Boatman's dream 22
By Parson Thru
Bellingham-Smythe picked up on the feeling of despondency hanging over Arthur and Merlin. He placed his hand on Arthur’s shoulder and spoke quietly to them.
“The door isn’t closed. This doesn’t have to be adversarial. Think about it.”
He stepped forward to address the room.
“Friends. We have an opportunity to work together to change this club for the greater good of all.”
He turned to Arthur and Merlin.
“We three see things differently, but I respect your values, as I respect anyone who articulates their view in a decent and reasonable way. However, as we heard in a comment from the floor, this is the present, not the past. And if we are going to improve this town, we have to look to the future.”
“That bloke’s a bloody Tory. Like you!”
Bellingham-Smythe stared, distractedly, in the direction the comment had come from.
“Pipe down!” someone shouted back. “Bloody died-in-the-wool socialist. Your lot ruined this town.”
“Folks! Let’s not make this a party political issue. It’s much bigger than that.”
“Is it?” someone called. “I thought that was exactly what it was. The ‘haves’ and the ‘have nots’. It’s alright if you’re one of the ‘haves’.”
Standing in a corner beside the editor of the Herald, the deputy leader of the county council raised his eyebrows. He'd come along as an "interested party".
Merlin stepped up alongside Bellingham-Smythe. “I don’t know how many of you know me. I’ve been Chair of the Moorings Committee for more years than I can remember. I grew up on this water – on the Welsh side, as you can probably tell.”
There was warm laughter.
“As James said earlier, this is about more than a fire on the wharf. It’s about more than the wharf itself. For those who care about such things, it’s about access to the water. We’re a riverine, sea-going community.”
We all listened intently.
“Until a year ago, moorings along the Axe were administered by the boatmen of this town through the Moorings Committee – a tradition going back generations. Now you have to be a member of the Boat Club to obtain a mooring license.”
He intentionally avoided looking at Bellingham-Smythe.
“That’s what the majority voted for. But I’m not sure all of you thought the implications through.”
This time he stared straight at the Club Chair. “I’ll say it again: you have to be accepted as a member of this club to access the water from the Axe.”
He looked around the room and asked for a drink. A bottle of water was passed forward.
“It’s dryer than usual in here tonight.”
Bellingham-Smythe edged in front of Merlin. “If I could just pick up on that last point…”
“Just a moment, James. Let me finish.”
He raised his hand to silence the voices in the crowd.
“James wants to buy this club. Sorry James, did you want to refute that?”
Bellingham-Smythe edged forward again, but didn’t take up the offer.
“I’m sure he wants to do it for the noblest of reasons and in the best economic interests of the town. But who, exactly, is ‘the town’? And who isn’t?”
A scuffle broke out at the back of the room, close to the toilets. Tables went over and punches were exchanged.
The Herald photographer was quickly on the scene.
“Gentlemen!” Bellingham-Smythe’s voice was drowned as the ruckus spread into the middle of the room. He shot a sideways glance at Merlin.
Two off-duty policemen were in the crowd. One of them stood on a stool and blew a whistle he habitually carried in his pocket.
He held up his Warrant Card.
“We’re here to listen to a peaceful debate. Any more of this and I’ll call for support. People will be going to the cells. Listen to the speakers. Respect what others have to say or I’ll shut this meeting down.”
The man from the Herald was scribbling furiously.
The policeman spoke to his colleague, then went to speak to Merlin and Bellingham-Smythe. Both nodded in agreement.
Bellingham-Smythe took the floor.
“Thank you. Let's keep this peaceful. We're here to exchange words, not punches."
"Merlin just spoke about private property as if owning something were a crime. Well, in 2017 it most definitely isn’t. The Moorings Committee was an anachronism long before it was absorbed into the club. In many ways, it still is. Birthright is a nice idea. It conjures-up a romantic past. But in reality it means patronage, inefficiency and exclusivity.”
He took a drink and turned to Merlin, projecting his words at the room.
“Yes, Merlin, I do want to buy this club. I want to run it efficiently and effectively for the benefit of the whole town and for people who want to come here bringing their money with them. I want the moorings and the wharf to be part of that. They work best as a unit.”
He seemed suddenly exasperated. “For heaven’s sake, what, actually, is wrong with such a proposition? Tell me. Air your concerns.”
“What if we can’t afford your prices?” someone asked from the floor.
“You might black-ball us from the club!” another voice.
"Harry Croft, former Club Secretary. This is a sporting and social club, incorporated to be run by and on behalf of its members. The members jointly own it. What makes you think de-mutualising will make it a better club?"
“He’ll price us out.” someone else shouted. “He doesn’t want the riff-raff. He wants gin-palaces.”
“The wharf belongs to the Lord of the Manor. What are you going to do? Buy the Bowalls?”
Arguments began breaking out around the room. Quickly, they developed into pushing and shoving.
The policeman blew his whistle and stepped back onto the stool. His colleague flashed the room lights on and off.
“Ok! That’s it!” the policeman shouted. “This is descending into a Public Order violation.”
The tussles were gradually broken up. Small groups faced each other off.
The policeman addressed Bellingham-Smythe and Merlin. “Can I suggest that the organisers set up something more orderly? Maybe take this forward through other channels? If you’re in agreement, I move that we adjourn.”
Bellingham-Smythe raised his hands in the air.
“Ok everyone. Thanks to you all for coming at such short notice. Please can you follow the officer’s instructions and leave in an orderly fashion? I’ll make a full prospectus available at the Town Hall.”
He turned to the editor of the newspaper.
“Peter, maybe we can get something in the Herald?”
“Of course. I’ll provide a main feature and follow-up.”
“That would be great, thanks. I'll be in touch.”
Above the scraping of chairs and hum of voices he thanked the room one last time.
The policeman was on his stool again.
“Any scuffles outside and there’ll be arrests. On your way, please. No hanging around on the beach. I want this area cleared.”
The crowd began filing out of the room.
Outside, two police vans were parked conspicuously by the beach exit.
At the bottom of the clubhouse steps, a tall middle-aged man wearing a suit and brogues approached Arthur.
“I don’t know who you are, but you’re bang-on about people losing their rights. They’ll never get them back.”
Arthur looked at him in silence and nodded.
The man smiled warmly, then turned and walked to his car.
Several men loitering within earshot agreed. A few stopped to shake hands. Everyone else dispersed quickly to their cars or walked in small groups past the police vans.