When I opened up my copy of the latest Ledbury Reporter and caught site of the front page, I was fortunately at home and able to run to the sink to empty the excessive saliva that had begun pooling in my mouth. While I managed to interrupt an actual attack of sickness, the lingering feeling of queasiness has persisted off and on for several days, every time in fact when I glance at those two faces grinning fatuously like a pair of Britain First supporters.
When every rational line of argument is spent, when you are facing political oblivion or pressure to own up to wrongdoing, when the game is up, there's only one thing for it. Bunting. You know that things have reached the pits when politicians wrap themselves in the flag.
Ertswhile enemies now best Council buddies it seems, the two laughing mayors, Mr Barnes and Mrs Crowe, have gone better than this: they have literally swagged and festooned themselves in Union Jacks. If you look carefully on the left side of the picture, you will see that Bob Barnes has got his right hand raised in a diagonal posture which for all the world looks like a fascist salute. Or is it a raised fist or the Red Hand of Ulster? The mind boggles. Thank god the hand is cropped so we are spared the full horror of the image.
Flags are potent symbols. They mean lots of things. They are expressions of pride, as when Mo Farrah won his gold at the London Olympics, or of national celebration for the Queen's jubilee, or of sorrow for the fallen: who can forget the heartbreaking site of a sea of tiny flags at the Normandy commemoration each one representing a life lost in the fight against Nazism?
I have been driven up the Shankhill Road and visited North Belfast and seen the eerie sight of kirbstones painted red, white and blue, bunting and tattered flags fluttering sadly in the drizzle. In these pitifully deprived neighbourhoods, families save their pennies to have their houses painted from top to bottom as Union Jacks. You'll see a few adolescent boys kicking a can around in the broken glass, perhaps a scrawny dog wandering idly. In such benighted working class communities, tokens of patriotism, unionism, and loyalism, for they are one, are worn defiantly by people against the encroachment of enlightened, secular values, against integration and outsiders, vouchsafed against the decades of hurt and bitterness which has soured their hearts. Something of the same is witnessed in the Republican areas, although without quite the visceral xenophobia of the Loyalist districts.
So when Irish visitors, or people from multicultural London or Birmingham, or some black people whose lives have been ravaged by racist thugs brandishing Union flags, when they visit a quaint country town, predominantly a white British town, and see it decked in a profusion of red, white and blue for no apparent reason, they do feel a cultural jolt, a political charge, as do I. It's probably wrong, but there it is. You can't deny your gut instincts. The flag is still controversial. It means something. Is it, as those Irish poets asked, a political statement? Is this a centre for right-wing extremism? They could be forgiven for enquiring, as some of the baying mob against Liz Harvey are undoubtedly motivated by those views. Some of those loud voices on Voice of Ledbury are known right-wing agitators. Perhaps there are one or two of them in Ledbury Town Council judging by the rancid comments of some councillors in recent years.
Annette Crowe is outraged at the suggestion that the crass image on the front of the local paper might be seen as a nod to the far right. She asks: 'Any connotation like that, about our town; it's unacceptable. It puts the town in a bad light. Just putting the comments out there is unacceptable.' Is she either extremely naive or is this just more political hay-making, another gambit to get her name in the paper yet again? Is that look of defiant glee genuinely about intense patriotic sentiment or the prosecution of tawdry political opportunism? I hadn't realised that we had disappeared down a worm-hole and wound up in North Korea, where free thought, much less a stated opinion is forbidden.
The Daily Express and Mail, themselves proud fascist sympathisers in the 1930s and still raging against anyone left of Mrs Thatcher, claimed Liz Harvey wanted to 'BAN (their caps) the Union Flag.' Did she really? See the transcript of exactly what she said in the Council meeting here. More worrying is the fact that Annette Crowe appears keen to ban real concerns people might have about the far right and its imagery permeating our town. Even the mention of it is now 'unacceptable' in Mrs Crowe's dubious judgement.
The question for Mr Barnes and Mrs Crowe is why they would ever think that staring out provocatively draped in rampant nationalist insignia could ever be a good thing, except on a day of national celebration. Even then, good taste surely demands that there are limits. A few 'true patriots' no doubt will be delighted. Most reasonable people will think them tastelessly vulgar. Others with longer memories, finer political sensibilities or first-hand experience of the corrosive effects of nationalist hatred will be disturbed, even worried.
My view, and it's not worth much, is that by all means we should put out the flags and swathe the town in bunting for the old Queen's birthday and 1916 commemoration. Let there be lots of red, white and blue, but there should also, properly be a healthy dose of Commonwealth colour. The 56 nations of the Commonwealth love Elizabeth as much as the Brits; they fought in the First and Second World Wars, one million seven hundred thousand men and women died. Does their contribution, and memory count for nothing in Ledbury?
What a kind gesture it would be both to the monarch, and to our friends overseas, that Ledbury celebrates its place in the world and shows that we are not a narrow-minded little town full of patriotic zealots.
To Mr B and Mrs C, they should remember Samuel Johnson's words: patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel.