Kicking off the year on a personal note, my favourite report in the local press during 2011 has to be the one involving bollards. Do you remember it? Before judges from Northumbria in Bloom rolled up to inspect the window boxes of Berwick, the town council did the equivalent of running around the house with a frantic Dyson. Our ancient parish was treated to some spit and polish, and anything tatty that couldn’t get shoved under a cushion was either abandoned in Prior Park or designated a site-specific performance space.
This sprucing-up remit included the bollards along the High Street.
Now, these bollards are busy bollards. Twenty-four hours a day these sentries guard against skirmishes between traffic and people, forming a noble barricade against jay-walking incursionists and standing firm in the face of enemies who would ram raid Mountain Warehouse. No wonder their uniform had started to look tired and tatty – it’s hard to keep up appearances being kneed in the face on a daily basis and having inexpert knobs tattooed on your body by way of Sharpies nicked from W H Smith.
Berwick Town Council agreed, ordering a new coat of anthracite grey for each High Street bollard as a reward for their self-sacrifice that absolutely had nothing to do with a fevered desire to get one over on Morpeth, who need an Arab Spring-type revolution before relinquishing their grip on the Northumbria Tourist Board trophy.
The Council should have known better. Berwick folk are simple creatures, creatures of habit. They know a bollard when they see one and know it should be black, maybe teamed with a natty little gold torque and belt. It shouldn’t be grey. Grey isn’t the colour of important street furniture; grey is the colour of Borders sky or Berwick cobbles. Paint a bollard grey in Berwick and it’ll disappear against the background and become a tripping hazard.
Complaints were forthcoming.
Councillor John Robertson (chairman of Berwick Town Council’s Environment and Regeneration Committee) admitted, “A few people have told me they thought it was an undercoat.” Before adding bravely, “I think it’s certainly tidied up the street.” He went on to say that if the Council received further adverse comments they might have to have a rethink.
Crikey. I would love to sit in on the committee in charge of choosing an alternative colour…
“Have you seen the headlines in this week’s Berwickshire News?” Councillor Ed smirked, tapping Councillor Dave on the head with a rolled up paper and more force than necessary.
“Oh, what now?” sighed Councillor Dave, admiring himself in the sheen of the committee table. “Not another greenhouse break-in? I mean, what’s the point? It’s not as if the criminal classes even eat vegetables.”
“Worse,” sniggered Councillor Ed. “Oh, so much worse. Here, I’ll read it to you… ‘Sub-Committee of Environment and Regeneration Going All Geoffrey Howe on Berwick’s Arse’.”
Councillor Dave frowned, liking the air of statesmanship it gave him. “Really?” he said. “That doesn’t sound like something The Berwickshire News would say to me.”
“Oh, they’re modernising,” said Councillor Ed quickly. “Reaching out to the disaffected and dispossessed by means of inclusive speech modularity.”
“Is that code for dumbing down? It is, isn’t it? It’s code for dumbing down. This continuing fascination for trying to get thick people involved in running their country… well, I confess I’m finding it tiresome.”
“Indeed,” said Councillor Ed primly. “The Bullingdon Club isn’t for everyone.”
Councillor Dave looked up from admiring his teeth. “Give it a rest, Councillor Ed. You weren’t invited to join because of your adenoids. No-one likes sitting next to a noisy eater.”
Councillor Nick raised a tentative hand. “Can I just say s—”
“No!” said Councillors Dave and Ed, glaring at each other.
“Anyway,” Councillor Ed eventually continued, “it seems your ploy of urban ponce-ification has back-fired. The underpaid and overworked people of Berwick think we’re cutting the town loose so it can slump into decline. Berwick-upon-Tweed is the new Liverpool.”
Councillor Dave pulled his shoulders back. He knew this made him look broader and therefore more impressive.
“What are you talking about? What ponce-ification?” He paused. “Is that even a word?”
“Painting the bollards on the High Street in a shade straight from the Farrow & Ball paint chart. Rather than the colour – and I seem to recall expressing doubts on the subject, Councillor Dave – imbuing the High Street with an aspirational air, the oppressed residents have risen as one and declared the new shade as ‘Undercoat Primer’. Not dissimilar to my own observations during original discussions that it was more like ‘Dismantling Heavy Industry Grey’.”
Councillor Ed sneered. He sneered a lot; he always found breathing through his mouth easier.
Councillor Nick cleared his throat.
“No!” said Councillors Dave and Ed.
“Blimey.” Councillor Dave said at length, raking his hand through his hair in what he hoped was a boyish fashion. “So this is what happens when you try to give a Sunday supplement lifestyle to people with no appreciation of natural pigments. I had no idea.”
Councillor Ed put his smug face on. “Hence your so-called ‘Big Society’ will never work. You’re out of touch.”
Councillor Dave fixed Councillor Ed with the gaze he normally reserved for French people. “Next you’ll be telling me the people of Berwick think ‘Big Society’ is carte blanche to eat more macaroni pies. Anyway, I’m not going to carry the paint can for this particular mess alone. You voted for ‘Mao Zedong Mist’.”
