Friday, 28 March 2014

From Burger Bar to Burgomeister

Mayor Bob Smytherman
A&B News Correspondent, Peter Burholt meets with Mayor of Worthing, Bob Smytherman:
"How to describe this bubbly and warm character? Perhaps a cross between Joe Pasquale and Harry Secombe? ‘Come into my parlour and what would you like, tea or coffee?’ With a twinkle he added ‘Or something stronger from the mayor’s cocktail cabinet?’ Sadly, the offer had to be declined. The grandeur of the entrance hall and staircase carried through to the official parlour, with lots of space in this oak paneled office. One slightly unusual aspect to this meeting - there were three of us in the room. Was the third person the mayor’s bodyguard – as your correspondent had experienced in Chicago many years ago – or was he there to record the interview for posterity’s sake? ‘This is John Young, who is making a photographic record of my year’ explained the mayor. The snapping started immediately we sat down in a couple of comfortable chairs.

What do I address you? Is it Your Worshipful Mayor, Mr Mayor or just Sir?
Would Bob do? I don’t do ‘formal’!

Is Worthing your home town or have you come from some other place?
I’m a real home town boy, having been born down the road in Lancing but spent many early years with by Nan up the road in Tarring Village and of course at St Mary’s Primary School. In fact, my family goes back over 200 years with its connection with the town and we have lived mostly in the same area. Worthing means a lot to me.

Has your family had a long history of being mayors?
This question appealed to Bob and, with a chuckle, he said ‘No, far from it! I am the first.

What prepared you for this position? Did you have a career which naturally led up to this point in your life?
Again, the thought of these questions brought on that broad smile and another chuckle.

Although I had the normal education when I was young, it didn’t have much impact on me! I wanted to go to Chatsmore High, but was persuade by friends from Lancing otherwise - so Boundstone School had the pleasure of trying to educate me. I did get into the local catering college for two years, but again I did not really shine.

I ran a burger bar for 15 years. Much to the surprise of my fellow councillors, this formed part of my inaugural speech! Although I am politically Lib Dem, the council has a Conservative majority. Council life for me goes back almost 12 years and, when I agreed to be mayor, I was the Night Manager at the local Chatsworth Hotel. But I decided to give this position up as I wanted to allow plenty of time to do the job properly.

A year as Deputy Mayor gave me a head start, although I must say I hit the ground running from day one. The role of mayor has been here in the town since 1890 and started in the reign of Queen Victoria, so I have a lot of history to maintain. Also, I am very proud to be a County Councillor.

At this point we got up to look at a fine portrait of himself and his Mayoresss, specially painted by James Chasteauneuf, a local parishioner.

You are possibly the only Catholic mayor in the Diocese. Does being a Catholic have an impact on your official life?
As I mentioned, I have been around this town all my life. For me being a Catholic has never been an option and I would not compromise on this fact. Today I am an Extraordinary Minster of Holy Communion at my local church, St Mary of the Angels, which is the church 5 generations of my family were married in (although not me). My mother was not of this faith, but she certainly made sure I was carrying out my duties from the start. I have been on the Council since 2002 and people have got used to me being around. I do not hide being a Catholic and I cannot remember a time when there was any opposition to my faith.

Although I have a few months to go in office, already I have some vivid memories of my role as mayor involving my faith. There was my inauguration at St Mary’s at Pentecost. It was memorable – my parish priest, Fr Chris Beynon, was the celebrant who gave the blessing (see picture) and I am told it was one of the best attended occasions in living memory. Fr Chris, as my chaplain, supports me in everything I do, even in leading the prayers before each Council meeting.

On a similar vein, there was the unforgettable vespers service at Arundel Cathedral. The High Sherriff of West Sussex was there along with the other 2 High Sheriffs from East Sussex and Surrey – did you know he is also a Catholic? All the mayors and civic leaders from the Diocese came to the service. What a great setting for this special occasion and how all the colours of the robes were shown off against the backdrop of the Cathedral.

