I once worked with a Freemason.
I always assumed he was quite a bad Freemason, because, despite having a yearning ambition to be a higher-ranking member of his Lodge – Grand Wizard, or whatever they are called; “Baron Nonce” – he was still, after 20 years, a low-level humble mason grunt, like that strange large kid at your school who was still a white belt in judo all the way into Year 8.
I also assume this was due to the fact that, every time he got drunk after work (despite being in his fifties, he was doing the same temporary admin job as me, which I figure added to his “not being taken seriously by the mason” thing, because all masons are comfortably mid-ranking senior police officers or suspiciously wealthy residential GPs), he would get bleary on three pints of warm real ale and tell me all about his secret society.
“No it’s good, like,” he’d say, weaving backwards and forwards, glasses askew, growing ever more puce, breath coming heavy through his nostrils like a horse. “It’s… we do these little plays.”
I’d ask him to elaborate. Plays? “Little moral plays, and that. You have to learn your lines – perfectly – or you can’t go up the hierarchy.” I assumed, watching him pore over his lines as he ate sandwiches out of tinfoil every lunchtime, that he was spectacularly bad at remembering, but still he soldiered on.
“So you don’t, like, wear gowns and cut up alive women as a human sacrifice?”, I’d ask, and he’d hic at me and lean in and say: “We don’t wear gowns, idiot. We wear sashes.” I imagine he’s still out there, at his little masonry lodge, ambiently smelling of metal the way people with high blood pressure do, fluffing his lines, rolling the legs of his trousers up and letting all the other masons smack him on the arse with a cricket bat. In a way, I hope he’s happy. In… in a way.
I was thinking of The Freemason I Used To Work With in light of the Handforth Parish Council video, which struck deep-down nostalgic chords within me: I remember how baffled I was, how taken aback, by the sheer small-timery of this massive hushed cloak-and-dagger secret society; the sudden reveal that a powerful understructure that uses shadowy hands to manipulate the upper echelons of public office is actually just a load of men in a block-booked church hall playing dress up every Wednesday.
I thought parish council meetings were just six people who loved the church too much and loved “leaving their village” too little, sharing homemade lavender cake, bitching about the local headmaster (“loves himself, doesn’t he. That new tie”) then spending a year-and-a-half slowly deciding how to spend £600 of public money. Instead it – well, no, it is all that, obviously. But it’s also a chance for people to project their most nightmarish and base and feral emotions onto the blank placid canvas of “Jackie Weaver”:
I have some questions, and yes I do have the authority to ask them:
A NOTE BEFORE WE START:
I think it’s important we set-up a rough “key” with which to refer to the major players in this coup, because it’s all obviously blurred by the psychotic chaos of a dozen 50+ year olds all trying to be on Zoom, from various different devices, at various different angles beneath the chin, under various different names – I feel there is an ancient, stirring anti-energy deep in the heart of the galaxy, something primal and unknowable, that stops people born in the year 1970 or earlier from really knowing how to use an iPad; the Greeks would have recognised this energy as a god, and given a name to it – which makes it hard to keep exactly up. And so:
JACKIE WEAVER is how we are going to refer to “Jackie Weaver” –
BRIAN is how we are referring to the self-appointed “clerk”, i.e. that bloke with the airy and terrifying voice of a scarecrow cursed to live a human life while his feet are still strapped deep into the dirt, telling children stories of old in a barren field, come closer boys, come closer and take this dirty old rag off my face –
ALED, owner of Aled’s iPad, is how we are referring to the vice-chair who goes absolutely tonto near the end –
ALED’S DAD is how we are referring to the man in the maroon v-neck who tries to stop his son from having a rage heart attack because the exact letter of the parish law was not quite kept to –
A SECONDARY NOTE
I will be primarily focussing on the 30-second viral “read them and undeRSTAND THEM!” clip from the Handforth Parish Council meeting, and not the extended nine-player 18-minute version, because i. the 30-second clip sums up the state of our society and our completely insane fragile mental state right now better than anything else going, and ii. there is no art I can possibly create about the 18-minute version that will be even one fraction as beautiful as the phrase “Julie’s I Pad” –
WERE POMERANIANS BRED NOT DOWN FROM WOLVES?, OR: THE IMPOTENT RAGE OF THE MODERN MAN
This is just a fact. Dogs used to be hard. They always used to be on pub roofs, being hard, or running double-speed round a park chasing after a kid on a dirt bike, or terrorising chicken coops down at the allotment, hardly. As a child I was scared of dogs, because dogs used to be hard. But then I see, for example, two pugs jostling at each other in an attempt to breathe, and think: this dog isn’t hard. I see a shiba inu elegantly shuddering while it defecates, and think: you’re struggling with the physical exertion of shitting. You are not hard.
This is possibly my most Brexit-y, boomer opinion going: just like everyone in their sixties who has never lived through conflict or served in the army thinks millennials need a war to toughen them up (“that’ll knock ‘trans rights’ out of you, won’t it? Artillery fire!”), so I believe dogs these days need to be a bit harder. Toughen up, dogs! Just work harder and stop moaning!
