My wife Liza and I had a bit of a barney at breakfast yesterday. Not as bad as the one we had that day they made the announcement about the Leeds Design Institute. But bad.
And about the mayor of all things. Or the mayor’s car, to be more precise. The mayor’s long wheel base Jag, to be exact.
It went something like this:
(Me) Have you seen this?
(Her) What, dear?
(Me) The mayor’s car.
(Her) What about it, dear?
(Me) They’ve decided to trade in his two old limos and get him a long wheel base Jag.
(Me) And … well … what’s that all about in the 21st century?
(Her, sighs) If you read it, dear, I’m sure it tells you … Give it here … Let me have a look … (reads) … mayor … first citizen … greeting important visitors … representing the city … seems fitting … suitable vehicle … uphold status and reputation of city … (looks up) want me to go on?
(Me) First citizen? Is that first among equals or first to the buffet?
(Her, sighs again) Don’t be silly, dear. First among equals, of course.
(Me) Then why can’t he get the bus like the rest of us?
(Her) Calm down, dear. Like the mayor’s going to turn up for a twin-town reception for a delegation from Ulan Bator 45 minutes late and say ‘sorry, the bus didn’t turn up’.
(Me) Why not? You have to say it to your boss most mornings. And what’s the Mayor of Ulan Bator going to say about it anyway? Apart from “bummer, pal, buses are crap round our way too. But no worries, we’ve saved you an egg and cress sarnie” … I mean, what’s the problem if he’s late? The world’s not going to end. I mean he’s only there to chat and be nice to people. Isn’t that what your first citizen does?
(Her) No, dear. The mayor does loads of things. Like ceremonies. And opening things. And unveiling things. And going to receptions. And presenting people with awards. And greeting important guests. And going to schools. And raising money for charity. And doing something at council meetings. One came to our school when I was in primary. In the robes and chain and everything. We were all there with our mouths open. It was … like … magic.
(Me) Sorry? Magic?
(Her) You just don’t get it, do you? It’s a treasured institution. Like the royal family. Or Santa. But democratic, and just for Leeds. The Queen has her carriage, Santa has his sleigh, and the mayor has a long-wheel base Jag. It’s about being special. About respect.
(Me) Democratic? Respect? Strewth!
(Her) Chill … We respect the mayor. It’s nothing to get so excited about. And why do you have to be such a killjoy? People – especially children – need a bit of magic … (she gets a wistful, far-away look in her eyes) … We ALL need … a bit of magic in our lives ………….. (she snaps out of it) And you know what? I’m sick to my teeth of you criticising everything. If you’re such a smart-arse, what would you do about the mayor’s car?
(Me) I’d get him an old Fester from the auction. They’re pretty reliable. And easy to fix.
(Her) I see. So when the top-level Chinese delegation arrives to follow up the Olympic training camp hospitality and make a multi-billion pound investment, you’d have the mayor tip up to the reception in a rickety old Fiesta?
(Me) Why not? What’s the first vice-chairman of the Standing Committee of the Guangzhou Municipal People’s Congress going to say? He’s a communist! He’s not going to turn his nose up at a car of the people, is he? Most likely he’d take your first citizen to one side at the buffet: “Nice wheels, comrade. Keep it under your robe, but we’ve been asking for old Festers for years, but the party audit committee insists on top of the range Audis. Upholds the status and reputation of the city, yada yada. Bloody Vorsprung Durch Apparatchik more like. Anyway, nice sarnies. Egg and cress. My favourite. You got plans for your holidays?”
(Her, starting to get riled) Very funny. Not. If communists do it, then why can’t we? And the point you’re missing is that it says that this new Jag is saving all of us hard-pressed citizens money. Twelve thousand quid, it says. That’s nearly a full-time job for someone at the council. You can’t knock that.
(Me) Except it’s twelve thousand quid over seven years. That’s … erm … £140 a month… You know how much it costs us to keep your magical ceremonial mayor? £308,000 a year, last I heard. That’s £25,000 a month. You want magic? You could get David Nixon and The Great Soprendo in every day for half that.
(Her, starting to get exasperated) That’s just SO you! The price of everything and the value of nothing. A ceremonial mayor may just be a councillor dressed up in ermine to you, but for the rest of us it’s there to represent our civic values – the values of the people of Leeds. Put that in your data journalism spreadsheet and smoke it!
(Me) And they are?
(She) What are?
(Me) The values of the people of Leeds?
(She) Don’t be so childish. You know perfectly well what they are and what the mayor stands for: social cohesion, authority and an open society.
(Me) Authority? Open society?
(She) Yes, open society. As in a world where councillors that we the people of Leeds have freely elected to represent us decide democratically to buy the mayor a long wheel base Jag.
(Me) But they don’t.
(She) Who don’t?
(Me) Councillors. If the mayor’s getting his Jag as a result of a democratic decision taken by councillors, I’m Paul and Barry Ryan. They may do lots of stuff like helping people cope with the system, doing community development work, being civic entrepreneurs … but decisions? I don’t think so.
(Her) Civic what?
(Me) Do NOT go there … Listen, all I’m saying is why can’t WE decide about the Jag? Why couldn’t they grab a dozen random citizens off your open society electoral roll, lock them in a room for a day and tell them they can’t come out till they come up with a solution to the issue of the mayor’s transport. And whatever they decide goes.
(Her, getting up to leave the room) Twelve randoms? What the eff would twelve randoms know about anything?
(Me) Excuse me?! Us randoms know about transport, about getting a good deal on a motor, about when it’s cheaper to hire a mini-cab or take the bus than have a car sitting in a garage not being used for half the week. We do this stuff every day. We’re experts!
( Her, shouting from the kitchen) You know your problem? You’re a bloody cynical, pathetic fantasist. And you need to get out more. What kind of a crazy, mixed-up, schoolboy system are you on about? Aaaaaaargh! For God’s sake! Why me? (slams door) …. (open door again and shouts) And for another thing, who says it’s got to be a man as mayor, you sexist, mysogynistic creep? (slams door again)