Tuesday, March 31, 2015
Doctor Who Anniversary Special – An Interview With Martha Jones
Originally published in Wonderful Books’ The Doctor Who 8th Anniversary Special… To celebrate the tenth anniversary of Doctor Who’s return to our screens, and today the eighth anniversary of her first appearance in Smith and Jones, here’s my interview with the Doctor’s friend Martha Jones:
“I LEFT THE TARDIS WITH MY HEAD HELD HIGH!”
“I chose my vocation a long time ago, and even meeting the Doctor was never going to change that,” says Dr Martha Smith-Jones. “With a family like mine, you grew up learning to make your own mind up – or Mum made it up for you! But the Doctor certainly widened my career development, it’s fair to say.
“There aren’t many doctors who’ve been swept off into time and space and then come home to work for two different secret alien-fighting organisations. Even the Doctor’s only worked for one! I met my husband through him, of course, and now we deal with them ourselves. Though my Mickey has a slightly more aggressive approach. He shoots, I patch them up. Or him, more often.
“I’ll always be grateful to the Doctor. Some men only give you crabs – well, his were giant! No, no, don’t tell him I said that. He says they’re no such thing.
“After that year of the Master I just decided it was time to move on. I mean, I wasn’t going to keep trailing around with the Doctor for ever. I had my own life to lead. I left the TARDIS with my head held high! Of course, he was the one who came back. Not that it’s not nice to see him, but those Daleks were terrible… And doctors who wring their hands questioning euthanasia don’t know they’re born. They should try deciding whether to blow up the whole planet.
“We still meet up for a gossip, some of us who knew the Doctor. Not Colonel Mace, after Mum slapped him, but she gets on very well with Jack. Well, who doesn’t? Dad, too. I think he’s helped bring them closer. He’s so generous – he’ll take them for weekends away, and after the three of them get together they always come back with such a glow. Mickey pretends not to like him, of course, but secretly he does. Sometimes they go fishing. Mickey says he got a taste for it in that alternative Universe.
“And the Doctor? Oh, I’m completely over him. Hardly ever even mention him these days.”
Paul Smith has produced a fabulous array of Doctor Who publications, which you can find out more about at Wonderful Books (there’s a new one out this week). All of them look gorgeous and are immensely readable, but only some are completely factual – and I have to admit, the ones that most appeal to me are those with the most unfactual ‘facts’, the ones that are both deeply loving and taking the piss outrageously.
My Wonderful Books favourite is the one he didn’t write all himself, though it’s not because I’m one of the contributors. I’ve rhapsodised before about the Radio Times Doctor Who Tenth Anniversary Special, a treasured and tattered possession passed on to me when I was a boy and still perhaps the most thrilling Doctor Who magazine ever published. Before websites or guidebooks, this was the unique source of thrilling photos and details of stories all from before I started watching (that is, prehistory). So I was utterly thrilled when Paul asked me out of the blue to write a piece for his version in the fiftieth anniversary year.
Paul’s concept was to give it a similar feel and length to the original Radio Times Doctor Who Tenth Anniversary Special by recreating it as if celebrating not the fiftieth but the eighth anniversary of a Doctor Who series that started for the first time in 2005. And to give it the range of voices of the original’s interviews, he approached other fans to provide some of the artwork and comment pieces.
In the 1973 Special, double-page spreads about past stories alternated with newly shot double-page photo spreads and interview columns for past companions with pull-out quote headlines like “THE NUTCASE PROFESSOR SWEPT ME OFF MY FEET”. For a column like that, I was given only 350 words to play with – imagine – and a couple of other rules which I contrived to bend subtly (such as the ban on alluding to pre-2005 Who). I was asked which companion I’d like to write about, and though several tempted me – Rose and Jack were terrific in 2005, and I loved Jackie and Wilf – I instantly thought of Martha Jones, or rather Martha Smith-Jones as she is now. Had I written Mickey and Martha as a pair, obviously, he’d have mentioned Rose in every paragraph before saying he was completely over her (and had I written for Rory, it would have been a one-joke piece where he dies at the end of each paragraph and then gets better).