Anyway: just as pomeranians used to be wolves, so Aled’s ancestors used to be conquerors.
It’s weird, isn’t it. Every one of us has a murderer back in our family history. Someone who has set fire to a whattled cottage, or something. Someone who crossed a sea just to pull a piece of land up for themselves. There, back in the hazy story of our blood, there’s someone who broke moral boundaries before moral boundaries were invented: bashed in the skull of a rival primate with a rock, ran through a nearby village screaming “fire”, slit the throat of one man and took the wife of another.
We evolved up from that, and now we don’t know what to do with the primal, lizard-brain emotions that comes with it – anger, despair, red hot rage – because we’re too busy wearing cardigans and writing letters to the BBC for putting same-sex couples on Strictly. We are just as neutered as the tiny dogs that shit outside my building. We just don’t see it yet.
I think Aled’s quite iconic meltdown is a testament to that: Aled is a man of soft furnishings and petty griefs, but deep inside him lives the hard-edged emotions of ancestral England, and he doesn’t know what to do with them. He doesn’t know how to be angry in a cool way because he’s never had to use anger as a weapon before. (You know this because he is on the parish council – nobody on a parish council is doing it because they have lived a fulfilled life – and, not only that, he has kissed the requisite parish council arseholes to scramble up the ladder to become vice-chair at what is – relatively, in parish council terms – a young age).
So when something primordial rises up within him – for example, when Jackie Weaver kicks out the parish council chair for obfuscating about the legality of the parish council meeting that he is literally chairing and currently in, right now – it comes out like this: first, the almost-cool smartarse interjection of “illegally!” when Jackie Weaver attempts to explain the reason for the meeting, and then the instant-onset calmed-down-by-your-own-dad anger of “read the standing orders”, rising quickly to “read thEM AND UNDERSTAND THEM”.
His heart is pulsing blood through his body. Adrenalin spikes in him so high he doesn’t sleep for days. A week later, his throat still feels rough from shouting at Jackie Weaver. He is not made for this. His body does not know how to deal with the anger his heart feels. Anger he feels because someone did a parish council meeting slightly wrong.
LOCAL POLITICS: AS EMBARRASSING AS NATIONAL POLITICS, BUT ONLY JUST
I think what’s striking about the petty bureaucracy of the Handforth Parish Council video is the fact that, within it, is a microcosmic portrait of our own national politics, and it doesn’t exactly fill me with confidence re: getting out of the pandemic alive, for example. The sheer fact of politics is: anyone who wants to participate in it should be banned from doing so as a fundamental prerequisite. And yet we keep letting people who want to be in charge, be in charge. That is a broken system.
I looked up what parish councils actually do, and it’s nothing – odd leftover jobs that no other level of non-voluntary politicians want to cover. It’s all about announcing whether a footpath is an actual footpath, or what water belongs to which stream, or whether the town centre should have an unglamorous Christian festival of some sort that year. The fact is, up and down the country, hundreds of these meetings are being held every single year, achieving nothing more than the wasting of time and the soft illusion of power.
None of the people on the Handforth Parish Council are doing anything, or have ever done anything. But what they do is meet every month, pore over an ancient list of rules and sub-clauses to try and win arguments against each other about, like, playgrounds, and talk to each other in the ye olde manner of which they have become accustomed, getting angrier than I’ve ever been in my life about whether someone who calls themselves the “clerk” is actually the “clerk” or not, because we didn’t vote for a “clerk” and, as vice-clerk, I need to sign off on a clerk, so actually, you’re all going in the book! You’re all going in the book!*
Does this soup-like level of non-entity local politics not fill you with a deep and unshakeable dread? Work your way up the greasy ladder and this is all politics is, higher and higher, it’s just that more scoffing journalists write about it. This is all politics is: people who think “voting Lib Dem” is a viable ideology, playing at being grown-up, calling people “the right honorable member”, adjusting their glasses, fuming about nothing.
These people aren’t in charge, but their analogues are in charge, and that terrifies me. There are Aleds stalking the halls of Westminster. People have voted for a number of Brians, all who serve uselessly as a Conservative MP for 40 years then retire to the House of Lords. This isn’t politics, but it is politics. Do you not see? These are the people who are in charge! We’re fucked!
JACKIE WEAVER IS RIGHT
The name “Jackie Weaver” started trending on Twitter last night, and I do see why her powerful demeanour chimed with people: in the face of two or three streams of impotent male rage, she remained calm and placid while dispatching each errant council member to the Zoom naughty step, never allowing emotion to inflect a petty dispute (unlike Aled, whom I reckon got so angry he cried off-camera), sticking to her guns, not allowing mealy-mouthed apologies from either the chair or vice-chair to allow them to wiggle back into the room.
