I came across this last night.
THE Black Death may have been eliminated 500 years ago, but it’s coming back to Stony Stratford this weekend.
King Henry VIII and his entourage will come face to face with ragged villagers, their skins covered in the sores of the plague. It will also involve a number of other historical figures, who have travelled through the town over the years, including Queen Elizabeth Woodville, the mother of the Princes in the Tower.
That’s this weekend. Tomorrow. It’s next weekend that the smokers are arriving, with their prematurely aged faces, and their persistent coughs, and their thirdhand smoke plague. They haven’t been eliminated either.
Stony Stratford is an old coaching halt. Its pubs are old coach houses. And probably have been ever since the Romans came clattering in their quadrigae down Watling Street and over the Ouse, beside which it sits. Henry VIII (at right) came through regularly with his retinue on his way to Grafton Regis, a few miles north of Stony, where his grandmother was born, and where he spent many summers. In fact, quite possibly him and Anne Boleyn would sometimes stop off at the Cock or the Bull for a jar or two of ale, and a game of skittles, to press the flesh and have a bit of a laugh and a natter about this and that with the villagers. Maybe he’d even regale them with a few cock-and-bull stories from his Boulogne campaign, how he’d thrice escaped death by a hair’s breadth, godstrewth aye. And perhaps they’d remember how once, as Harry waxed more eloquent, he took out a pipe and stuffed it with a herb captured, he said, from a caravel on the Spanish Main, and set it alight, and Mrs Prune came down from upstairs to demand to know what the divvil was the henbane stench, and it was killing her, and Pardon Your Majesty but verily it will kill thee too ere next Saint Swithun day. How could they forget? Tongues wagged about it for years after.
UKIP leader Nigel Farage was there too last week, doing much the same. It’s the place to be these days. It’s pretty much the centre of the universe, in fact.
He was very quick off the mark, I thought. You obviously weren’t going to see David Cameron or that Miliband cove or whoever leads the Liberal Democrats sitting on a bench in Stony Stratford in a smoking jacket with a packet of Rothmans. They wouldn’t be seen dead there. It would send entirely the wrong message. The last people an aspiring politician wants to be associated with these days are dead-beat smokers and drinkers and fat people. No, you want to be seen standing next to rock stars and polar bears and healthy people with perfect teeth and permanent smiles.
I say ‘whoever leads the Lib Dems’ in the broadest metaphorical sense. Nobody leads the Lib Dems. And nobody leads the Labour party. And nobody leads the Conservative party. Because there are no leaders in those parties, but only followers. They’re all followers of fashion. The job of a politician these days is to Spot the Fashionable Trend, the bandwagon that’s got momentum, and then climb on board it. It’s what David Cameron did when he embraced Climate Change/Global Warming and was snapped standing next to a melting glacier a few years back. And when he quit smoking. Or at least appeared to quit smoking.
Tony Benn once said that politicians were either signposts or weathervanes. And as far as I can see, they’re all weathervanes these days. In fact Tony Benn was a bit of a weathervane himself, in a leftie progressive sort of way.
And, who knows, maybe Nigel Farage is too? Maybe he’s simply seen which way the wind is beginning to blow in the shires of England, and has trimmed his sails accordingly. If he’s right, he’ll quite likely be the next Prime Minister of Britain. Or the one after that.
But if he is right, and he’s caught the changing mood, you’ll know soon enough, as the Westminster pollsters and focus groups read the runes and draw the same conclusion. And then there’ll be an discreet photo in some not-so-obscure mag showing David Cameron ordering a beer in a bar in Stony Stratford, tie undone, maybe a hint of stubble on his chin, and a cigarette in hand. It’ll look like it a casual holiday snap, but it will have been carefully choreographed, posed, primped, backlit, highlighted, and selected for publication from dozens of other shots. And the week after that there’ll be a photo of Miliband standing in an office corridor in Milton Keynes, talking to some aides, and pensively drawing on a pipe. And then the week after that the Lib Dem whoever will show up with a cigar. They’ll have all begun to subtly re-position themselves.
Not yet, of course. But one day.