Councillor Ed looked defensive. “Yes, but that’s a warm grey.”
“We need to sort this out,” said Councillor Dave, rising to decisive feet and sucking in his stomach to pace the room. “We need to choose a new colour. Something the residents of Berwick will get behind. Something that will show them we care.”
An earnest-looking woman, who up until now had remained silent, stood to speak.
“Councillors Dave, Ed and Nick, what we need to bear in mind is—”
“Councillor Nick,” said Councillor Dave without turning round. “You made it on to Heat magazine’s ‘Weird Crush’ list in 2010. You deal with” – he waved a hand in the woman’s direction – “that.”
Councillor Nick bounced to his feet, his cheeks flushing with self-importance. “Of course, Councillor Dave, it would be my pleasure.” He turned to the lady in question. “Whoops-a-daisy, cupcake. You’ve taken a wrong turn. The nearest public conveniences are on Eastern Lane.”
The woman unclenched her teeth just enough for the words to squeeze through. “Councillor Caroline? Your colleague?”
Councillor Dave, Ed and Nick looked blankly at each other and shrugged.
“Every week, every bloody week!” Councillor Caroline muttered to herself. “Look, I just want it put on record that if there is to be any repainting of bollards it must be done using materials sensitive to the environment.”
“Aaaaaah!” cried Councillors Dave, Ed and Nick in unison as realisation dawned. “You’re one of them!”
“Well played not wearing any of that tie-dye crap,” beamed Councillor Dave. “You had us all fooled.”
The ringing from the slammed door caused Councillor Dave’s moobs to jiggle. “Anyway, back to business, ” he said, stilling them with his hands. “I vote blue. Blue is a nice colour. Every time the good people of Berwick see a row of bollards painted blue, they’ll be reminded of—”
“Riot police and kettling,” finished Councillor Ed. “No, what’s needed is a splash of red. Red is an exciting, dynamic colour. Red is the colour of—”
“Reckless overspending, recession and suicide.”
“Anything but black,” piped up a weasely voice with its back to the wall. “It’s not that I’m racist or anything – some of my best, er, street furniture is black – but I think we should be looking to promote and reflect the, er, hue of indigenous street furniture.”
“Get out, Councillor Nick-Two!”
Once the door closed a glum silence fell over the room broken only by a faint buzz from Councillor Ed’s left nostril.
“Well,” sighed Councillor Dave. “Any other ideas? Under pressure here, guys. If we can’t decide on a colour for these bollards then we’ll have to hand the whole sorry mess over to the puppet masters at Morpeth. Is that something we really want on our conscience?”
“There must be something else we can do,” Councillor Ed mused.
“Well, we could say we lost the bloody things.”
Councillor Nick nervously wet his lips.
“Yellow,” he whispered.
Councillor Dave and Ed swivelled their gaze in Councillor Nick’s direction.
“Did he say…?”
“Yes, I think he did.”
“Yellow,” whispered Councillor Nick again, louder and sitting on crossed-fingers.
“Councillor Nick,” began Councillor Dave cautiously. “Both Councillor Ed and myself thought you said – and we’re willing to be mistaken, human error and the fallibility of Man and all that – but we believed you said – feel free to correct us, our hearing is probably not as… heary as it used to be – but we could have sworn you said ‘yellow’. An embarrassing mistake, I’m sure.”
“You’ll be able to clear up the misunderstanding in a jiffy and save all our blushes,” smiled Councillor Ed encouragingly.
Councillor Nick squirmed in his seat. His time was here. His time was now. This could be the making or breaking of him.
Yellow, yellow, yellow – the word streamed through Councillor Nick’s brain like falling tickertape. A sheen of sweat broke out across his forehead. Right here, right now. His Waterloo, his Falklands, his Afghanista… no, scrap the last one. But anyway, a defining moment for defo. In years to come people would look back on this day and say that was the day Councillor Nick finally came off the fence, grew a pair the circumference and firmness of which had never been seen before, and made a stand, saying…
“No-ooo. Goodness, what an idea. Ha, ha. No, what I propose is, why don’t we take everybody’s favourite colour – whether it be blue, red, black, green or yellow, and mix them all together?” He slumped back defeated in his chair.
The suggestion hung in the air, turning this way and that like a chrysalis from a twig until…
“Bloody hell, Councillor Nick. Seconded.”
“I second that seconded.”
The paint for Berwick’s bollards came back from the manufacturers two weeks later and there was much excitement as Councillor Nick prised off the lid, it having been decided that it was only right and proper he should have the honour.
They stared in horror at the paint they had made in their own image. And when they had finished staring, they stared some more.
“I don’t understand,” Councillor Nick croaked, feeling ill.
Councillors Dave and Ed were unable to tear their gaze away from the tin and the glutinous nightmare of the contents.
“Grey,” said Councillor Ed flatly. “F***ing grey.”
And Councillor Dave, at a complete loss for words, grabbed his moobs and mimed “You absolute tit” at a sobbing Councillor Nick.