All of this I respect. She was, simply, trying to get through an agenda of boring pointless stuff about bike shelters or whatever, and having someone who can’t even frame his own face in a webcam chuntering about whether the meeting itself was legal or not for five minutes before the meeting even started was stopping everyone from doing that. Jackie Weaver is a woman of action. If the meeting can’t go ahead with the current chair, kick out the chair and vote in a new chair. She knows the standing orders. She has read them and undeRSTOOD THEM –
JACKIE WEAVER IS WRONG
That said – and do bear with me – I cannot help but feel that Jackie Weaver might have been acting a little above her allotted station.
The thing is, from the rage of Aled and Brian, you have to assume that a number of Handforth Parish Council meetings have gone extremely off-piste when two blokes who shag rule pamphlets start talking about esoteric rules they’ve learned this month. And from the exhausted eye-rolling demeanour of Jackie Weaver, you do feel like her patience has been tested over these Zoom calls (and in-person meetings) over a number of months. She is herding cats, and each of those cats has their iPad at a psychotic angle in accordance with their face, and only six of those cats know how to turn their microphone on, and two of those cats are really angry about something no one can tell the actual reason for and another of those cats is posing mutely in front of a wall full of guitars. I can see how her patience has been exasperated.
But in ejecting the chair for petty rule-breaking, you are instantly making the rest of the meeting about petty rule-breaking, which derails the meeting just as much as the petty rule-breaking. I am not about to go through a parish council rule handbook to check the exact accuracy of Jackie Weaver’s behaviour, but in enacting it she knew there would be pushback. Part of me sees her actions as heroic – a woman pushed to her limits, hitting the “Kick Member?” button at the end of her wits and starting life anew, unencumbered by “Brian” talking about “legality”.
Another part of me sees the streak of jobsworthiness that runs through this petty country like a stick of rock: I feel like I have met a number of Jackie Weavers in my lifetime, been gently chided at them for non-existent and unenforced rules (Jackie Weaver has followed me back to my car and told me I didn’t put the trolley back in the right place at the supermarket; Jackie Weaver has gone to the bar at 7.01PM and told the landlord that the children in the garden should be ejected from the play area in accordance with the law; Jackie Weaver has left a two-page handwritten note, signed anonymously but you know it’s her, because you put the black bin out during a green bin week).
Jackie Weaver was in the right, here, based on 30 seconds of context. And she is right according to the letter of the law. But I wouldn’t want to ever get on the wrong side of her, because she will grind down my life until I have to move to another village entirely just to get away from her.
LOCKDOWN AS AN INFLUENCING FACTOR
Would this insanity have happened without lockdown? On one hand, yes: this is England, and these are English people, and this is the most English thing I’ve seen since we all kicked ambulance roofs in during the World Cup.
That said, no: it is impossible to separate the artist (an unprecedented second lockdown) from the art (this video). This would not have happened to the same degree if we weren’t all locked in our houses, forbidden from taking more than one walk a day**. That it did is an uncomfortable foreshadowing of what is to come.
When is lockdown over? It’s impossible to see the end of it, and I can’t help but feel that this video – these actions – are a natural endpoint awaiting us all. After middle age, and after a comfortable life spent in small-town domesticity, 60 percent of us end up as either a Brian, an Aled, or a Jackie Weaver: we take our meek powers and form them to a sharp point and spike them into the petty disputes over the placement of a temporary fence between two allotments.
This is the reality awaiting so many of us: older than we ever thought we’d be, peering through our bifocals, long since overtaken by the rapid rise of technology, arguing with someone 16 houses over about whether or not a body of water is a “pond” or a “small lake”, and whether we need to write an extremely long letter to Ordnance Survey correcting them on that.
I think lockdown has accelerated our descent into this kind of small-worlded madness. With the doors shut off to us and the walls ever closer, the reality of the world is pressing up hard against all our psyches. You are finding yourself doing this too, right: having insane high-spike emotions about things that do not matter? The other day I went raging because a recycling box was in the wrong place on the floor. I walked in the kitchen barefoot and a packing peanut stuck to my sole and ruined the next four hours of my day.
There is nothing left to do in this world, and so we are contained in our own boxes of emotion, and all the simple primal urges come out: rage we don’t know what to do with, giddy happiness at absurdities, laughing at fools. The Handforth Parish Council video wouldn’t have happened without the government spending the last 11 months on a special social experiment designed to send us all insane – yes. But the video itself wouldn’t have gone viral without us, the insane people, going insane at it. Don’t you see? You are not the Jackie Weaver in this scenario. You are Brian, or you are Aled, shouting out of your window, your sanity dwindling with every circle of the sun. You fools. You fools!
* It’s worth noting that none of the parish council players will ever, even in their deepest rage, resort to swearing: you’ll get embarrassingly angry about someone being ejected from a Zoom call, but you’ll still never utter a word of sin in front of God, no matter how low Jackie Weaver sends you. I think that’s really funny. Just say “fuck” now and then, man. It might help you get something out of your system. Instead you’re going maroon in a cardigan and calling everyone who’s muted on Zoom a “fool”, like you’re Gandalf warding off a troll.
** Everyone in this video – everyone in this video – would call the police on you if they were your neighbour and you left the house two times in one day. Every single one of them. Just be aware of that. Every single one of them would put you in jail if you forgot to get milk and popped out for milk.