Every few months I meet up with Ray and Sylvia for a coffee. The three of us have a shared history, the agony and the ecstasy of local government in a city just a few miles from here. To be fair, there was precious little ecstasy, but the surfeit of agony made sure our lives were never dull. Ours is a relationship forged in adversity, on the basis that the only alternative to standing together is falling apart.
I worked with Ray, on and off, over a period of around 35 years. He was the best boss I ever had, and it’s still a pleasure to chew the fat with him and with his former PA, Sylvia.
We’ve all retired now, but back in the day we used to laugh a lot, just to keep ourselves sane. The habit continues, and when he’s ordering his cappuccino Ray makes a point of apologising to the guy behind the counter for the disruption we’re likely to bring to his little coffee shop over the next couple of hours. Can you get an ASBO for excessively raucous laughter?
Inevitably, whenever we meet, the first topics of conversation are the developments and disasters at our former place of work, which often features in the media for all the wrong reasons. We observe with pleasure that some of our former colleagues have managed to get out, and shake our heads sadly at the fate of those who have no choice but to remain.
The conversation segues seamlessly into a rant about politics and religion, but it’s very amicable as all three of us agree that we’re opposed to both of them. And then it’s on to crime. Sylvia’s recently witnessed some bad stuff going down round her way, and like old fogeys the world over we reminisce fancifully about the good old days when everyone behaved themselves.
On the other hand, some things have definitely improved, and we note with satisfaction that our little town held its first Gay Pride celebration a few weeks ago. I was away that weekend, but Sylvia explains that everyone seemed to embrace the spirit of Pride, and the town was awash with colour and jollity.
And finally, inevitably, the talk turns to holidays. Places we’ve visited, places we’re planning to visit, places we’d love to visit if only our Lottery numbers come up. And this is when Ray drops his bombshell: he’s been elected President!
Ray and his missus have a holiday home on Minorca. It’s part of a housing complex that’s run as a co-operative, where decisions are made democratically at an AGM by the owners of the individual properties that make up the development.
However, World War 3 has been threatening to erupt for several months over the thorny issue of boundaries. The rules of the development forbid the erection of walls and fences in shared areas, but this hasn’t prevented two individuals enclosing “their” gardens, in one case with a fence and the other with a brick wall of which Hadrian himself would have been proud.
The sides have taken entrenched positions, and acrimony rules. Two elected Presidents of the co-operative have quit over the last few months, everyone’s talking but no-one’s listening. Passions are running high, and the presence of lawyers does little to help.
A peacemaker is desperately needed, so Ray magnanimously decides to fly out to Minorca to do his bit at the AGM. After all, he’s come up through the school of hard knocks – English local government – so he knows a thing or two about gently banging heads together and tactfully reconciling the irreconcilable.
The AGM is every bit a gruesome as he’d feared. Insults fly and there is no meeting of minds. The builder of the brick wall maintains that he had special permission to build it. And, he argues, it isn’t really a wall anyway!
That’s it, Ray’s heard enough. He stands and starts to speak, explaining in faltering Spanish that in England we have a saying: if something walks like a duck and quacks like a duck it’s almost certainly a duck. Against all reason and probability he gets a round of applause from the assembled AGM, most of whom are Spaniards who have never heard anything like this before.
The meeting drags on, and Ray intervenes several times more. The AGM is mesmerised: the Brits may have pinched Gibraltar from under their noses and screwed up over Brexit, but they still know a thing or two about diplomacy. So, when the time comes, they elect him as the new President of the co-operative, despite his best endeavours to kick the idea into touch.
And there we have it: my former boss is a President. But the Minorcan re-imagining of Hadrian’s Wall is still standing, and it’s Ray’s job over the next year to have it removed without any of the parties getting killed or maimed.
I take great pleasure in the fact that my pal President Ray, in stark contrast to a President on the other side of the pond, is to dedicate his life to taking a wall down rather than putting one up. It’s a rotten job, but someone’s got to do it.
Quoting the immortal words of a speech made in Berlin more than 30 years ago, a speech addressed to Mikhail Gorbachev by none other than Ronald Reagan – another American President who talked a lot of walls – I say only this to my good friend Ray: “Mr President, tear down this wall.”