Analysts of 20th century British politics consider The Church Hall Riot to be a classic example of how a single unexpected event can change the course of history.
The candidate question and answer session in an obscure Gridchester church hall confirmed the Tories in power for another decade and set Borthwick Prosser upon an upward trajectory that would take him to a Cabinet post as Secretary of State for Transport.
The Party Leader (and Brian Pelleroe) retired.
The hall erupted as soon as Brian gave a clumsy assent to Paul’s interpretation of the Cummings question. Furious residents of the Nye Estate surged forward exocet-style, and Prosser seized the microphone from an incredulous Vicar Bottomley.
And THIS, friends (jabbing at Brian with his finger) is the alternative to the stability and harmony of Conservative government!
THIS MAN has today said in public what his Party bosses say in private!
They say that decent people on modest incomes live in such squalor that they have introduced into Gridchester a PLAGUE of the very VERMIN that he is paid to exterminate in his day job!!
THIS MAN AND HIS PARTY HAVE TODAY STIGMATISED A WHOLE SECTION OF SOCIETY !!!
She did not think that the Nye contingent seemed stigmatised; nor did they appear especially decent.
They looked triumphant and were exhibiting the type of violent behaviour that would, in other circumstances (kicking chairs; overthrowing the candidates’ table) have ensured a night in the cells.
In addition, she was sure that some, if not most of them, were acting under the influence of alcohol or drugs.
Angry voices charged Brian with deliberately targeting them during the course of the campaign; visiting repeatedly for the sole purpose of reporting them to the Council on trumped up public health charges and entering their names in secret files.
Prosser appeared to be conducting them in a parody of Last Night at the Proms and it was only when Vicar Bottomley fell to the floor and disappeared beneath a jumble of disorderly limbs, that somebody called the police.
It was a relief to go to work the next day; although she had barely slept after a furious row with Paul that had woken up the children and distressed the dog.
She accused him of sabotaging Brian’s campaign for the purpose of destroying her credibility with the Party and depriving her of the only friends she had managed to make in this God-forsaken hell-hole.
Of course it did not stop there.
By the time Vanessa came downstairs, crying
I can’t sleep because you’re KILLING MY DADDY!
she had treated her husband to the entire canon of grief screamed at full volume; her ruined career; his horrible father; the vile patronage of Gillian; her breadline existence while St Nicola and her brats lived in luxury; the pathetic fawning of the Nuttalls and his infidelity with that Hunt bitch.
When Paul countered, nastily with
How does it feel to be dumped for a pregnant teenager?
she threw the alarm clock.
He threw his boots.
When Paul scooped Vanessa up and left the room with the piece de resistance
St Nicola? This type of behaviour is tantamount to child abuse.
she did not reply but sat alone in the darkness.
Lynne was in Toronto, living it up. She was in Binley, living in hell. Tomorrow, she would crawl, grovel – do whatever it took to patch things up and carry on.
Tonight, she was simply too tired…
Philip Twill’s exclusive in The Gridchester Post did not remain exclusive to either his paper or Gridchester.
Within the space of a day, the streets, shops and pubs were crawling with journalists from national outlets; attempting to exploit a story that had transformed the course of a pedestrian General Election campaign.
The Party Leader made a statement disowning Brian as a naïve and inexperienced candidate whose aberrant views were in no way representative of either the thinking or the programme of the Party.
He attempted to dismiss the unfortunate comment as being of little relevance, but his assertion that
Gridchester North is not a seat we would expect to win in a landslide
opened up a further seam of misery.
Robbie Nantwich interviewed a number of MPs defending small majorities, including Derek Kingsmill from Lowerbridge.
The events of the past few days had clearly affected Derek who looked more than usually puffy and anxious.
No, he said,
Of course the Leader had not said that the feelings and opinions of the people in Gridchester were not important. Of course they were just as crucial and VALID as those of the residents of Lowerbridge …
Similarly, the Leader had not meant that any old idiot with dangerous views was welcome to stand in seats like Gridchester. No, not at all.
And as for what the entire debacle revealed about the Party’s methods of selecting candidates – well, it wasn’t his place to say, really, was it? They generally did very well and picked first-rate candidates, absolutely everywhere...
The Crier’s front page the next day lead with:
MP CLAIMS PARTY COULD NOT ORGANISE A P*** UP IN A BREWERY: KINGSMILL SLAMS CORRUPT CANDIDATE SELECTIONS
She and the girls were sitting in the living room of Gail Pitt’s small terraced house, eating Twiglets and drinking a second bottle of Sancerre.
