Saturday, August 12, 2006

The Clapham Common By-Election

In the messroom of the Clapham ambulance station the news of Sir Leslie’s death elicited on the whole a muted response characterised by the regulation courteous murmur of sorrowful regret accompanied by a respectful lowering of the eyes and that standard slow shaking of the head which manages somehow to encapsulate in the smallest of movements the bleak futility of human existence. A message of condolence was duly despatched to the family and a whip-round rashly mooted by one of the junior staff but deemed inappropriate under the circumstances and rejected swiftly by an overwhelming majority vote to unanimous sighs of relief. Stan Tablets and Bert Klaxon, who just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, were coerced by Ron Stretcher into representing the Brigade at the funeral in full dress uniform and afterwards, quite correctly assuming them to be liveried flunkies of some kind, were commandeered by the widow for the purpose of serving the post requiem sherry and cucumber sandwiches to the assembled mourners in the large drawing room of the Pitt-Tinny residence, and having performed these tasks with resigned good grace and commendably straight-faced solemnity, they returned gratefully to their normal duties as soon as they were able to slip away unnoticed, immediately putting the whole episode, together with the life and times of Sir Leslie, firmly behind them. In fact, of all the ambulancemen, only Albert Harness appeared to take any real interest in the unfortunate demise of our erstwhile chairman, which seemed to invest him with a queer sort of vigour and for several days he could be observed pacing about the station as though galvanised, a curiously messianic gleam in his eye and his hands clasped behind his back in the style of a man who spends an inordinate amount of time in restless cogitation.

And then one day he announced his intention to stand at the forthcoming Clapham Common by-election as an independent candidate for the late honourable member’s empty seat in parliament, and his ruminative peregrinations increased in both duration and intensity.

Of the six hundred and forty-six constituencies currently represented in the lower house, that of Clapham Common is by far the smallest, covering barely a square mile, and certainly the least populated, with an electoral roll of fewer than a hundred voters, each of whom is the proud inheritor and diligent upholder of the ancient tradition of returning at each election a parliamentary representative of established local stock without affiliation to any of the mainstream political parties. To an ambitious man with unimpeachable credentials and few scruples the Clapham Common seat presents itself from time to time as an ideal opportunity to get a foot on the ladder to power, privilege and a first-class ticket on the gravy train, and all that is required of him is a policy or two of sorts, a firm handshake, a memorable catchphrase, good teeth and a full head of hair. Plus, of course, sufficient dexterity in the noble art of largesse to secure the approval and loyalty of the country’s most notoriously fickle electorate.

Albert Harness, unquestionably, was eminently well qualified for the position, though a popular platform of suitably formulated policies was proving elusive, and it was this lack of a marketable manifesto that troubled him as he wandered about the station yard with his chin on his chest and his broad brow beset by a seemingly permanent frown.

As a matter of form, and without great expectations of it yielding much in the way of a bounteous harvest, he issued to the assembled multitude in the messroom a general invitation for suggestions and was rewarded with an abundance of possibilities for his consideration, ranging from the stultifyingly mundane (a ten-year programme of pond maintenance) to the stark raving bonkers (an international airport on the common), between which poles of extremity there lay a large and varied assortment of ideas concerning the perennial issues of grazing and fishing rights and someone, I think it was Frank Trousers, put forward a laudable proposal for a scheme involving the generous distribution of free goats. But all of these suggestions, though not entirely without merit, struck Albert as too parochial and limited in scope and lacking the radical breadth of vision required for the immediate mass popularity that he felt was the key to a successful campaign.

And then Comrade Slogan, our glorious shop steward, came up with the notion of devising and brokering a plan for the geopolitical future of the Middle East that would guarantee permanent peace and prosperity for all parties in the region. He pointed out that this would undoubtedly have the effect of bestowing upon Albert at a stroke the status of a universally respected world statesman with a guaranteed place in history, plus a Nobel prize, an ambassadorship, a knighthood, a peerage and an impressive statue dominating the renamed Harness Square in the city centre. It was, of course, offered purely in jest and added much sycophantic laughter to an already jocular atmosphere, and yet it engendered in Albert a curious transformation. His eyes lit up as if his batteries had been replaced, and a wide grin appeared upon lips which moments before had been tightly drawn, and his whole demeanour altered as though a heavy burden had been removed from his shoulders and sprung shoes placed upon his feet.

He bounded from the room like a startled antelope on amphetamines and returned a minute later with a large and ancient leather-bound atlas of the world which he placed upon the messroom table and opened at the page showing the lands to the west of Mesopotamia. Stroking his chin and furrowing his brow, he studied it intently for a minute or two.

“It’s in the wrong place,” he announced at length, as though stating the glaringly obvious to an audience of simpletons, and jabbed a finger at an area to the south-east of the Mediterranean. “It needs to be moved.”

He flicked thoughtfully through the pages for a while.

“There,” he said, stabbing once again with decisive finality. “That should do nicely.” He went on to explain that the state of Israel covers an area of roughly eight thousand square miles, less than one twelfth the size of the state of Nevada, most of which lies empty, unused and sparsely populated and is bordered not by Palestine, Syria and Lebanon, but is surrounded by the rather more docile inhabitants of Oregon, Idaho and Utah, who, as far as he was aware, were not hostile and implacable enemies bent on the destruction at all costs of the Jewish homeland and all its citizens, but peaceable, slow-talking folk without strong views either way on the matter. That Walt Disney fellow, he suggested, could without difficulty and in no time at all construct an exact replica of Israel in the desert and the population of seven-odd million could be fully settled by Christmas.

The polls have now closed and we await keenly the results of the Clapham Common by-election, wondering if a duly elected member of parliament would be permitted to undertake the representation of his constituents from the confines of a padded cell.