AN MP’s ADDRESSCategory: Politics
On the other side of Ipswich three persons were sitting down to dinner. They were Sir Peter Sprigg and his wife Cecile, and a Member of Parliament down for a holiday. He was a very young MP, so young that he was still constantly looking for audiences to address. Lady Sprigg knew this, and being a kind-hearted woman, and a good hostess, was anxious to indulge him; her husband was also kind- hearted, but he had heard young Coulter speak in the House, and had no wish to put his neighbours to a similar ordeal. Lady Sprigg, however, was a woman of resource.
“Jimmy,” she said to Mr Coulter, “have you ever spoken at Gillenham?”
James Coulter at once put down his soup-spoon. His eye brightened. One could almost see his ears cock.
“No, I haven’t’ he said. “Where is it?”
“Over beyond Ipswich. It’s quite a small place —”
“It’s a village,” put in Sir Peter bluntly. “Regular hole in the ground.”
“I don’t mind that,” said Mr Coulter. He didn’t mind anything. He had once deputized for a lady novelist at a college literary circle. And he did so not merely from love of hearing his own voice, but from a sincere desire to benefit his hearers. He was a very good and conscientious young man.
“I’m sure they’d love to have you,” continued Lady Sprigg. “It must be years and years since any one’s taken any notice of them. Don’t you think it’s a good idea, Peter?”
Her husband, considering the comparative remoteness of Gillen- ham from his own estate, has begun to think it a very good idea indeed.
“Excellent,” he said. “You go over, Coulter, and tell ’em about the Channel Tunnel.”
Young Coulter slightly flushed. As a dressmaker, seeking originality, harks back to the bustle or the crinoline, so Coulter, seeking some distinctive label, had harked back to the Channel Tunnel. But he had come to think it a mistake.
“I’d rather speak on Decimal Coinage,” he said. “I’ve been getting it up.”
“The very thing” agreed Sir Peter heartily. “It’ll be all one , л »
His wife kicked him under the table. Bat fortunately Mr Coulter had not heard.
“Who’s their Member?” he asked. “I don’t want to poach.” “It’s old Muirhead,” Sir Peter told him, “and he won’t care. You’re both Unionists. He’ll be only too glad to have some work taken off his hands. I’ll ’phone his agent to-night, and get the whole thing fixed up.”
Mr Pomfret, the Unionist agent, seemed rather astonished than delighted by the proposal; but he made no objection, and it was thus arranged that young Mr Coulter should go over to Gillenham on the following Wednesday week, there to address the populace on the subject of Decimal Coinage.
The village, as usual at noon, was empty, but a few farmers stood looking at something outside the Post Office. They moved off, disclosing a small plackard about ten inches by twelve. Mr Pomfret, the. Unionist agent, hadn’t taken much trouble: the announcement of James Coulter’s impending visit was roughly inked in block letters: At 6.30 p. m. on Wednesday wTeek, at The Grapes, Mr James Coulter MP, would address Gillenham on the subject of Decimal Coinage. Chairman, Sir Peter Sprigg; Admission free.
(The inhabitants of the village are stirred by a questionnaire circulated by a professor of folklore inquiring on a legend of the “Stone of Chastity” It is rumoured that the Government “took up the matter”. Some of thfc farmers attend the meeting hoping to learn something about it.)
On Wednesday night a large car containing the Unionist agent, Mr Pomfret, and James Coulter, MP, was appaching the village. Both the Spriggs had ratted, Lady Sprigg because she genuinely had influenza, Sir Peter because his wife’s indisposition furnished so providential an excuse that he felt it would be unlucky to ignore it. So Mr Coulter and Mr Pomfret arrived in Gillenham alone.
“I’m afraid”, said the latter, “I shan’t be able to do more than introduce you, and then disappear. We’ve guests to dinner, and I promised Mrs Pomfret I’d be back by seven sharp.”
“Very good of you to turn out at all,” said Mr Coulter. The agent did not contradict this. Members of Parliament had no glamour for him. He felt that this one in particular would have done far better to stay quietly at home until his Party summoned him out.
“You mayn’t have much of an audience”, he warned. “I should not call Gillenham specially politically-minded.”
“I’m not talking to ’em about politics. I’m telling ’em — ” “Quite,” said Mr Pomfret. He had no desire to hear the speech before it was delivered. He hoped, with luck, not to hear it at all. “Here we are,” he said. “We’ve got the room behind the Grapes — very respectable house indeed. I’ll just have a word with Mrs Jim before we go up.”
Mr Coulter, with some idea of not making his appearance too common, waited, outside till the agent reappeared and bustled him in by a side door. They went up a flight of stairs, through a second door, and emerged upon a email platform at the end of a long narrow loft. Behind them was a sort of back-cloth painted with palms, red curtains, and a medallion portrait of Queen Victoria; before them a score of benches were occupied by about thirty persons, mostly men. At the sight of the agent they shuffled perfunctorily with their feet, at the sight of Mr’ Coulter they merely stared. On the platform were two chairs, a bamboo table, and a pile of old hat-boxes which Mrs Jim had forgotten to clear away.
It was not an exhilarating set-up, but Mr Coulter, like the war- horse saying “Ha!” cleared his throat and beamed all round, with a special beam for Mr Pomfret. They both sat down, and then Mr Pomfret stood up agaix.
“Ladies and Gentlemen,” he said, “it gives me great pleasure to bring here this evening Mr James Coulter, MP, who will talk to youabout Decimal Coinage. I won’t take up any more of your time, as I know you are all anxious to hear him. Mr James Coulter.”
