D-Day

Just a short update: today it begins. I am now part of the Parish Council. Still six days to the first meeting, but my inbox is already filling with (directly copied) correspondence.

It is ruthlessly efficient, with each email marked ‘for information’ or ‘for action’. My first action is discharged straight away; confirming that I am unable to attend a pest control forum next Tuesday morning. A pan-District briefing, which covers a range of subjects all too tedious to cover in detail.

Of more interest; actions seem to be in place to get the newly elected District Councillor along to the next meeting. Toe-to-toe with my nemesis so soon; I will, of course, keep you posted.

Spring has sprung

With election fever behind us, the long weekend provides an opportunity to enjoy the spring weather. The sun is out, and there is a very British chill to the wind – perfect conditions for a village fete.

There are quite a few to choose from; but having not yet formally taken my post, I decide to go incognito at the Cider and Cheese Festival in the neighbouring Parish. The wife offers my services to the Dog Show that has a mixed bag of demonstrations, competitions judged by a second rate celebrity, and what appears to be a significant amount of lifting and carrying in order to set up and break down the arena and admin tent.

I find it is immensely satisfying to drive home stakes with a weighty mallet; securing them into the mother Earth ready to take the rope that will define the arena. It is slightly less satisfying to repeatedly remove them when you realise the dimensions of the arena and quantity of rope have been misjudged. After the fifth or sixth iteration, the novelty has resoundingly worn off, as has the quality of the workmanship. Nonetheless, the final result is fairly impressive, and I have a new found respect for those who install the temporary infrastructure that underpins such events.

Marquees, gazebos, pop-up food outlets, and the traditional mainstays such as the coconut shy; all hastily erected in the 1-hour setup window by reluctant volunteers. Just one slack guy rope or a poorly maintained gas canister, and the whole event could descend in utter, litigious chaos. Add in the more technically advanced elements such as the public address system, archaic fairground rides, and monumental inflatables; it truly is a wonder that these events pass so seamlessly across the country with (as far as I’ve seen) minimal glitches.

As the ‘Dog With the Waggiest Tail’ rosette is presented to a snotty child in an attempt to stop them crying, the cider (and to some extent the cheese) is starting to take its toll. I have already talked myself out of the dismantling activities, and from the condition of my support crew colleagues I assume the whole shooting match will wait until the morning.

At the back of my mind is a recent blind copied email from the Parish Council. There is talk of a summer fete, and it seems to be gaining some traction. I’ll need to check the small print and maybe take some legal advice, because in just a few months I may be ultimately responsible for an event such as this. A sobering thought indeed; which given the amount of cider I’ve consumed is strangely welcome.

Non-election day

As regular readers will be aware, today brings the non-event of the uncontested Parish Council election. However, Candidates of other Parishes and Districts will be going toe-to-toe in local elections across the UK. Those who subscribe to mainstream parties will be used as pawns in a media frenzy about ‘what would this mean if it were a General Election?’. SPOILER ALERT: it has been consistently shown over the years that it provides no insight whatsoever.

Due to the restrictions of the 1983 Representation of the People Act, I find myself walking a bit of a tightrope. I’m 99% sure it doesn’t apply to blogs (although web-based media is somewhat of a grey area); but under this Act it is illegal for media outlets (other than printed press) to report on UK elections whilst the polls are open, attempt to sway voters, or predict the results.

Due to the unerstandably small size of my following, and my predominantly international readership, I’m sure it is very unlikely that views expressed here could fundamentally undermine the democratic process – but why take the risk? Rather than leave my readers wanting, perhaps I could indulge them in party agnostic, vanilla, middle of the road tosh. However, should such content receive more likes and comments than the more standard posts (which to be honest would not be that difficult), I would need to take a long, hard look at myself, and consider the very future of the blog itself.

Instead, I will simply direct you to one of the greatest social media phenomena out there. So very British, so infrequent, but so absolutely wonderful. Ladies, gentlemen, netbots, I give you:

#dogsatpollingstations

Enjoy.

You can call him a carrot if it helps

Prejudices and ‘isms’ are typically bad things, although we all carry them to a greater or lesser extent. As well as considering them generally objectionable, I also find them lazy. I am, broadly speaking, an easy going kind of person, and try to see the best in people. However, when I do have cause to dislike somebody, I will at least take the effort to do so on a personal level.

One such case has presented itself over the last three years since moving to the village. I have struggled to choose a suitable word to describe this particular neighbour, and have settled on Moron as at least a working title. I understand this word is considered offensive in some circles, and I apologise to my readers if they find this word difficult. However, I find it accurate and justified in this instance, so please bear with me.

