As tiresome bystanders tend to say when surveying someone else’s wreckage, it was an accident waiting to happen. Sooner or later a lord mayor would attempt to leapfrog a council worker dressed as a tomato, and, as the tiresome bystander would say, it would all end in tears.
And so it came to pass. The Lord Mayor of Belfast, James “Call me Jim” Rodgers, adorned in his regalia, chain and all, tried to vault over Lorraine Mallon – who works for the arts section of the city’s development department and was dressed in a tomato costume – and misjudged his jump. She suffered a slipped disc and has not been able to work since.
Those are the simple facts of the case. For those interested in further details, Mr Rodgers offers amplification: ‘There had been three false runs and I think Lorraine thought this was just another one.”
Say what you like about Lord Mayors, they are certainly not quitters. Whereas you or I, having twice failed to leap over a young woman dressed in a tomato costume, might have grown tired of the task and turned our thoughts to something simpler, such as shaking hands with a refuse collector disguised as an aubergine, Mr Rodgers spat on his hands and, screwing his courage to the sticking place, stuck his right foot behind his left knee, narrowed his eyes and sped at the waiting target. Third time unlucky.
“I just caught the top of her head,” says Mr Rodgers.
Yes, but a miss is as good as a mile, as the tiresome bystander would say.
He added, as any politician would, that his self-confidence is undiminished and he is sure that he could have made the jump. “I am very fit and look after myself, but it was just one of those unfortunate things. I have kept in regular contact with her and my thoughts and prayers are with her. I just hope now that she makes a full and speedy recovery.”
Time for us to tip-toe away, leaving the Lord Mayor kneeling deep in prayer and absorbed in his thoughts, and consider the bigger picture. When he observes that the accident was just one of those unfortunate things, he is correct. And when we say that it was bound to happen sooner or later, we too are right.
Ours is a world in which absurdity, sensationalism and furiously competitive attention-seeking are everyday occurrences. So inured have we become to people showing off in public and clamouring for our attention that we pass on unheeding. Whereas people in Africa or Asia might pass the entire day without sighting a single elephant, here in the Western world so numerous are people dressed as elephants and other exotic wildlife that the spectacle excites neither interest or comment. Go to any cricket or rugby match where there are television cameras and you will see spectators disguised as soft fruit and vegetables and, inter alia, as nuns, priests and rabbits.
That such exhibitionism is boring and predictable does nothing to dissuade those who feel compelled to inflict it on us. Quite the reverse. The more bored we are, the more intrusive they become, like drunks who, when ignored, simply get louder.
Sometimes the dressing up is done in the name of charity, sometimes it is seen as an aid to publicity. The leapfrogging mayor and the lady tomato came into the second category. They wished to draw attention to a gourmet garden event in Belfast’s Botanic Gardens. It should give pleasure to all of us that that benighted city is returned to some measure of calm and order after years of strife; but self-doubt and uncertainty must linger among its inhabitants. That would explain why in launching something as chichi as a gourmet event, whatever that might mean, among the flora of its Botanic Gardens, the city fathers were fearful that it might be a step too far, a little too ambitious for the homely down-to-earth folk of Belfast.
What better way to quell any taint of elitism than to have the Lord Mayor shed his dignity? But we in the media must accept our fair share of the blame. We know that young women dressed as tomatoes are yawn-making, and mayors likewise. But show one jumping over the other and you might, with a little luck, arouse a flicker of interest. No surprise, then, that it was a press photographer who suggested to the mayor that he should perform a stunt.
How much better, not to say more democratic, might it have been had the tomato been induced to jump over the mayor. And how much more newsworthy had it been she, and not he, who later regretted the unfortunate accident and offered her thoughts and prayers to her hapless victim.