Sunday, 5 April 2009


This was penned in the early 1980s, when I was visiting a University friend who was at that time employed as a local reporter for a small town newspaper, the XXXXX Gazette. I was sitting with him, and one other journalist, taking notes as the meeting progressed, and afterwards I was told some of the politicians were worried that I was a reporter from the Southern Morning News (the main Plymouth newspaper)! This story draws on that meeting, but it is an impressionistic sketch rather than a newspaper account; however pretty well all the reportage is accurate, and was taken from my notes. As can be gauged from its tone, I was feeling somewhat cynical about small town provincial politics at the time!
Deadwood: A Short Story
The town council meeting was due to start at 7.30 p.m. In fact, it did not begin until 7.35 p.m. Then the mayor declared that the first part of the meeting, as was customary practice, be devoted to an open forum, where members of the public would be free to speak.
At once, the spectre of a much promised threat, that Plymouth would take over this small town named Deadwood, arose. The speaker responsible for bringing the matter up, pressed for immediate comment, saying, quite melodramatically, "I would like to know what the councillors feel here and now!". Some councillors now suggested looking to see which way public opinion was going on this matter; the mayor, however, was adamant that Deadwood would not surrender independence without a struggle. "We shall fight all the way!" he said.
Another member of the public .suggested a referendum; he told the council that they should be "looking for the backing of the town". The mayor's reply, a cliché phrase, "We will discuss it later". Already this matter had been dropped. For a moment, the storm abated.
A new speaker brought a change of subject, together with a change in mood. He wanted to know what action the council had taken about the local river, now littered with dead trees. He was afraid that this might result in flooding. "It's never happened and thank God it's never happened. But I'm greatly concerned". The town clerk was instructed to send out letters to the owners of the land through which the river passed, and to the water authorities. "I think we could get rid of that now." remarked the mayor. But the speaker wished to emphasis that this was a crucial matter of grave concern to Deadwood. "Perhaps you may think I'm a scaremonger," he remarked, "But I think it is important that something is done!"
A young speaker now criticised the council for a "lack of positive forward planning attached to the playing field area"; he wanted to. know what ideas had been "positively planned". With a world-weary realism, the mayor explained that the town council had its hands tied by the District council on this matter. "That is the most fallacious remark I've heard this evening," commented Councillor Snipe, adding: "Nobody really wants to take positive action or even wants to want to take positive action."

The mayor thought that he must contradict this notion. "We are a positively thinking town council, in spite of what we might think!" he replied.. But Councillor Bleak questioned, this attitude as being "totally emotive". She pointed, out that there seemed to be no future for Deadwood, or at any rate, a most uncertain future. As for employment, there were few prospects on that count. Hadn't the council been making mistakes? she asked. Not so, replied. the mayor, remarking that "whatever other mistakes we may make, the one thing we are concerned about is Deadwood."
Complaints arose again from the public that "there isn't very much positive thinking". It was suggested that the media could be used for good effect to publicise Deadwood's objections to becoming a suburb of Plymouth. The suggestion, however, was lost; most were too busy thinking about what they might say to actually listen, and those who heard had long decided that political impotence was the better part of valour.
At this point. Councillor Hedge asked "Why is everybody so frightened about Plymouth, pointing out that joining the district of Plymouth might bring benefits, such as a better bus service. It was a clear attitude of tired resignation to the inevitable; the councillor had changed sides in all but apathy, and apathy blows which ever way the wind happens to be blowing at the time. Now sea breezes came from Plymouth, and the councillor would bend with that wind while it lasted, for otherwise she would be sure to be uprooted, so shallow were her roots.
Another speaker attacked the council, saying "If they don't do anything positive, you can be sure that Plymouth will." He wanted to recapture "the lost heart of Deadwood". The council's approach was too negative) what plans were there for the furtherance of Deadwood. Concerned to dispel the general mood of despair, the mayor mentioned that there had been a thorough town centre study undertaken, together with a plan for the whole of Deadwood.
He told the meeting that Deadwood had "an active, aggressive council" and that while not all councillors were in agreement, there was certainly apparent "a rough consensus". With this face-saving gesture, he declared, with not a little relief at the swift passage of time, that the public forum was now closed.
The council meeting now began, at which -the general public could observe, but not participate. Many left. One of the public, a self-appointed social conscience for the people of Deadwood, muttered, so loud as to be heard, "Sod this lot" as he left; this was his practice, always one final insult hurled at a council which he only cared to criticise, carp and despise. Not that a positive suggestion would be welcome; as always, it would be politely noted, then forgotten.

The council went on to discuss a council meeting to which .only one member had turned up, as none of the others had any notion as to its taking place. They were accustomed to rely on the town clerk to supply them with notices of committee meetings; unfortunately, the town clerk had been away on holiday the previous week. "We should put people's minds at rest." argued Councillor Snipe, asking that the names of all the committee members be read out. This was duly done, whereupon it was discovered that one councillor did not know that he was a member of the committee.
So the evening progressed. A disproportionate amount of time was devoted to the chairman of the district council, who would be supplying a special chair for the disabled. He took great pains to describe the chair in a manner suggesting that he might have been the designer. The chair, of course, was in plain view for everyone to see.
"We are being increasingly sloppy in the words we use." remarked  Councillor Snipe as the evening went on. This was in reference to a debate, lasting nearly half an hour, as to the meaning of a word in the minutes. It was suitably concluded by a councillor declaring that on this matter of meaning, "Half thought one thing, and half thought another. All I can say is that those who thought the same way as me were correct." Of course, he took care-not to say what he had thought on the matter!
The problem of Plymouth had faded, lost amidst a vast ocean of trivia. It was true that Deadwood had expressed opposition to ever becoming a suburb of Plymouth. But, ineffective as ever, expression was-the nearest they would ever come to action. Most of the meeting rambled on incoherently, in a tired pedestrian plod, treating triviality as if such were the stuff of ultimate concern. Such incompetence deserved only one reward. Deadwood, clamouring in protest against becoming a suburb of Plymouth, would not become part of Plymouth. For it was already a suburb of Plymouth.
As the councillors continued in dreary debate, I left. I was almost sorry for Deadwood. It had no future. Only the past remained, a rotting record, of failure, despair, decay. It was this past that had given birth, to such a present, a present which portrayed only a drab, pathetic, little town. It was a town without a soul; losing its soul, it had also lost all sense of proportion, and was consumed by the finer points of the unimportant. For too long, much too long, Deadwood had quietly let the world slip by, doing nothing, caring nothing for the future but only remembering a forgotten glory that never was. Now the vultures moved in for the kill. But the heart of Deadwood had already been torn out, and with that loss went the last vital spark of hope.
Now there is no Deadwood. The fire has gone out. All that remained for me to see were grey, flaky ashes.



TonyTheProf said...

before someboduy spots it - the Western Morning News is the South-West/Plymouth one mentioned.

Anonymous said...

Stuart arrested page one of the JEP