I believe that moron is the Welsh word for carrot, so you can call him a carrot if it helps.

The moron is an accountant. Now I have nothing against accountants per se (I have some good friends that are accountants), but for those of you that do, it sets a baseline to build upon. He is also one of those people that feels it is perfectly reasonable to open a conversation with, “so what are you driving at the moment?”. On this plain, although already irritating canvas, we can start to paint the portrait of the Moron.

He has an obsession with his front gate, and fencing in general. It’s one of those electronic affairs that can be operated with a fob, allowing the Moron to block the road as he sits smugly, waiting for it to open. Confrontations have been had with neighbours who have had the audacity to knock on the gate or attempt to operate it manually, rather than use the increasingly signposted intercom.

Communication is clearly a challenge for the Moron. Internal family comms seems to be primarily via raised voices and the kind of bad language that suggests a limited vocabulary. Increasingly rare external comms with neighbours are predominantly via theatrical threats and bullying retorts delivered over his new fence from the safety of the garden.

Based on recent exchanges with various dog walkers making use of the public footpath that flanks one side of the Moron’s property, the current direction of travel would suggest he will soon be communicating exclusively via the local constabulary. On three occasions in the last month the local bobby has attended to diffuse some sort of ‘crisis’ of the Moron’s creation. These typically result in a momentary growing up, and some sort of further fencing enhancement.

With minimal prompting, every neighbour will relay a story of some kind of negative exchange with the Moron; indeed I have a couple of my own. However, rather than throw stones and dwell in negativity, I ask myself what I can learn from the Moron and his baffling behaviour?

As I prepare to take office, I must confront the reality that I will at some level be serving and representing the Moron. Uncontested elections aside, the Parishioners choose their Councillors, not the other way around. As loathsome as I may find this individual, I will soon have a duty to assure his best interests are met. I envisage a future planing application for a moat and drawbridge to accompany his electronic gate. Do I trust myself to asses such a thing independently and without the emotional baggage of my personal dislike for the man?

I am ready for the challenge. At the risk of being self righteous, I know I can rise above the level at which the Moron chooses to operate. We are all entitled to our privacy and ‘funny ways’, and I will always react appropriately and robustly when met with objectionable behaviour. But when the Moron decides to step out from his increasingly lonely castle, he will find the pot holes are being attended to, a church clock keeping the correct time, and a play park for his children to use. I don’t expect any gratitude from the Moron, and I’m sure none will be expressed; but I have now clarified with myself that gratitude should not be my motivation either. I shall be motivated by making things better for the community in which I live, Morons included.

I’m going to keep an eye on the height of that fence though.

Out and about

They sun is out, there’s a gentle breeze, and we are taking the dogs out for a stroll around the parish. There is a very pleasant, reasonably flat walk from our front door that more or less flanks the outer perimeter of the Parish. From various points along the way it is possible to survey the landscape of my entire (soon to be) jurisdiction, whilst getting slightly burnt from the under-estimated spring sunshine.

The group is larger than usual. As well as me and the boys we have my brother and sister in-law. The wife has popped off to the shops to re-stock the lemons and tonic water from the night / early morning before. As we allow the fresh air to cleanse our heads and souls, I feel compelled to point out various ‘landmarks’ along the way. Parish boundary points, street furniture for which the council holds responsibility for maintenance, sites of recent/ongoing planning permission applications. Just twenty minutes in, I feel the interest of my follow walkers starting to wane (quite understandably).

About half way around our loop the conversation has stalled, and the hangovers are not clearing. The sister in-law has donned her earphones and commenced the next module of her intensive language course. The tranquil British countryside is torn by sporadic over-emphasised, borderline aggressive Dutch phrases. I hope that our route doesn’t take us past any other walkers, who I’m sure will be startled and alarmed by this strange group. My brother’s recent facial hair experimentations and closely fitting trousers do nothing to help us blend in as we enter the centre of the village.

With purdah in full swing, I notice the subtle signs around the village centre. The Parish noticeboard is woefully out of date, the village hall sits locked and lifeless, I convince myself that potholes are growing in size and number. The church clock (the upkeep of which received significant coverage during my first Council meeting) maintains its resolute assertion that it is 0830 or 2030. I reflect that in just a few short weeks, my fellow Councillors and I will embark on righting these and numerous other wrongs.

