Friday 24 May 2013

The Lord Mayor cometh

16st 5lb, 1.5 units. What lunacy is this, you may have wondered yesterday, when I wrote of changes of political control on Newcastle City Council back in the days of the electric trolleybus. Surely the place must have been a solid Labour heartland forever?

Well, oddly enough, no. Before the nominally Conservative administration of Edward Heath introduced its hateful local government reforms of 1973, which extended the boundaries of the city, the council had been under Conservative control for a remarkable six years.

Surely only part of this can have been down to confusion caused by the fact that the Conservatives’ campaigning colour on Tyneside was red, while that of Labour was green. (A simple stop – go choice which always seemed to make much more sense to me than the blue and red adopted elsewhere.)

By ancient tradition, the first public duty of the newly elected Lord Mayor of Newcastle upon Tyne was to address the boys of the Royal Grammar School, which I attended. He used to pitch up at morning assembly in his robes, hat and chain, preceded by the city’s mace and sword bearers, and was always assured of a warm reception because his pay off line was to grant the school a day’s holiday.

The Lord Mayor of 1982 with his ceremonial attendants

We always knew which side of the political divide he came from as soon as he opened his mouth: the Tories were invariably posh, Labour broad Geordie. We privileged schoolboys used to suppress a smirk in the latter case, though there were a few unseemly giggles the time that a particularly short-sighted socialist kicked off with “Noo then, lads and lasses …”

A master shared with us afterwards the ultimate Labour Lord Mayor story, from before the Second World War. Having been greeted by the then Chairman of the Governors, the Mayor pronounced that: “The Chairman ‘n’ aa has a lot in common. He’s Orl Porssy and aa lives in Porssy Street.” Which is borderline hilarious if you know that (a) Earl Percy was (and still is) the eldest son and heir of the fabulously rich Duke of Northumberland, and (b) Percy Street was at that time a notorious slum.

The Combined Cadet Force used to provide a guard of honour on the street outside the school as the mayoral limousine drew up. After a formal inspection by His Right Worshipfulness, they would march off round to the back of the school to the stirring regimental march of the Durham Light Infantry.

Towards the end of my time at the place this went spectacularly wrong, when a group of mild hooligans (collectively known, I seem to recall, as “The Ledz”) procured a stout length of chain and a padlock, with which they secured the side gates of the school as the junior troops approached.

As a traditionalist, an arch respecter of authority and a thoroughgoing coward, I naturally dissociated myself from this disgraceful action and cannot claim to have observed the result. However, I do remember being assured by one eye-witness that the sight of the CCF band and the following rifle-bearing cadets gamely marching on the spot with no place to go, as their leaders’ faces turned red with fury, was tear-inducingly funny.

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