What does Handforth Parish Council say about us?

OF all the unlikely routes to overnight fame, agreeing to host a parish council meeting must be right up there. Yet that is what happened to Jackie Weaver.

It’s hard to say exactly why millions of people ended up watching the ensuing squabble at Handforth parish council in Cheshire. Perhaps it was an escape from the gloomy single-track of our claustrophobic lives; perhaps it was a change from that lockdown Netflix habit.

Or perhaps it was just that so many of us are denizens of Zoom-land, where the inhabitants have bloodshot eyes and where, or so I’ve been told, if meetings go on a bit, they sometimes mute their microphone, turn off the camera and pick up their guitar while continuing to pay full attention to that important meeting.

Whatever the reason, something gelled.

In case you’re not up to speed, the Handforth meeting descended into acrimony, with heated exchanges, loud objections to Weaver’s presence, and some of the objectors being locked out by her.

The chairman, Brian Tolver, was removed to a virtual waiting room after saying: “You have no authority here Jackie Weaver.”

Councillor Aled Brewerton screamed that as vice-chairman, he should take charge of the meeting – “Read the standing orders – read them and understand them!” His vice, it seemed, lay in loud interruption.

The clip that went viral was, according to Radio 1’s Newsbeat, circulated by 17-year-old Shaan Ali from East London. He explained his unusual behaviour like this: “I guess I’m just fascinated by what local authorities do and the role they play up and down the country.”

I’ll own up to having been fascinated and amused by the disparity between the size of the egos and the relative smallness of the task. After all, this has been the bedrock of many a sit-com, Arthur Lowe in Dad’s Army being a classic example.

The anger on display was supremely out of scale with the task at hand, but perhaps that’s the way on parish councils. Jackie Weaver appeared to enjoy herself, saying with admirable understatement on BBC Radio Four’s Woman’s Hour that meetings were “often less exciting”.

After the amusement, came more sober observations about misogynistic meetings. This isn’t funny, women and some men complained. Too often women are abused like this in meetings, they said.

While that is true, something seems awry about that argument in this instance. It was a woman, the unflappable Jackie Weaver, who stayed coolly in charge; she was the grown up in the room, while most of the men were behaving badly.

Yes, women can be treated badly in meetings, and watching the footage may have upset women who’ve had that experience. But men too sometimes are the victim of other men in meetings; and men and women have surely sat there thinking ‘Good God, what am I doing here and shouldn’t there be more to life than this?’, while distracting themselves by idly wondering what’s for tea.

There is something else here, too. Such sudden notoriety says much about the random outcomes of modern life. All it took was a smart teenager to create a sensation by sharing something that normally nobody would see.

You can regard his handiwork in different lights. It certainly provided unlikely entertainment for the masses. Yet those men, however unpleasant, had no idea they were going to be paraded on social media (the modern equivalent of the stocks).

Mostly, though, that small island row blown large meshed with how many of us live. It wasn’t as funny as the second series of the BBC1 comedy Staged, in which David Tennant and Michael Sheen play heightened versions of themselves trapped in the corridors of Zoom with their bruised egos, but it comes from the same confined place.

This is us and it’s kind of weird.

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