Saturday, 20 November 2010

Martin Bell, Ceredigion's W.I. and me.

A few months ago, I was greatly pleased to receive in the post, an invitation to speak at the AGM of Ceredigion's Women's Institute in Aberaeron's Feathers Hotel.

The AGM itself was a few weeks ago but I've only in recent days received a copy of a photo of that occasion so have held back from writing this blog post until now.

I had been asked last year, during my term as Mayor of Cardigan, to chair a Q&A panel session in New Quay for the southern Ceredigion W.I. section, involving four prominent members of the local south Ceredigion community. I was slightly apprehensive at first, having never encountered the formiddable WI (remember what they did to Tony Blair!) at first hand like this before. But it was an excellent evening and the feast that they served up afterwards, met their legendary reputation perfectly.

A Warm-Up Act for the White Knight -  Martin Bell
I couldn't have done too badly on that occasion a year ago, because here I was being invited to give a 15 minute talk to the Ceredigion-wide AGM on the subject of Cardigan's 900th year celebrations. I was the opening speaker, very much the 'warm-up act' I felt for the main star attraction, former BBC foreign affairs correspondent and latter Independent MP, Martin Bell.

I must confess that I only got around to putting together my talk the night before but it ran to the 15 minutes and it gave a good, concise overview of why Cardigan was celebrating 900 years of history, what it had to celebrate, and how it was celebrating it. I gather from the feedback, that my talk was very well received and I enjoyed delivering it in front of some 150 members.

The Main Act - Martin Bell
Having given my speech, I took my seat back in the audience, knowing that I would enjoy the next one as much as the W.I. members around me.

For I've always had much time for Martin Bell. I remember the 1997 general election when I was 14 and being glued to the unfolding drama of the campaign and the aftermath. One of the most extraordinary results of the night was the victory of the first truly Independent MP to be elected to Parliament since 1951. His victory against disgraced Tory MP Neil Hamilton, along with Michael Portillo's defeat to Stephen Twigg, epitomised the disaster that was Election '97 for the Conservative Party. He overturned a 22,000 Tory majority in Tatton and replaced it one of his own of 11,000 - an incredible result.

He kept his promise of not standing for a second term in the same Tatton seat and though he ran Eric Pickles close in 2001 in his Brentwood and Ongar seat in Essex, he would be destined to be a maverick, one-term Independent MP. He bowed out of front-line poltics at the time in 2001 saying "winning one and losing one is not a bad record for an amateur". Since then, he has become a Ambassador for UNICEF and is hot property on the after-dinner circuit. Indeed, his attendance in Aberaeron proved that!

A Worthy Signature
He wrote his autobiography, 'An Accidental MP' during his term of office and I bought the hardback version at the time a good decade or so ago.

So I couldn't resist bringing along that book to the AGM in the hope of asking him to sign it for me. I'm pleased to say that he did and indeed, having arrived early with local Aberaeron County Councillor Elizabeth Evans, we found him sitting on his own in the Feathers Hotel. So we ambled over and sat with him and had a very interesting and relaxed chat with him for some 15 minutes before the AGM began. He immediately struck me as being an easy-going, possibly slightly shy, but nevertheless, communicative man and it was great to have time to talk to him before he was surrounded by an excitable mob of W.I. members! It was also pleasing to see him live up to his legendary nickname of 'The White Knight' (as the photo shows!).

A Supporter of the Coalition and of a change to AV in next year's referendum
So when I was done, I was looking forward to hearing all that he had to say.

He spoke about his work as a foreign affairs journalist and now in his role as an UNICEF ambassador and it was good to hear him state clearly that he opposed the invasion of Iraq. He also spoke about his support for change to the electoral system. This didn't come as a surprise as I'd heard him speak at the Liberal Democrat conference rally in Liverpool in support of the Alternative Vote (AV) system of electing MPs. He spoke about his support of the Coalition as an opportunity for politicians to work together in the public interest.

His views on journalistic standards were also forthright. He was very critical of the amount of news coverage given to entertainment such as the 'X-Factor' and 'Strictly Come Dancing' - in his view such issues were not going to change the world and at the end of the day, would not have a direct impact on our lives. But he said, the problems emanating from the middle east does have repercussions for us here in the UK but rarely do they get the media exposure that they demand.

It was a fascinating talk that spoke of a life full of action, and gave views on the current state of affairs from his experiences of an older world.

Blog Recognition!
A very enjoyable day had an amusing aside which involved this very blog. The vote of thanks was given to us all individually and in mine, it was mentioned that I had a blog which could be read by all and from this blog it was told that I'm a '20 something who supports Aston Villa'! I didn't expect to have had the W.I do their research on me as thoroughly as that but am impressed that they did!

So if any of the memebrs of Ceredigion W.I who were there that day are reading this, thank you for the invitation! It was an enjoyable day!

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