This is based on a true story. Names have been changed and some details added or amended for narrative effect.
John Smithson was secretly very pleased with himself after being elected earlier that month as a member of Tyne & Wear Metropolitan County Council. The 25-year-old was a left-wing member of the Labour Party and was determined to use his new position to the benefit of his constituents in one of the poorest wards in the metropolitan county, and therefore one of the poorest in the country.
He had mixed feelings about many of his older party colleagues, some of them veteran trade unionists. He respected their past service but suspected they were either too old or too unwilling to challenge the establishment or too concerned with their own personal interests.
Whatever their motivation, John thought, they were too small-c conservative and too full of their own importance as public figures. He wasn’t going to fall into that trap. He didn’t care, he thought self-righteously, whether people recognised him on the street or in the pub as a councillor, if he could achieve something on their behalf.
The recent council elections had returned no fewer than 104 county councillors. Many were known to Alec, the reporter with responsibility for covering the council for the Evening Chronicle, but some were not.
So, he was pleased a week or so after the election to be able to pick up at the council offices a glossy little brochure produced by the council’s public relations department containing photos, names, wards, and parties of the councillors.
“Very thoughtful of Len,” mused Alec. Len was the council’s public relations officer (PRO) and the two worked well together. Alec appreciated Len because he was not one of those who tried to manipulate or suppress the news.
Before pushing Len’s photo pack into his briefcase for future reference, Alec flipped through the pages of mugshots. They all looked in many ways the same, dressed and groomed in the white-collar working uniforms of the day – dark suits, collars, and ties, clean shaven and with neatly trimmed hair. The women wore modest dresses, skirts and blouses or trouser suits; all had tidy coiffures. This was 1977, after all.
Most of the councillors were Labour and many of them in working-class jobs. Kitting themselves out for the council chamber must have put quite a strain on household finances.
The first time Councillor Smithson spoke in committee and Alec wanted to quote him he realised he was one of those whose name he didn’t know. So, he pulled Len’s photo pack out of his briefcase and flipped through the mugshots.
“That’s strange,” he thought. “I can’ see him.”
He looked again but the unknown councillor was not there.
But his eye was struck by a caption giving all the usual details, above an empty space where a photograph should have been. “That must be him,” thought Alec. “I wonder why he hasn’t had his pic taken.”
At the end of the meeting Alec went up to the councillor: “Excuse me, are you Councillor Smithson?”
The councillor looked at him suspiciously: “You’re from the Chronicle, aren’t you?”
“Why do you want to know?”
“I thought you said something interesting. I wanted to quote you.”
“I don’t want to be quoted in the Chronicle.”
“It’s a public meeting. People have a right.”
“I’m not interested in publicity for myself. I just want to do what I can for the people of my ward,” said the councillor. “Besides, the Tory press always tell lies.”
Alec gave up. “Pompous prat”, he thought. He walked over to the committee clerk: “Is that Councillor Smithson?” nodding in his direction.
“Yes”, said the clerk.
Back at the office, Alec typed up his story about the committee meeting. Very routine it was too, even with Councillor Smithson’s quote. Still, it might make a page lead; it had the length. He dropped it in the news desk basket, returned to his desk, put a fresh sheet of copy paper in his typewriter and started again.
This time he told readers about Len’s photo pack, how helpful it was, and how 103 councillors of all parties had gone along with this simple act of consideration towards anyone trying to identify them in their official duties.
He also explained faithfully why Councillor Smithson said he had refused to have his photo taken like all the others: he wasn’t interested in drawing attention to himself.
“So, he doesn’t want to stand out among the grey suits,” thought Alec, winding a final sheet of copy paper into his typewriter. “Really?”
“For any fellow councillors, council officials, security staff, other reporters, voters or members of the public having business with Councillor Smithson but not yet knowing him,” he wrote, “he’s the one with the earring.”