Home Page Let's try to keep away from the political song and dance 03/01/14

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Matthew Hancock
Your Local MP

Hart of the Matter

It may have escaped the notice of many, but we live in a newly-politicised world in Haverhill at the moment and, while that is to be warmly welcomed as far as the health of community debate is concerned, it does provide the odd difficulty for yours truly.


We used to get two elections every four years – the borough, town and parliamentary on one day, and, at about an equidistant interval, the county council one.


I have always avoided anything political as a subject to ramble on about in the week before an election, so that was not too inconvenient.


Now we are getting elections every five minutes, and I have barely recovered from scratching around for the last apolitical subject before I have to find another one.


Not only that, but every subject you can think of seems to have a political dimension at the moment, as the newcomers search desperately for some new ground to occupy and the defenders scramble about trying to fill the breaches in their walls.


With an eye on next week’s town and borough council by-election next week, I scanned all the current issues in vain to find something which is not a political potato.


The wind turbine? Golly, no, that’s UKIP ground. The cottages? Ditto. A town museum? Ditto and so on. This is so like the political landscape the last time we had a surge in political interest. Oh, no! Mustn’t say that – they all take it so personally.


High Street parking? That’s cross-party, at least on the town council. But no, of course, the dear old TC are in UKIP’s firing line – that’s the reason we’ve got elections.


In fact, of course, the prime reason we have these elections is nothing to do with UKIP. It’s because the town has been unfortunate enough to lose a much-loved councillor and former mayor with the passing of Les Ager.


I knew and worked with Les for 40 years in Haverhill Operatic Society, now better known as Centre Stage Company, for which he was the musical director. When the group began (before my time), he had played in the orchestra for the first show, trod the boards for the second, and took over as conductor for the third, which is where he stayed.


He used to say they tried him playing an instrument and didn’t like it, then they put him on stage and didn’t like it, so they ended up giving him a white stick.


He was part of the auditioning panel that gave me my first lead role, and many others thereafter, in the varied worlds of Gilbert and Sullivan, Viennese operetta and American musicals throughout the 1970s and 1980s.


People come and go, and juvenile leads age, so by the 1990s I had moved on to character roles and then into directing, but Les was still waving the white stick. Now I was on the auditioning panel with him, and we staged a whole series of shows, many of them for the youth section we formed.


I think one of the moments he would have placed at the top of his list of highlights was the first number on the first night of our first youth production, Annie in 1998 - It’s A Hard Knock Life. He said the tumultuous applause at the end of that raised the hairs on the back of his neck. I know why. I felt it too, because we had passed on something to a new generation. That process continues today.


In the 1970s, when the group performed at Castle Manor, St Edmundsbury Borough Council used to buy 50 tickets for one night during the week, which were dished out as perks to councillors or officers who wanted them (imagine that now, and what people would say about it!). It was a council outing – a ‘jolly’ – and it ended with a reception afterwards at the council offices in Lower Downs Slade.


Members of the cast were invited along and, I expect, in other parts of the borough – and in other districts, because St Edmundsbury were by no means alone in this extravagance – they all put on their best frocks and had a luvvie event. Haverhill Operatic Society always struggled to find anyone who wanted to go.


We ran a bar of our own at Castle Manor, and we all piled into it after the show each night. It was, in many ways, the highlight of the evening. Singing, dancing and acting are hard and thirsty work, especially towards the end of the week. Few wanted to make pleasant conversation with councillors over a glass of white wine.


Swanning around in DJs or long dresses on a gala night was something Haverhill just never did. Les epitomised that egalitarian attitude which allowed no one to be a prima donna, no leading lady to be more important than the call boy.


Some officers of the group had to show their faces at the junket. After all, the purchase of tickets was a sort of backhanded grant. But, to the best of my recollection, Les never went. If he did, it must have been very reluctantly. He had no time for councillors and ‘jollies’.


He always said there was no place for politicians in local councils. Later in life, when a friend finally persuaded him to become a councillor, the same characteristics came out. To him, councils were no places for posturing, for scoring points, for beating single-issue drums, or for headline-grabbing.


They were for getting on and helping people, preferably behind the scenes and without making a song and dance about it. Songs and dances were for other places, which he knew just as much about.


It would be nice to think those who follow him will do so in the same spirit, but I sometimes doubt it.

David Hart
David Hart revives his personal take on the week in Haverhill, covering everything from major town developments to what we do with our rubbish.
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