Felling her enemies, Boadicea was one, fearlessly riding into battle in a scythed chariot. Perhaps Britain's greatest monarch, Queen Elizabeth I, said 'I know I have the body of a weak and feeble woman; but I have the heart and stomach of a king'. In recent politics there is another. At her zenith, Mrs Thatcher thrillingly declaimed to Parliament and the nation: 'No. No. No.'
Cometh the hour, cometh the woman.
In these times of anxiety, fortune has smiled again. Not quite in the Boadicea class, even so, Ledbury suddenly has its own formidable warrior queen, a true Amazon; fluttering from her dowdy chrysalis, all colour and brilliance, she has emerged into the blinking sunlight.
Behold Elaine Fieldhouse, the magnificent one: town mayor, benefactor, businesswoman, and neighbourhood planning expert. Under her ferocious gaze, and withering reproaches, bullies and tyrants all over the town cower in awe. Her commanding presence, announced by the clomp-clack of her kitten heels, is such that rooms often fall silent when she appears. But not always in a good way.
Seeing is believing.
Many people know La Magnifica from the ups and downs of her optician's shops. She ran the delightful Dolland and Aitchison franchise in Ledbury for some years, until something ghastly went wrong. She and her husband were mysteriously let go by their parent company and made to sign a contract that prevented them, harshly, from opening another competitor opticians in Ledbury before a considerable time had passed. Goodness knows what the problem was.
Ever resourceful, Elaine pressed a family member into loyal service who, after a few months, opened up her current shop, The Glasshouse, but not obviously in the Fieldhouse's name. A little bit naughty, husband David continued to do the ophthalmic testing, while Elaine pulled the administrative strings in the back. Aptly, what the eye doesn't see, the heart doesn't grieve over. And phew, D & A never got wind.
Things didn't go well however. Amid much acrimony it all went 'tits up' (Elaine's phrase). Money owed to customers and suppliers, spectacle orders unfulfilled, and the Fieldhouse family rent apart, The Glasshouse closed; so much effort and ingenuity wasted!
Keep calm and carry on is La Mag's motto. Like the Dreadnought, she ploughs onward through choppy waters or calm, undeterred by neither petty bureaucracy, trivial people nor difficult family members.
Once the D & A exclusion clause had expired and so finally above board, the shop reopened. Business might not have been stellar, what with disgruntled customers still complaining about their lost money and a new discount Specsavers opening just round the corner, but she sails! Good old hubby, David got himself a part-time job at Tesco's optician's outlet down in Wiltshire to grease the wheels, while Elaine keeps things going womanfully in Ledbury.
Amid the tribulations, there has been a constant guardian presence in Elaine's wayward orbit: that other vintage trader turned mayor, Annette Crowe. The two women are rarely seen apart, sharing ciggies, tea and gossip in the back of the shop, charming friendly visitors and unsettling others, all the while plotting their next coup de théâtre in town affairs. With all that clanking costume jewellery, the swags and drapes of lorn fabric, the generous clouds of tobacco smoke and outlandish lipstick, these two larger than life ladies make an impressive sight trundling about the High Street, especially when in tandem. There's fog-horn voiced Annette as Ethyl Merman, and her fag-raddled sidekick Carol Channing putting one uncannily in mind of Elaine. Just look at the video footage.
By then, Annette was making a play on the alternative wing of Ledbury Town Council, finding merriment with her best friend, running down their pet bêtes noires, town councillors Tony Bradford and Martin Eager among others. If there's one thing Elaine doesn't like, it's a sex pest. She really took exception to Tony popping into her shop making suggestive remarks, particularly while she was trying to concentrate on her Times.
But times also change. Elaine and Annette are now on best terms with Tony and Martin, all that mucky sex stuff shoved under the mattress like so many sticky magazines. They now co-star in Ledbury's latest blockbuster docu-drama 'Get Harvey'. It has turned into one of those big bucks movies where it's difficult to know where to stop, especially with the Town Council bankrolling. Eyes Wide Shut perhaps?