During the campaign, they had abandoned their weekly Malmsey Head evenings; firstly because of election work and now to avoid the undercover journalists who had infiltrated every single hostelry in Gridchester.
The second bottle had been purchased in an attempt to comfort a distraught Sylvia, who was alternately sniffing and sobbing after a bruising encounter with Lisbet Pelleroe.
Since the Church Hall Riot, three days ago, Brian had been holed up in his home bunker; cowering behind curtains whilst the flower of journalism staked out his garden. Lisbet had not felt impelled to placate them with refreshments and the advice from the Party’s National Office had been to remain under cover.
However, Sylvia (who had not seen Brian since he had been unceremoniously escorted from the meeting by two uniformed constables), had telephoned his home incessantly and on receiving no reply, had turned up on the doorstep, braving notebooks and cameras, armed with a steak and kidney casserole.
Lisbet Pelleroe’s elderly mother, who had not been privy to the Party’s advice to keep exits and entrances closed, opened the front door and was virtually crushed by a stampede of journalists and photographers who surged into the hall, knocking the casserole to the floor.
The sight of photographers taking pictures of steak, kidney and gravy seeping into her new Axminster carpet and treading it into the pile was too much for Lisbet who turned on Sylvia and screamed:
Get out and leave my bloody husband alone!
This was bad enough, but what was worse was the ensuing array of headlines and photographs in the press which were all variants of:
DISGRACED CANDIDATE IN LOVE TRIANGLE ROW
Sylvia was inconsolable. Quite apart from her distress at the behaviour of Lisbet and humiliation at the hands of the press, there was the issue of Shaun.
I told him that nothing had gone on, but he said that was worse than if it had!
He said that everyone at work was laughing at him because his wife fancied the Rodent Officer who didn’t fancy her back – and all the mums on the school run are talking about me. I want to die; we’ll have to sell the house – and how will I cope as a single parent?
I hate Brian Pelleroe! I wish he was dead!
She suspected that Sylvia was not the only person or group of people (including the Party Leader) to be cherishing murderous thoughts about Brian Pelleroe, but as she refilled Sylvia’s glass, she reflected that the love triangle issue had come in handy.
The Pelleroe affair had developed a life of its own and the fact that her husband had lit the touch paper at the meeting had gone largely unnoticed.
Things at home settled down; after a fashion.
She and Paul circled each other for a day or so, like wary jungle beasts, watched fretfully by Vanessa – and then resumed their normal behaviour.
She had no illusions about her marriage or her husband; she had weighed them in the balance and found both wanting. But they had children, a house and a dog, so she put up, shut up, cooked, cleaned and had sex as usual.
Women of her generation and Sylvia’s did not want to be alone, so they worked at their marriages until such time as their marriages did not work and they were dumped anyway.
That time was not yet.
The day before the Election saw the Pelleroe affair at last departing the front pages of the papers and acquiring a quieter berth towards the middle sections.
Opinion polls that had seen the Party assuming third place behind the Liberals, perked up, after an uproar following the death of a child who had received the wrong dosage of medication during a tonsils and adenoids operation in Newcastle.
Brian Pelleroe had ventured out of his house into an empty garden and the Gridchester comrades decided to meet in the tap room at The Duke (after an Eve of Poll leaflet drop) to see the closing edition of Election Round Up; the BBC’s authoritative pundit programme.
She sat with Hazel and Gail, keeping her distance from the Beeches and Vince O’Reilly, who had made some nasty comments about Paul at the height of the Pelleroe affair.
A subdued Sylvia had wedged herself between Shaun and Martin Sweet, keeping as much space between herself and the Pelleroes as it was possible to achieve without actually sitting in another bar.
Brian just looked ill.
And now, said presenter, Gilbert Daventry, who enjoyed the type of seniority and prestige that Robbie Nantwich was yet to achieve:
in a final twist to one of the most EXTRAORDINARY election campaigns in living memory, we have an exclusive interview with the woman who should have been a candidate in Gridchester North; the woman who was spurned by a vengeful Party in favour of a man who says that poor people are responsible for infestations of rats; the man who has stigmatised a huge swathe of decent people living and working in Britain today.
I give you the lady herself : Clare Butcher!
