Tonight, Matthew, I'm Going To Be A Local Dignitary
When I was writing about Barney the Parrot the other day I used the phrase 'local dignitaries', even though it wasn't in the original press story, simply because it's a slightly comic and intriguing phrase.
It's very much one of those newspaper terms that is little used in everyday life. If you meet someone on holiday and ask them what they do, they're unlikely to reply "I'm a local dignitary".
The OED defines it as "a person holding high rank or office". This is rather misleading because not all such people are described as 'dignitaries'. Indeed, the higher the rank, the less likely the term is to be used. It would never be used of members of the royal family, for example.
But for journalists, it's a handy collective noun for the rag, tag and bobtail of people who attend formal events, as in the phrase 'MPs and other dignitaries.'
But it's far more commonly used at local level - or as we must now say 'community level'. When I worked in local government I achieved the dizzy heights of the local tabloid calling me a 'Chief', even though I was really only one of the Indians. But to be called a 'dignitary' I'd have needed to be either Chief Executive or Leader of the Council.
Pre-eminent among local dignitaries is the Mayor. For the benefit of overseas readers, most English Mayors are elected by their fellow councillors on a 'Buggin's Turn' basis. And many of them combine a total absence of natural dignity with a deep love of the dignity and the trappings of the office. It's not unknown for close friends who have always called them 'Bert' to be instructed to call them 'Mr Mayor' at all times. I've known one or two who probably asked their wives to use this form of address during lovemaking. But all too often the mask slips. A Lady Mayor in these parts once staggered from a reception into the hotel kitchen where her friend was a washer-up, kicked off her court shoes and said "Jesus Betty, my fucking plates are killing me!"
Another local dignitary is the Lord-Lieutenant of the County, who is neither a Lord nor a Lieutenant although often an ex-military man. They have no powers but are the personal representative of the Queen in each county which gives them oodles of quasi-Royal dignity. They wear a uniform and often carry a sword and the office derives from the old post of Sheriff. I've often thought it would be fun to dress up as Robin Hood and challenge one to a sword fight, especially if you were in Nottinghamshire.
With the decline in respect and deference which so shames our nation [©Daily Mail], local dignitaries have lost most of their street credibility. A D-list celebrity carries far more clout than an A-list dignitary. If the Mayor is opening the local fete it's probably because the man who plays darts in the background in the Rover's Return in Coronation Street was unavailable.
This is very unfair on all those people who have selflessly dedicated their lives to telling their local community what's good for them and have now been rewarded with the right to wear funny costumes and a giant-size Argos necklace as a chain of office.
It's time to re-instate the local dignitary at the centre of our national culture and only television can do it.
So let's clear the schedules for 'I'm A Dignitary, Get Me out of Here!' in which local dignitaries spend two weeks living on the allotments between Balacalava Crescent and Nightingale Close and undergo a series of trials supervised by Ant and Dec, including eating stewed earthworms and picking up used hypodermic needles between their toes whilst blindfolded.
That will be followed by 'Dignitary Love Island' in which six Lord-Lieutenants will have sword fights for the chance to sleep with the Lady Mayor who has knitted the sexiest bikini from dried palm leaves, as judged by Trinny and Susannah.
On Saturday evenings Chris Tarrant will present a special 'Dignitary I Want To Be A Lord Lieutenant', featuring Phone A Minor Royal, Ask The Local Community and Just Show me The Right Answer.
The prime spot on Sunday will be given to 'It Shouldn't Happen to A Local Dignitary', featuring hilarious clips of Lord-Lieutenants falling over their swords and Lord Mayors being garrotted when their chain gets caught in the door of the Mayoral car.
What do you mean 'it's all a bit tacky'? If these dignitaries are going to stand on their dignity they'll be history. And that would be the ultimate indignity.