Back to my roots in the Solent town of Gosport this weekend. It’s a quiet sort of place, 80,000 or so inhabitants, neighbouring and utterly overshadowed by Portsmouth. It’s one claim to fame of recent years is probably one it would rather forget – the town MP Sir Peter Viggers got caught out attempting to claim for a now legendary ‘floating duck island‘ on Parliamentary expenses.
Sir Peter came into Parliament 35 whole years ago, back when the constituency was created (somewhere towards the end of Genesis I think). Between the Navy and the yachties, it’s a strong Tory seat, though the Liberals have been in and out locally, bugging the Tories out with their profligate spending (such as instigating a short lived annual week-long free music festival when I was a kid – bunging BB King and James Brown 25 grand apiece to play gigs in the town cinema).
I remember him from only a few occasions. As a sixth former at the turn of the 90’s, he met up with our college on a trip to Parliament. Quite decent of him I guess, but he managed to alienate the whole class with his alternately creepy/patronising part of the tour: “And this is the Great Hall: Hey kids, this would be a great place for a rave, wouldn’t it?”.
We tormented the poor bloke further when he came for a Q&A with our politics A level class, pressing him on questions about his party policy that made him squirm and consult with the teacher as to whether the areas of enquiry were strictly part of the syllabus, or else he’d have to pass. Luckily, unbeknownst to him, the politics teacher was away and the class taken by our unreconstructed Marxist history teacher, who was only too happy to pretend any line of enquiry was central to our exam success.
And then of course the fact he sent every kiddo in Gosport an 18th birthday card from the Conservative Party, with a nice blue torch and message exhorting us to vote the right way. We didn’t mind that we’d got them, big brother squeamishness aside, but that they were sent with House of Commons envelopes and franking, which seemed frankly a bit of a fiddle for a party political.
Once I’d left Gosport, I didn’t have much cause to think about him – save when he popped up fairly high in some kind of league table of the sleaziest MPs published by the Observer in the 90’s (back in the day when cash sleaze wasn’t the cross-bench affair we have today) for allegedly trying to nobble a broadcasting bill so as not to compromise one of his venture capital investments.
Nobody really seemed to think much about him – he was just kind of always there, as much an institution as the red brick Conservative Club taking pride of place in the High Street. So I was rather surprised to see the traces of what seems a guerrilla art campaign against him, whilst looking round the town this weekend.
It all started, my sources (Mum) tell me, around the time of the initial duck island revelations. A mystery graffitist stenciled ducks and their footprints, making their way into the doorway of Conservative Club. The Police were called (well, they live next door so it would seem rude not to) but no leads were found. Next, a bona fide floating island for nesting waterfowl in one of the creeks off the harbour acquired a large yellow plastic duck sculpture. Then fake road signs of ducks crossing started appearing, followed by two more installations in other creeks – large cut-out ducks atop poles in the middle of the creek, at low tide revealing signs saying “fowl play”. Drain covers were stencilled with a crest “P£V”, possibly hinting at Sir Peter’s’ decision to step down at the next election.
It feels strangely politicised for a town that never really saw itself as political. This outbreak of irreverent duck art in different styles and different parts of town might be the work of a solitary (fairly persistent and resourceful) prankster, but it doesn’t feel that way. It’s all still there, months on, a sort of “Qu’Accuse”, relentlessly undermining a man who through sheer career longevity has come to embody the Conservative party and its local institutions. Will his resignation help defuse the tension, or might my Lib Dem supporting parents (I know, I tried…) see their votes work out the right way after 40 years in the town?
Appendix: For anyone thinking I’m doing my birthplace a disservice here, I should like to point out that Gosport does indeed have many very fine points, and the casual visitor to Southern Hampshire would be well rewarded by excursions to Explosion (The Museum of Naval Ordnance which, you will have to take it from me, is splendidly and extremely innovatively curated, and entirely unlike any preconceptions you may have when – probably only briefly – considering a visit to a torpedo museum), the reconstructed 17th Century Village (a living history project, where you too can be accosted by an accountant spending their summer holidays living as they did in the civil war, and for dramatic effect feigning afflication by a half dozen poxes), or for younger family members Monkey Bizness (the best indoor adventure playground in the hundreds it seems I have sampled so far, and the only one with free wi-fi for those geekier parents content to take an eye off the juniors whilst they swing from a three storey climbing frame). All this, and outsider-duck-art too – Go visit today!