For now, however, I need to address the immediate challenges confronting me and my fellow walkers. The temperature is steadily increasing, and the limited provisions we have brought with us were consumed some time ago. Whilst the boys enjoy a drink from the dog bowl outside the local shop in the custody of my brother, the sister in-law and I pop inside to procure some ice lollies. The cooling effect and artificial flavourings have a positive impact on our spirits as we close in on the home straight. Our focus switches from Parish matters and useful Dutch verb structures, to the upcoming evening’s entertainment.

The wife has re-stocked the fridge, and we move diligently from Aperol Spritz to straight Prosecco. It has been an extremely enjoyable visit and we pass the remainder of the afternoon and evening making plans for a return trip, ear marking potential karaoke duets, and avoiding mention of our imminent returns to work. As the sun sets across the parish I notice that we have moved onto the Gavi, which I am delighted to enjoy on the deck with a Cuban cigar gifted to me by our visitors. I think my guided tour of the Parish was a strong first attempt, and if nothing else gave a welcome distraction to the craziness of normal life, which I am sure will be waiting for us all in the morning.

Biding my time

It’s not quite the neighbourly drinks I was envisaging – but it will certainly do. The wife and I are in attendance, with a torch and a bottle of Gavi (that’s a given), but the only neighbour is the Maine Coon from two doors down. We are obliging with a bit of house sitting and pet care, and taking the opportunity to catch up on a some post, and a bit of escapism – which strangely can be achieved from viewing the evening news on a slightly different TV set.

I intended to take the opportunity to update the blog, but the text you are reading now will have to wait. The first pieces of mail off the deck are our Postal Voting forms, nestling on a bed of fliers, tri-folds, and various poorly formatted news letters from candidates for the Local Council Elections. I had seen the steadily growing pile of junk mail accumulating by the front door, and had tried to ignore it. But now it was staring me in the face. That ‘District lot’ were of course going through their election campaigns whilst I sit here all smug and uncontested. It was clear, however, that one of these faces staring back at me from poorly framed, over exposed photos next to fly tipping sites and potholes that they were pledging to “clamp down on” was going be my nemesis for the coming months and years.

I have to give to them (or one of them at least), they had really gone to town on the PR. One fellow had provided an unsolicited flier, campaign posters (large and small), news letters, a glossy brochure, and a hand written letter clearly inspired by a doorstep discussion the week before with the wife. The volume of paper would suggest that green issues and sustainability were not particularly high up his agenda, but you had to admire the relentless effort, and dedication to his core messaging. As I comprehended the election campaign expense return this man had ahead of him, I started to feel pangs of sympathy; but I soon got a grip of myself.

From the teachings Sun Tzu, I knew I had to lay plans. I had to learn and master my enemy. What started as some casual house sitting, now feels like a remote war room where I can study the volume of material available to me – your relentless mail drops will be your undoing my friend (insert evil laughter). I recharge my glass, and eye up the neighbour’s garden room as a potential operations hub. I think my WiFi signal will be strong enough, and I can get a 1:25,000 OS Map of the parish on the back wall. It is evident that the Gavi and remanence of joss stick vapour is getting to my head (a familiar and pleasant odour that I’d experienced before when visiting two doors down).

With a decisive cross, my vote is cast. A short, torch lit walk home clears my head, with a diversion via the postbox having the added benefit of diverting us away from the pub. Good luck to all involved in the Local Elections, but be assured: we may be able to find common ground on the fly tipping and potholes, but I’ve noted your suspicious silence on planning policy and bin collections – the Parish are watching you.

A bit of house keeping

It’s starting to feel real now. In quick succession I have received written confirmation from the Returning Officer that the election will be uncontested, and a form to complete declaring my campaign expenses. A dozen or so pages to meticulously capture all expenses associated with an election that will not take place. I re-read page 1 to make sure I’m not missing something; I’m not. A declaration is to be made even if no expenses have been incurred.

My initial enquiries with Cambridge Analytica about how I could ruthlessly target my electorate did not reach the stage of contractual engagement, and plans for my multi-platform, mixed-media assault on the Parish never really made it off the drawing board (and I feel the need to clarify that no drawing board was purchased either). Despite eying up the eldest dog’s Agility Rosettes, no modifications had yet been made, nor pritt-stick expended (other non-toxic, mild adhesives are available). I’m sure my brother will propose expensing his flights for this weekend’s visit on the grounds of ‘miscellaneous consultancy’, but I don’t think that kind of thing will pass scrutiny.