From her first appearance in Smith and Jones, eight years ago today – making it the most appropriate day to publish my own piece from the 8th Anniversary Special – Martha was a breath of fresh air for me. It wasn’t just Freema Agyeman’s performance and giving as good as she got to the Doctor (and him not being interested), nor just that she was the Doctor’s first full-time TV companion who was black (after Sharon, Roz and others elsewhere), but that she wasn’t going off with the Doctor only because her life was a bit rubbish. Martha is the only TV companion since Sarah Jane Smith with a decent, fulfilling, even exciting career – and for all of us who are so utterly gripped by the Doctor and his adventures, that’s a more inspiring example than the implicit suggestion that travelling in the TARDIS is only slightly better than being in a dead-end job you’re bored by or hate, or than having your parents killed in front of you (and going off with the first available surrogate dad). If you’re an achiever with a lot to give up, but the TARDIS is still so exciting you’d go off in it without a second thought – well, you would, wouldn’t you? And, for me, she has by far the most satisfying (and self-chosen) exit from the new TARDIS, too, again after impressive achievements in her own right.
Other contributors took their own approaches, writing critical assessments or celebrations of their chosen characters, but with the Radio Times Special so deeply ingrained in me, I knew immediately that I wanted to write an ‘After the Doctor’ interview in that style, for the character rather than the actor, and that though I was going to be tongue-in-cheek in several ways (her earnestness, the Doctor) as well, I was going to set out first to say ‘She’s a strong, brilliant character’. And while it may have taken some time to think of all the other words, then edit them all back down again, my starting point leapt into my head fully-formed on reading Paul’s initial email to me:
“I LEFT THE TARDIS WITH MY HEAD HELD HIGH.”Though, as you can see from the interview as published, Paul picked a different pull-out quote, though with a very similar feel.
As it turned out, Paul’s wickedly pointed ‘story summaries’ didn’t mention Martha at all, so mine was the only piece that featured her in the whole magazine, and I’m very happy to have done her justice (if thankfully not in an entirely strait-laced way). Happy anniversary, new Who and Martha Jones!
Monday, March 30, 2015
#LibDemsPointing Meets Doctor Who – Snakedance
It’s finally come: the official end of the 2010 Parliament, and the official start of the campaign (“Not ’til now?” said Tegan, dismayed). And though you might think Doctor Who is all about the Liberal philosophy and not pounding the streets with Focus leaflets, I’ve found evidence of one of the Doctor’s companions standing for election is just the way Lib Dems do.
By chance, the Doctor Who story starting today on the Horror Channel is Snakedance. And there’s a photo-op from that story that shows exactly what I’m talking about. The Doctor tends to be a bit rough and ready in sorting out the big problems and then leaving before he has to do the clearing-up, but Nyssa, one of his friends from the time, was raised in a tradition of public service and proper tidying up (Cleaning up the Mara’s Mess! After Cleaning up the Melkur’s Mess! A Record of Sweeping, A Promise of More!).
We don’t see the TARDIS leave at the end of Snakedance, but you can bet the Doctor goes and hides in it while Nyssa takes over doing her thing. Or, at least, campaigning to be put in charge in the proper #LibDemsPointing way.
What Have the Federation Ever Done For Us?
Nyssa of Traken [pictured, pointing] is standing for Market Ward, Manussa, and campaigning for a new deal for the Scrampus System.
“The Federation have been in charge round here for five hundred years – today! And what have they done since ridding Manussa of the Mara? Nothing but lounged around fondling suggestive antiques on expenses. Market taxpayers have had enough.
“It’s time for a change. We can start by cleaning up this unsightly graffiti that’s all over Manussa’s ancient monuments.”
Sunday, March 29, 2015
The People’s Flag? Mugs.
The People’s Flag is purple nowIt’s to Farage that they kowtowNow Labour’s values are unknownExcept the mugs with ‘Send them home’
The People’s Flag has changed its spotsFor fear of UKIP’s ballot boxThose mugs keep lowering the toneTheir banner reading ‘Send them home’
I like to think that I’d instinctively be a Liberal and not a racist opportunist even if I wasn’t the son of an immigrant. After all, Ed Miliband’s the son of an immigrant too, so there doesn’t seem to be any correlation.