Annette and Elaine, (jokingly known around the town as 'A and E'), strongly disagree that they are dishonest or hypocrites or turn-coats, and so they might, for such accusations are always damaging.
Elevation. At last.
At the 2015 election, Elaine's lonely years in the social wilderness came to an end. By a miracle (yes, there is a god!), she got herself elected to Ledbury Town Council, despite living miles away from town. As a High Street trader it was her good fortune to be advised (by me actually) that she was eligible to stand for election. Few candidates for the eighteen vacancies meant that the lady scraped over the finishing line almost by default, even surpassing her pal, the slightly less than popular Mother Crowe. You'd have had to be a real dud to fail.
All that rancour and nastiness was hastily put aside. There was planting in the abandoned town centre flower beds, Christmas lights to be licked into shape, the Queen's birthday and a clutch of other high profile causes to be sprinkled with magic dust. 'Let's be nice to each other' she told the Town Clerk Karen Mitchell. 'Don't worry about Harvey and the other trouble-makers. We'll deal with them'. Thus began her metamorphosis from hungry caterpillar to gorgeous butterfly.
You say 'bitch' like it's a bad thing.
Once grand-mère Crowe had been crowned mayor, former friends were swiftly jettisoned, along with all those reformist idiots who made it possible. In her glittering slipstream flitted the ever-flirtatious lady in waiting, Mistress Fieldhouse. It was as if the gates of heaven had been joyfully thrown open. Amid the social whirl, Masonic overtures, and the divine perfume of power, A and E set about clipping political wings and stamping on interfering toes. Even their new-found council chums, Barnes, Eager, Baker and Francis, marvelled at the audacity, the cold brilliance of their assault on old friends like Liz Harvey and Andrew Harrison. 'It's all the art of the possible darling', opined Elaine gruffly. 'Politics. You sink or swim. There's no room for losers.'
She'd done her bit. She'd drunk blood. And it tasted fine, if not good. Harvey and Harrison were banned and the Town Clerk was safe. The bunting scandal was a patriotic godsend: 'she's our queenie, and red, white and blue bunting is what we'll have,' she chipped in winsomely when Liz Harvey had foolishly suggested multi-coloured bunting might look jolly in the town.
Unwavering, Elaine Glasshouse was turning into quite the town treasure, sloughing off criticism with tittering scorn, and sweetly bewitching anyone that might be useful, up to and including thoughtful little gifts. She was risen. May 2016, elected Deputy Mayor. Business picking up. Photo opportunities. (Must get the teeth sorted out). Invitations for coffee in her shop (lots of these). Friends' discounts for cash transactions. Perfect.
An ex-mental health nurse, she certainly knows the tricks of the trade. Amid all the loveliness, the troubling question is: who is this Elaine Fieldhouse? Can she really be so unconscionable? Or does she genuinely convince herself that all the lies and deceptions are somehow true?
At the Christmas lights switch-on celebrations last November (2016), she accosted me in the street, twice. Along with her friend, the ex-deputy clerk, Maria Bradman, they took time out of their grand tour of the rather bizarre entertainments to stop by in 'The Walled Garden' and launch a ferocious verbal assault on me. Brazen with it, and completely undeterred by witnesses, I was told I had mental health problems, that I was a disgusting person, and I needed to clear out of town. All that mulled wine in the town council offices had worked its magic. For my pains, two days later, the police came knocking; the pair had reported me for 'harassment' and 'public disorder', furious that I wouldn't buckle under their drunken onslaught.
Police take such complaints seriously, particularly from the Deputy- Mayor and Clerk of the Town Council. The ensuing investigation, over Christmas, turned up many witnesses and recorded sound evidence. Two months later, I was exonerated, while Fieldhouse and Bradman were shown to have told a pack of lies. They were lucky. They got away with a sharp reprimand. Even so, the pair continued to hurry round the town peddling scurrilous gossip about me. Ledbury is a small place.