The room was silent and all eyes were mesmerised by the Medusa-like figure of their former Treasurer relating in the ringing tones that had once been used to harangue the candidate of a County Council by-election for financial profligacy, how she had sacrificed years of her life working for the Party to the detriment of her marriage, only to be deprived of the right to stand for selection because of the crimes of her husband.
She, Clare, had taught at Sunday school and was a member of Vicar Bottomley’s flock who had personally organised the successful Party Band Aid Knitting Programme.
Her application was founded on excellent work, strong principles and absolute financial probity, but she had been rejected without the courtesy of an explanation.
It was for that reason that tonight she felt it the mission of a lifetime in politics to urge the people of Gridchester and elsewhere to vote Conservative.
There was more; an interview with an ebullient Borthwick Prosser who appeared beneath a poster emblazoned with the Tory slogan: CONSERVATIVE: COMPETENCE WITH COMPASSION; and a shot of the Party Leader running into an alleyway to escape a shower of eggs and tomatoes - but she was not paying attention.
She was thinking about Clare Butcher.
The former Treasurer, she of the flapping trousers and shapeless pepper'n’salt hair style had now broadcast to the nation sporting a youthful brunette pixie cut atop a fitted sapphire-blue -acket with shoulder pads.
Clare looked like Alexis Carrington in Dynasty! she said.
There was a pause and then Lester Beech rose, walked the length of the room and pushed his weak chin up close. She could see his acne scars.
Well, I’ve heard it all now! he yelled, looking at his support group of our Chantelle and our Darren:
Who does she think she IS?!
First she wants to scupper this Party by selecting a criminal and then her bloody husband finishes the job by pole-axing the General Election!
Wake up and smell the coffee love - and while you’re at it why don’t you walk out of that door?
We don’t want YOUR SORT round here!
Gail laid a restraining hand on her shoulder, whispering
Ignore him, he’s drunk
but a line had been crossed.
How dare this vile, ignorant, vulgar man who stank of fags and beer speak to her like this? The Nye estate was too good for him!
I don’t think, she said, collecting her bag and moving towards the door
that we want YOUR SORT anywhere, unless it’s in a prison cell for handling stolen goods!
And if Brian wants some rats to exterminate I suggest that he starts with YOU!
Beech lunged but she was out of the room; out of the pub, into the street and running.
It was over, and so was Election ‘87. She would not go to the Count.
A fortnight later, she sat with Hazel in the Coffee Cabin, where they were taking a break from an exhausting morning at the summer sales.
She was pleased with her grey velvet jeans; she had been stalking them for the past two months in Benetton; monitoring as they inched down in price, until at half the original mark up, she had swooped. They were slightly too tight, but this (taking a bite) would be the last of the Penguin biscuits!
I’m starting the High Fibre diet tomorrow, she announced.
Hazel smiled weakly, looking askance at her purchases, within their Evans the Outsize bag. She had tried everything from Weightwatchers to yoga and was convinced that her resolutely size 18 figure (tucking into a custard slice) was due to her glands.
They mulled over the fall out from the Election.
The result was much the same as in 1983.
The Party Leader had gone before he was pushed; Derek Kingsmill’s majority was now a slender 278; Norris Farmer had taken early retirement; Brian had lost his deposit and resigned his membership.
Although at least we haven’t got to console Sylvia; she really hates him now, observed Hazel.
The real winner was, of course, Clare Butcher, who had been inundated with requests to sell her story and had used the proceeds of a string of interviews to move house. She was already being touted as a strong contender for a Tory seat next time.
Lester Beech had been reported to the Sectional Team over his car-boot wares and his membership was suspended, pending enquiries. She was relieved that his drunken attack had been universally reviled, including his comments about Paul.
Your husband’s just shy, anyone can see that, Hazel had soothed.
Anyone could have said that – after all, he was just trying to EXPLAIN to Brian wasn’t he? And everybody hates the Beeches; Lester is a thug and she’s no better than she should be. Gail says she saw her coming out of the Clap Clinic at the hospital! Might even be on the game!
Hazel’s belief in Paul’s innate niceness was still the prevailing opinion- although perhaps it took someone not nice like Lester Beech to guess at the truth.
In any case, things had returned to an even keel and Paul had taken on some private pupils from the Convent
so that we can have a holiday, Sweetie.
They picked up their packages, left the café and she thought about Clare who was minus a husband, but plus a new look, new house and maybe a new career.
If Clare Butcher could do it ….
She dismissed the idea as preposterous but reflected as they drove off in the green Renault that the ancestor of every action is a thought.
She had always rated Emerson…