Who is the Mayoress?
For the first time Bob needed to reflect on the question before giving his answer.

You might imagine my wife would take on this role. Sadly, I was married for three years, but things did not work out between us. However, I have the great benefit of being supported by another fellow councillor, Norah Fisher. She is a stalwart, despite the difficulties of being in a wheel chair.

Being mayor must bring you many benefits. Do you get paid and do you line your pockets, as well as having loads of privileges?
At this point Bob nearly fell off his chair with laughter.

You must be joking! This is a year which costs me money as budgets have been slashed in the past. Earlier you asked about the mayoral car – was it a Bentley or a Rolls Royce? No, it is a second hand Skoda. With my background I am more than happy with this car, although it did breakdown the other week on an official visit and I had to arrive at my second appointment by taxi!

Privileges? Not really – you saw that I made your coffee when we started and Liz supports me, as well as having other duties. My real privilege is more to do with holding this office as representative of the people of Worthing, trying to do the best I can. Being mayor does enable me to open doors which were closed to me in the past. I reckon I will attend over 500 engagements in my year and this exposure does help to get my message around the town.

My focus is most definitely on Worthing. Some mayors like to go beyond these boundaries and attend the good-and-the-great occasions. Sometimes they are referred to as the ‘Chain Gang’. No, that is not for me. Having said that, the way in which my year falls I will get to go to the royal garden party at Buckingham Palace!

You appear to have very specific charities in mind this year, possibly not what other mayors might have chosen.
Yes, I am specific – it reflects some major influences in my life which have affected the way I go about my job as mayor and, indeed, as a councillor.

I am the first mayor to have mental health awareness as my theme - not the most glamorous of subjects. Coastal West Sussex MIND, the Alzheimer’s Society and Worthing Guild Care are the named charities. Our mental awareness week – the first in Worthing – was a great success and certainly made people treat the subject as not the taboo it is made out to be. Why did I choose these charities?

The next few moments were spent in serious discussion.

Firstly, my sister suffered from post-natal depression and, without going into the sad details, she ended up committing suicide on the Downs. She set fire to herself. We are a very close family and that event left a massive impression with me. The awareness week was in her memory.

Secondly, there was the occasion of Ryan Chapman’s death. He was a young man who suffered from a mental illness. But, one day, he managed to get out of the local mental health unit and walked in front of a lorry on the A27. This shocked everyone. His friends organized a charity football match, which was attended by over 1,000 people. Ryan’s sunglasses were raffled, raising over £1,000 for his widow and family. It was his friends who had raised the money. I’m not embarrassed to say that tears were rolling down my cheeks.

I had another difficult moment when I attended the ‘Light up a Light’ gathering at St Barnabas. I was there in my official capacity, but my mother was also in the Worthing hospital, having suffered a major stroke. I am pleased to say she has made a recovery and will be shortly discharged to where else but one of Guild Care’s nursing homes!

Does the use of social media play a part in being mayor?
Most definitely, I am a great believer at using social media to spread the word in a quick manner. I even got a ‘cool mayor’ message via Twitter from one young member of our community. That pleased me!

True to his word, the photographs from our interview were on his web page under a special A&B News section by the time your correspondent had got home.

I think I am the first mayor to have a website especially dedicated to my charities. And you can even donate via this media.

How would you like to be remembered?
I would hope that people would look back and say ‘He did a really good job for Worthing and I remember the moment we met.’

After two hours of non-stop conversation we still had lots to talk about, but commitments of the mayor had to take priority. Finally, photographer John Young – who was either snapping photographs or sitting quietly throughout this interview - had his say. ‘There is only one like him’

Our time was up, but what a way to spend a Friday afternoon with such a humble character. He is truly a man of his people, one that does not sit on his official laurels, but gets out there to make a difference. Not afraid to go down routes former mayors may have felt were unpopular. Driving away from Worthing, all your correspondent could think about was ‘What a great pity his office is for one year only’. He does make a difference, Catholic or not.

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