On another occasion, I was berated for 'harassing and bullying' town councillors and staff at a county parish government conference. Senior police officers and the Police Commissioner himself were harangued for not having put a stop to my awful behaviour, particularly my online contributions. Is it my literary style that so irks them?
Who was leading the attack? Yup, the Deputy Mayor, Elaine Fieldhouse. Nor are these isolated instances. In council meetings, the lady regularly dissembles tales of 'nastiness' from her foes, principally Harvey, Harrison, Nick Morris, Andrew Warmington, (and me). Though in this, she is not alone. The town council is rather handsomely endowed with big fat liars and polished perjurers just now.
In the biological domain, there is a type of loose textured, gaseous turd which likes to bob about sturdily in water, and despite considerable effort, refuses to be sunk. There are people like this too. They can often be identified by their ascension to the top seat in corrupt institutions. So, joining the mountebanks Barnes, Crowe, Baker, and briefly Eager, Madam Fieldhouse is now mayor of Ledbury Town Council. The Magnificent One, light and airy, if a tad whiffy, has finally broken surface and she's not about to go anywhere soon.
La Mag does not so much chair council meetings but directs them, in the theatrical sense.
'I'm so sorry,' she recently told a crowd of angry residents petitioning the council about waste of money. Her husky, concerned voice was the essence of sincerity. 'You really must leave now. You see, the business is confidential, and I would love you to stay, but it is out of my hands I'm afraid... I feel your pain, and understand your frustration, but it is time for you to go. Go on now. Hurry along. Thank you. Thank you.' The crowd shuffled out dejected, but also somehow uplifted by the Lady's beatific spell. 'Thank you ladies and gentleman... I'm so sorry'.
Like Nurse Ratched in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, Mags feigns solicitude while delivering doses of thick, gloopy medication that is designed to quell dissent and promote compliance. 'You should get professional help,' she once told me, all kindness and venom, 'because you have anger issues. It's such a shame. You could be such a nice person.'
There is a hard edge too. In council meetings, if someone utters something that Nursey doesn't like, she swoops in and puts them right instantly.
'No that isn't true Councillor Warmington,' she pronounces imperiously, 'as well you know. You are wrong there, you have the facts all muddled up... black is white, we voted on it at a previous meeting. Didn't we?', she says turning to the flustered town clerk. 'And it shall not be any other way.' Bang.
A stickler for detail, the rebellious Cllr. Warmington sometimes refuses to submit to these reprimands.
'Please may I finish my point without being interrupted Madam Mayor? It's very tiring and councillors should be allowed to make their point unhindered. And no, black is black, and white is white, despite what the council recently decided,' he says wearily.
'Oh, excuse me', she snaps back. 'There's no need to be so unpleasant. Why are you always so nasty? I was simply correcting you. In any case, I wasn't interrupting. I was interjecting.' The clerk shuffles her papers nervously.
At this, Warmington sits down deflated, just a little dazed, muttering 'you win'. Interrupt or interject: Nursey knows best.
Endings and beginnings.
And so we approach the end of the Mag-fly's nuptial flight. The metamorphosed creature, her glistening carapace and gorgeous accessories, fluttering like gossamer wings in the summer breeze, has landed. She is generously inseminated with power, enough to last a little while yet. We visit her as she is busy setting up her new colony. Now the vital business of replication must occur. It is an anxious time, for she is vulnerable while gravid. Her drones are about her, the stupid husbands, the inexperienced, the gullible, and the quietly ambitious. They soothe and pamper her, fetching juicy little prey items: she requires the protein of tittle-tattle to nourish the next generation.
Tragically, because nature is ruthless, the noble creature will eventually crumple and die, her evolutionary mission completed. And then she will be eaten and all but forgotten. But enough of her being will have been imparted to the next generation to sustain the colony, she hopes. Amid her matriphagous sacrifice, the glorious legacy will live on. Ledbury will be saved.
Jean Simpson for mayor in 2018 perhaps?