Thanks to Nick Barlow for eternal vigilance and #whynotjointhelabourparty, and to Richard Flowers for everything, always, but this time in particular for kicking off the lyrics. And a damned good kicking is in order (even from Labour MPs).
Wednesday, March 18, 2015
Fifty Things I Love About Britain
Fifty days until the General Election. Fifty days of nothing but ‘why Britain is terrible’. Labour say it’s terrible now they’re in, so put back in the people who made it terrible in the first place. Tories say it was terrible when they were in, so don’t let them back in. UKIP say Britain has been terrible ever since we let any of ‘them’ in and hang up their ‘No blacks, no Polish, no gays’ signs. And the Lib Dems say it’ll be a bit less terrible if we’re a bit in. So, today, only things I love about Britain.
1 – My greatest Briton
…and Earthling, and citizen of the Universe, of them all, my husband, Richard Flowers
2 – Love and marriage
Having the right to marry the person I love, if they want to too, or not to marry at all
3 – That he did want to
…and that we did, after waiting only twenty years (to the day)
That’s all I need, really, but there are forty-seven more, including food, Doctor Who, more food, the Liberal Democrats (the whole bally lot of them), so much food… And that’s all just the other stuff that was at our wedding!
4 – Doctor Who
5 – Being a nation made up of several nations
…all distinct and all having each in common, and being a people that has always been made up of many peoples and still mixing in people from everywhere else
6 – Being a nation where we all have multiple loyalties and identities
…by definition, and not letting people tell us what one thing they think we are
7 – Being always open to change
…whether it’s new people in our streets, new words in our language (often from someone else’s) or newly being comfortable with lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people and all sorts of other people who no longer have to be like everybody else
8 – My parents
…My Mum, who wasn’t born here but has always put her all into wherever she is, and my Dad, who was born in Glasgow, did some more growing up in Watford, and made a life for his family in Stockport, because we’re lots of different places and all one country too
9 – Inspirational heroes
…The four greatest British heroic myths: King Arthur; Robin Hood; Sherlock Holmes; and World War II
10 – Doubt
…and asking awkward questions
11 – Great big cliffs
…and windmills on hillsides
12 – Great crashing waves
…and nudist beaches when it’s bloody freezing
13 – Picturesque villages
…like Aldbourne, East Hagbourne, South Oxhey, Little Bazeley-by-the-Sea, Summerisle (but I’m more of an Escape From the Country guy, so…)
14 – Thrilling cities
…like London, Manchester, Edinburgh
15 – Stockport Town Hall
16 – The Beatles
…and especially George Harrison who, like me, swung wildly from terribly earnest to taking the piss, but who unlike me played the most gorgeous slide guitar ever heard – plus the movie of Yellow Submarine
17 – Electronic music
…from the likes of the Pet Shop Boys, The Human League, Heaven 17 and Delia Derbyshire
18 – Kate Bush
…and whatever the hell she does
19 – Punk rock
…Especially Tom Robinson and, right now, Ian Dury and the Blockheads and the wish that I could make my lists scan as well as Reasons To Be Cheerful
20 – Dame Shirley Bassey
21 – The Avengers
…Possibly the most British thing ever, and which wasn’t just style and subversion but which mattered – introducing to a mass audience the idea of intelligent, independent women who flung men over their shoulders. A fantasy of Britain where old-fashioned tradition and high-tech, sexually equal modernity went hand in hand (a hugely successful Conservative-Liberal coalition, you might say)
22 – The BBC
23 – Quatermass
…combining British ingenuity and a wish to build rocket ships with sheer naked terror (but doing it anyway)
24 – The Clangers
…encouraging us to love the alien and gently laugh at ourselves
25 – 2000AD
…the comic, not the year, particularly, which turned out a bit samey
26 – Carry On Up the Khyber
27 – Alastair Sim
28 – BRIAN BLESSED
29 – Shakespeare
…A great many of his lines, anyway (and Queen Elizabeth the First, at least according to Blackadder)
30 – The works of JRR Tolkien
…even the ones scribbled on bits of toast and painstakingly reconstituted by his son. Mmm, toast…
31 – Clasping strange new foreign foods to our bosom
…over the centuries, making them our own so we couldn’t imagine life without them, like – the potato – and tea – and chocolate
32 – Chicken Korma
33 – Roast lamb
34 – Scotch eggs
35 – Pies
…Pies. More pies. And especially appropriate today, Pieminister pies
36 – Margaret Thatcher, Tony Benn and Nicola Sturgeon
…and the gladly exercised right to say thanks but no thanks, never have, never will
37 – William Gladstone, David Lloyd-George, Paddy Ashdown, Nick Clegg and Jo Swinson
…and the gladly exercised right to say yes, and I will again
38 – Being more or less democratic for quite a long time
39 – Mostly giving up an Empire with less fuss than is usual
40 – The NHS
…which on balance makes me go “Aaargghh!” less than it helps stop me going “Aaargghh!”