As I complete my zero return, I consider the mischief to be had by claiming for the postage costs for mailing the claim form. However, the practicalities of not actually knowing if my 12-page form constitutes a large latter or small parcel, and therefore how much postage will be, means I rapidly lose interest. I’m sure there will be ample opportunity to enjoy procedural bureaucracy over the coming months.

For the record; it was a large letter less than 100g, so £1.06. I’ll happily pay that out of my own pocket.

As the ‘Young Blood’ I feel I should ready myself to bring some new innovative ideas to my first Council meeting. The blind copying continues, so there seems to be a general acceptance that email is the way forward; although the meeting I attended earlier in the year seemed to suggest we were a long way from going paper free. Duplicate hard copies of everything, and not a laptop or projector in sight – I feel this could be one area for improvement. If I can rustle up a projector and screen from work, I could make quite an entrance – or equally scare a couple of them off.

Quite possibly a step too far would be a facebook page. The wife is quite adept at navigating the social media scene (where as I typically steer well clear of it – blog notwithstanding), so it could be a way for her to make a valuable contribution. That said, the very minimalist website they have in place to satisfy the essential regulatory requirements would suggest content would be sparse, and followers likewise. I will float the idea, and assuming I don’t have to explain the entire concept of Social Media to the other Councillors, it may get some traction – watch this space.

As a final piece of house keeping, the blog itself. The test phase is over. I have posted, updated, and generally found my way around the platform; all seems to be working and I have a couple of followers – you are very welcome. The available analytics are truly fascinating; revealing viewing activity across the globe, including the USA, Netherlands, India, Malaysia, and of course the UK. A big hello and welcome to my international followers and netbots alike.

For those that partake in such things, you will also see sharing options within the posts; allowing you to connect with the Twattersphere and have your personal data harvested by the market leading social media platforms.

Not long now until formal appointment, at which point I very much look forward to writing to you from insidetheparish.

The waiting game

I’m in a holding pattern. It’s just under a month before I take office, so I remain very much excluded from the official correspondence between the Councillors. Were I not being covertly blind copied in to pretty much every email by two of them, I would be going crazy with anticipation. As it is, I am extremely well briefed on the complete lack of meaningful activity during this transitional period. Apparently a Purdah period applies even at this level of Government, ensuring the outgoing administration does not commit the incoming administration against their will. As I understand it, the situation is thus:

  1. Three weeks next Tuesday, the existing Council is disbanded;
  2. Moments later the new Council is appointed (it is worth noting that 6 of the 7 are replacing themselves – so this all feels a bit artificial);
  3. At this point I will be formally ‘sitting’, which as a minimum means I’ll be straight copied into emails and the blind copying can stop.
  4. Roles and responsibilities are discussed and assigned

Point 4 worries me slightly. I visualise the scene in Only Fools and Horses when Rodney reluctantly agrees to join the Nelson Mandela House Resident’s Association, and is instantly ushered in as the Chairman as the sitting Chairman immediately resigns. I have started to wonder if the Prosecco fuelled discussions, and manipulative pints in the local, have all been geared around allowing the existing Councillors to relieve themselves of their responsibilities and saddling the ‘Young Blood’ with all the work.

Whilst preparing a late pancake breakfast one Saturday morning, the wife spots a group of individuals clad in Hi-Vis assembled by the local. They resemble a very middle class ‘gilet jaune’ protest, just without the flaming bales of hay and violence. However, the small pile of black sacks gives away their true motive – a neighbourly litter pick. I spot a handful of Councillors among their numbers, one of whom seems to be taking a leading role. My concentration is broken by the smell of an unattended pancake that has welded itself to the base of the frying pan. As I scrape the burnt remanence from the ‘non-stick’ the wife escapes to engage the group in conversation, and enquire as to how I can be of assistance.

I am delighted to hear on her return that they are wrapping things up for the day after a good few hours clearing a stretch up to, but not one millimetre beyond, the boundary of the Parish. Apologies are passed on about not involving me in the ‘event’, which allegedly isn’t official Parish business. Naturally I become suspicious that I haven’t been blind copied into everything after all. What else are they keeping from the newbie?

I need to clear my mind of such thoughts, or it’s going to be a long three weeks. Maybe a neighbourly drinks event could help relax things and give me a fix of Parish talk to satisfy my new found craving.

The campaign trail (part 2)

It was decision time. I had danced around the issue for long enough. I had discussed, googled, and floated the concept with some friends and family. Over the preceding weeks I had kept things loose, I had not committed either way, my options were open. But as I looked down at the partially completed application form I realised that checking the submission deadline for the 7th time in an hour would not change the fact that it was tomorrow. The wife was out with the dogs, so no further advice was on offer.