There was another perfunctory shuffle as Mr Coulter rose and advanced. He was in full fig of white tie and tails, and now he wondered whether they were a mistake. Surveying those stolid bucolic rows he felt a little like his fellow-countryman of legend who nightly donned a stiff shirt to eat grilled monkey in the jungle. Bilt there was no time for such reflections; the feet were shuffling again.
“Good evening all,”said Mr Coulter jovially. He was always jovial with rustic audiences. He would have liked to say ‘Good evening, folks,’ but felt it was too much of an Americanism. One had to be very careful.
“Good evening all,” said Mr Coulter therefore. “You don’t know who I am; I’m not your Member; your Member is Mr Muirhead, whom you do know very well — ”
“Never set eyes on ’im in me life,” observed a voice conversationally.
Mr Coulter looked towards the back raw’s and caught the small sceptical eye of an elderly farmer. He decided tot,ignore it. “ — and who has kindly allowed me to come here,” continued Mr Coulter, “to tell you something about Decimal Coinage. I won’t call it a subject very near your hearts, because I dare say you haven’t so far given much thought to it; but after tonight I hope you will. Now I dare say you all at school went through the same trouble that I did, with your four farthings to the penny, your twelve pence to the shilling, your twenty shillings to the pound. To say nothing of half-crowns and florins, and that little devil the threepenny-bit. It’s a miracle wre don’t still have groats to deal with! But consider the American child, the French child. Do they have to wrestle with these peculiar fractions? Not they. A hundred c6nts make a dollar, a hundred centimes make a franc. That’s all. That’s literally all they have to learn. You’ve learnt it now in five seconds. And Ayhen we come to weights — does the American child, for instance bother about the stone?”
For some reason the audience, hitherto sheeplike in its apathy sat up. Mr Coulter felt encouraged.
“Not he!” cried Mr Coulter, more jovially than ever. “He calls it fourteen pounds, which it is. We, for some peculiar reason, persist in calling it a stone. ‘What good that does us I don’t know — ” From somewhere at the back came a voice this time feminine. “What about the Stone of Chastity?”
“I beg your pardon?” said Mr Coulter.
“I said, what about the Stone o’ Chastity?”
Mr Coulter paused uncertainly.
“The stone of what?”
“Chastity!” bawled a dozen voices at once.
Mr Coulter, now completely at a loss, looked round for his chairman. But Mr Pomfret, true to his word, had quietly left the platform a few minutes earlier.
“My girl Vi’let,” continued the voice, “says it’s all the Government. And I say, what about it?”
“I’m afraid/’ said Mr Coulter “I haven’t the least idea what you mean…”
“Ain’t you in Parliament?”
“Certainly I am.”
“Then you ought to know what they’re at. My girl Vi’let she says they’re going to take it up — ”
“Take what up?”
“Chastity!” bawled the chorus.
Mr Coulter felt for a handkerchief and wiped his brow, the heat was really oppressive. There was no water on the bamboo table…
“The Decimal System,” he began again, “has at least one cardinal advantage: that of simplicity. And what great merit — ”
“Us ain’t asking you ’bout simplicity,” pointed out the elderly farmer patiently.
“What are you asking me, then?”
“We’ve told you, mister. About the Stone o’ Chastity.”
“He don’t know nothing about Chastity,” observed another voice wearily. “He’s from London!”
“My dear sir!— ”
“Mah dah sah!” mimicked the same voice.
“ — if you put any reasonable question — ”
“He don’t think chastity reasonable!” explained the weary one. Mr Coulter wiped his brow again. He felt he was going mad. “I’ve come here,” he shouted, “to talk to you about the Decimal System. If you don’t want to hear me — ”
“Us don’t give a damm one way or t’other,” remarked a farmer frankly. “What us do want to know is — what about the Stone o’ Chastity?”
The door leading off the platform was very handy. Mr Pomfret had even left it ajar. James Coulter looked at it with longing. He had never before abandoned a meeting in midspeech, not even when eggs flew, but he had begun to think that this reason was even more important than his principles. He opened his mouth for one final effort, afid at that moment the audience began to sing. Softly at first, then with increasing brio, the fine old tune of John Brown’s Body gathered way. Only the words were not the right ones. Mr Coulter glanced over his shoulder, and met the painted, fish-like eye of Queen Victoria. By a trick of the pigment she, too, appeared to be regarding him inimically. “Come come, Mr Coulter,” she seemed to say. “Lord Beaconsfield would have known how to handle them!”
It was the last straw. He couldn’t take a chastity-mad audience in front and Queen Victoria in the rear. With one ghastly backward smile, Mr Coulter fled.
He had an awkward moment getting his chauffeur out of the bar; the man was surprised that the meeting was so soon over.
“Last meeting we went to,” observed the chauffeur dispassionately, “wasn’t over till closing time.”
“Wasn’t it?” said Mr Coulter.
“Not it. But it was one of Mr Muirhead’s,”
Mr Coulter did not reply He privately considered Mr Muirhead a pompous old bore, but lie naturally could not say so. He said nothing at all, all the way back. He just rested. He very much hoped that Sir Peter would have gone to bed; but even by the time they arrived home it was still very early.
“You’re soon back,” said Sir Peter. “Good meeting?” “Excellent,” said Mr Coulter, “I kept it short though. I don’t believe in tiring one’s audience/’
He decided to say nothing whatever about his experience. It was too extraordinary, too incomprehensible. There was also the danger that it might strike his host (a man of crude humour) as slightly funny.
“What sort of folk are they in Gillenham?” he asked.
“Oh, just the usual sons of soil,” said Sir Peter. “Nothing special about them.”
Mr Coulter decided that in future he would leave rural England strictly alone. It was altogethfer too much for him. His subsequenf career in Parliament was a useful and happy one, marred by one idiosyncrasy. He would never have anything to do-with Agriculture.
(From The Stone of Chastity by M. Sharp)