A feisty old woman on the ropes

David Aaronovitch on bell-ringing
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Where do you stand on the cause celebre of the week, the Midge Mather case? Are you for her, or against her? Or perhaps, before you decide, you would like a little background briefing. Very well then.

At the heart of the small Wiltshire village of Compton Bassett stands the 12th century church of St Swithin's. For eight centuries, through pestilence and civil war, this place of worship has remained inviolate and undamaged. Warwick Kingmaker spared it, Cromwell passed it by, Led Zeppelin held no free rock concerts in adjoining fields. And then this year, a Mrs Midge Mather (I imagine that her first name must be a diminutive; few are christened after unpleasant insects, except perhaps the children of enthusiastic entymologists), aged 65, of neighbouring Magnolia Cottage, upped and bashed in the15th century porch door using crow-bar, pick-axe and hack-saw. Once inside, the formidable pensioner cut all the bell-ropes.

These, M'lud, are the facts, uncontested by Mrs Mather or the authorities, and which led to her conviction on Thursday for causing criminal damage. Nevertheless, given a two year conditional discharge by Chippenham magistrates, Mrs Mather complained so volubly about the outcome of her trial that she had to be taken down to the cells for 10 minutes to re-compose herself.

Mrs Mather, you see, feels more than a litle sorry for herself. She is a pensioner, whose peaceful life had been destroyed by the persistent visits of foreign campanologists (often coming all the way from Oxford) to ring the bells of St Swithin's. Driven to distraction by the noise, she had warned the Archdeacon of Wiltshire, the Ven John Smith - in a 55 minute phone call - of her settled intention to cut the bell-ropes. When (as the hour approached) he terminated the conversation with the words, "You must do what you must do", Mrs Mather told the court that she interpreted him as giving his permission that she borrow a crowbar and break into the church.

It may well be that the English aversion to extraneous noise of any kind has emboldened the rope-slicer of Magnolia Cottage to believe that she may enjoy wide support. In addition we are - as a nation - famously on the side of elderly, feisty ladies who take on officialdom and win. Many old women seem to plan their lives on the basis that society will tolerate the most extraordinary anti-social behaviour on their parts.

I think that Mrs Mather has miscalculated. Let us take noise first. If most of us were to make an instant calculation about whether we would rather live next to a Rastafarian music collective or to Mrs Mather, we might not all choose the latter. When I was young my poor mother was persecuted by next door neighbours, who complained about my infant brother bouncing in his cot, some 50 feet and two rooms away from the party wall.

Second, it is unnecessary to consult the photographs accompanying press reports of Mrs Mather's court appearance to know she is formidable. A face of obstinate strength is framed by a single string of pearls below, and a black hat with funny netting above. The arms are folded, the lips pursed. Mrs Mather may be a pensioner, but she is as strong as an ox. Midge is not a woman who puts up with things. And therefore - as a thing myself - it is not in my interests to put up with Midge.