal, or else knows nothing at all.
It was 7.25pm. They had each one arrived early to gain the psychological advantage of established formation, and being serried together, were thus enabled to make sotto voce remarks and cast meaningful sideways glances if required. Even though so many of them hate each other with a passion, it is important that they cleave together in this time of disquiet.
Councillors from the 'other side' (ie Harvey et al) arrived along with a half a dozen or so members of the public, cheerily greeting each other while those opposite continued to glare menacingly, irritated by the pleasantries. In the manner of a theatre late-comer, the ambitious Ms Jean Simpson was the last councillor to arrive and had to squeeze herself awkwardly past chairs and scramble over already seated councillors to get to her confederates on the far side. The only difference on her part was the marked absence of civility; there was no 'excuse me' or 'sorry to trouble you' or 'thank you'. The slightly unseemly commotion passed, and once seated, Jean carefully set her sharp face perfectly to the same wintry expression as her confederates.
Almost on the stroke of seven thirty, the stand-in clerk Lynda Wilcox, who had been waiting timorously in a back office, scuttled to her place at the head of the table, head down and avoiding eye contact. She was followed noisily by the Mayor fresh from a fortifying ciggie and thus fortified, redolent of stale tobacco smoke. Good evening, she rasped loudly, plonking her big bag on the table in front of an increasingly woebegone Deputy Mayor Keith Francis, causing him to start.
There was nothing whatsoever in Elaine's bold performance to suggest that just ten minutes before, she had had a blazing argument with another councillor sitting just across the table, an ex-mayor. Like so many before it, the altercation took place under the shadowy vaults of The Market House. It was brought to an abrupt stop by the appearance of several members of the public also making for the Town Council offices. Debbie Baker raised the palm of her hand contemptuously and walked away even while Elaine was still remonstrating with her. 'Not interested', said Debbie. The Mayor's face was contorted with rage and frustration at the slight, and yet just a few moments later, it was returned to its customary public serenity.
After a little whispered conferring with Lynda, the old library clock chimed the half hour in its wan, melancholy way. The mayor got out her customary bag of boiled sweets and plucked a vivid red one which she popped between her freshly lipsticked red lips, equally vivid.
Let the meeting commence. 'Welcome to this erm extraordinary full council meeting,' she gurgled while theatrically shuffling papers . 'Members of the public are permitted to film or record meetings to which they are permitted access... deemed to have consented... those exercising... rights of... Data Protection Act 1998... is there anyone filming? Oh you, yes... well then, first item Apologies... no? Good. Interests...'
And so for several minutes the mayor droningly read out the meeting rubric in the manner of a bored priest saying mass for the ten thousandth time, or an old Latin master starting his double period with an improving, complex piece by Horace. This conventional preamble is usefully designed to allow an air of tedium to settle on the meeting, becalming any restive creative spirits who might have ideas to create a diversion.
In the silent pauses, you could just hear the clanking of a boiled sweet against one of the Mayor's remaining molars. That tangy fruitiness had her mouth awash with saliva so that when she spoke, she seemed to struggle to contain it all inside; her tongue swirled against the meaningless tide of words and scarcely controllable dribble that fought against each other. Was it possible without embarrassment?
'Public participation. Members of the public... which is at the chairman's discretion shall not exceed... shall not exceed five minutes... shall be directed to the Chairman... Now, Item 4 Minutes of the Last Meeting...'
Suddenly the mesmerizing spell of the Mayor's fructuous oration was disturbed. A hand was raised. 'I'd like to speak' said a member of the public pertly. 'Oh sorry', the mayor spluttered. She had apparently mesmerised even herself and forgotten about 'public participation'. 'Yes,' said the lady. 'I want to ask with respect and politeness, that the matters for discussion are conducted in the open, without the public being asked to leave. I would like to say...' She didn't get any further because the Mayor interjected. 'No, I'm sorry. That won't be possible because the business being discussed is confidential, it's legal you see'.
There was a little artificial argument between the mayor and the importunate lady: you see we would very much argue that since it is process, and not personal details, that are being discussed... (Interjection) No, it is legal and it is privileged so you can't be present... But don't you think the public should be allowed to know...? (Interjection) No, I'm so sorry, you must leave... But, but... (Interjection).
Thus 'the public' were expelled. As they filed out of the meeting room, the Mayor continued fulsomely to thank everyone for coming along while continuing to gulp back the product of her tart salivary eructations. Thank you and good night she growled warmly. Close the door after you.
Out in the impossibly picturesque cobbled street of timbered houses and jutting gables, a few snowflakes drifted by on the cold breeze. The Hogarthian scene was perfected. 'What's the bloody point?' said the defeated petitioner disconsolately. 'None at all,' came the reply. 'It's hopeless', said another, 'one more evening wasted'.
To the sound of the thin, tired strike of the quarter hour, the group parted in the gathering darkness.