There was no reason why I couldn’t secure the signatures to be formally nominated and seconded, and the Parish Secretary had kindly offered to check my forms and hand deliver them to the Returning Officer. Having compressed the timescales down to the wire, the next 2 hours were quite a frenzy. Nip across to a neighbour (and sitting Councillor seeking re-election) to secure a formal nomination – check. Jump in the car, and shoot up the hill to the Parish Secretary’s house to get the nomination seconded, and the forms quality assured – check.

That took all of 15 minutes in reality, but the remainder of the 2 hours was taken up by a very wide ranging discussion with the Secretary and her husband about the Parish, beef farming, the nuclear deterrent, and Brexit. A prime objective of getting involved in all this was to meet and spend time with our neighbours, and the application process alone had certainly delivered on that front. With the forms submitted, the matter was now out of my hands. Nothing (except an unchecked box or undated signature) was going to stop my formal nomination and entry into the election process.

It was all quite exciting. Close friends and family were informed, and a mocking WhatsApp exchange was had with my brother and sister in-law. Living overseas, this is the most common form of communication with my sibling and his better half, and my nomination clearly provided a fruitful subject matter. The exchange played out over several days and centred around suggestions for overly elaborate policies and direct challenges on my personal integrity; specifically that I would abuse my new powers (whatever they turned out to be). A visit is planned for a few weeks time, and I’m sure the long weekend will be dominated by further intense campaign planning suggestions.

“The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter.” 

Winston S. Churchill

But what of the Campaign? I can vaguely recall completing a Parish Council ballot paper as a bit of a sideshow when voting in a General Election several years ago. A ridiculously long sheet of paper, lots of names, and I could pick up to nine of them. With no real consideration I just went with those whose address I vaguely recognised and gave it no further thought; after all, I had an MP to elect and my blunt pencil was on its last legs.

Years later, here I was soon to become one of those names. How was I to avoid being just another box to be crossed (or not) amongst the masses? Having taken the plunge, could I cope with failing to be elected? Do I need to get myself out there and knocking on doors? Could I rework one of the dog’s agility rosettes as the basis of my Campaign branding?

So much to consider. Time to think this through over a couple of beers.

STOP PRESS: As I post this blog update, I have just been informed that the nominations received is equal to, or less than, the number of available seats. The election will be uncontested. I’m in!

The first meeting

I recommend every person, at least once in their life, attends a Parish Council meeting. There is a standing agenda item reserved for you: “matters arising from the floor”. So why not make the most of it? Like a piece of fine art, the more you observe and experience the piece, the more you will see and the more you will gain from the experience.

I attended my first meeting as the only member of the public, and so it was that I squeezed myself in around the folding table on a stackable plastic chair. Shoulder to shoulder with five of the seven Councillors (there were a couple of no-shows), it was much like the pre-Christmas event only without the Prosecco, and hosted in the far less comfortable surroundings of the village hall. For the first time I also met the Parish Secretary; the only paid member of the gathering, and extremely adept at bringing a certain level of formality to proceedings.

I had little to offer, and did not make the most of the agenda item exclusively available to me. I was happy to declare, “I’m not entirely sure what’s going on. I’m just here to see how it all works”. That seemed to be well received, and a knowing nod from the Chairman seemed to confirm (in his eyes at least) that this was the beginning of something significant.

The remainder of the first meeting was a bit of a blur. I kept pace with the various discussion points, ranging from recent planning applications to agreements on how the remainder of the annual budget was to be allocated. The length of discussion was varied and disproportionate to the severity of the subject at hand. All agenda items concluded with the well rehearsed, almost ceremonial chant of the Chairman: “proposed….seconded….passed unanimous”, with the most subtle of hand gestures or motions of the head confirming the agreement of Councillors. The scope and level of authority of the forum seemed transient to my untrained eye, but the team seemed focussed on getting through the agenda as efficiently as possible. I left with as many questions as answers, but two clear takeaways for me:

  1. A clear tension with the District Council; a faceless, all powerful body from which this group was destined to protect the Parish and its residents;
  2. Some long-standing resentments (apparently decades in some instances) pertaining to specific local business and residents. Details were scant, but the intrigue was immense and extremely entertaining for all the wrong reasons.

It was clear that the post-meeting momentum would be taking the bulk of the Councillors in the direction of the local, and I was invited to join them. I was feeling drawn in, and as we worked our way diligently through the 4-headed round, conversation moved on to the upcoming elections.