41 – Fulfilling the UN target of giving 0.7% of our national wealth in overseas aid and development
…a target set a year before I was born. It’s only in the last couple of years that we’ve finally met it (one of only about half a dozen countries that does), and in the last few weeks set it in law created by the Liberal Democrats
42 – The gap between rich and poor narrowing
…at last, over the last five years, after widening hugely ever since the 1980s
43 – The Rule of Law
…meaning that those in power get frustrated by the law applying to them too
44 – Signing the European Convention on Human Rights
…And not just being part of it, but Winston Churchill commissioning British lawyers to create it, in order to protect and spread our values
45 – Traditional British values
…like creativity, eccentricity, tolerance, generosity, fair play, standing up for the underdog, and universal, indivisible freedom
46 – Not having ID cards
…or being snooped on by the state at will, and the Liberal Democrats constantly being on guard whenever everybody else suddenly thinks that would be a good idea
47 – Making lists instead of doing anything
…making tutting sounds instead of hitting anyone, and grumbling but never giving up
48 – Inventing the train and the Internet
…even when each sometimes goes off the rails
49 – Many of the things we used to have but don’t any more
…like welcoming immigrants, Woolworths, Texan Bars, how Blackpool was in my childhood memories, The Daleks’ Master Plan, Nick Courtney, Conrad Russell and my Grandad
50 – The future
…even more than those I’ve loved and lost, and that there will always be many, many more new wonderful, beautiful, innovative, unpredictable and aggravating but loveable things to put on a list.
And that any list will be quite different for you, or even quite different for me tomorrow (I thought the best way was to write the lot off the top of my head), but still blatantly and brilliantly British.
So in fifty days’ time, why not vote for a Britain that offers more things to love than merely against the bits you don’t?
Here’s Nick Clegg on things he loves about Britain. I applauded him delivering this speech on Sunday and suspect he may have spent a bit more time and thought crafting this version than I did mine, but I agree with most of his, too.
Wednesday, March 04, 2015
Doorsteps, Dogs and Doughnuts – A Dozen Worst and Best Election Moments
The General Election will take place two months tomorrow, and while for voters at home it means just two months of wishing it would all shut up, for active political volunteers it’s two months of joy and excitement. Or hell and exhaustion. So from my many election campaigns past, here are my experiences of: worst Lib Dem candidate ever! Best old lady ever! Canvassing moment least likely to be repeated! Election secret I should have admitted at the time! Best and worst police! Best and worst dog bites! Best bakery order! Best conversation in bed! Most racist voter! And more!
Liberal Democrat Voice and the amazing Helen Duffett put out the call yesterday for people’s funniest canvassing stories, and though I immediately commented with a ready-made Eastleigh anecdote, my memories kept erupting. Particularly from the 1992-1997 Parliament, when I volunteered in every mainland UK by-election but one – celebrity visitors were snowed in, and I decided I wasn’t going to hitch-hike in that. Yes, I had even less money than my party and mostly got there and back by thumbing a lift, but in those days I was at least far more healthy and could survive it all (though my studies couldn’t).
And of course the vast majority of those by-elections were won by other parties – we’ve never won more than a handful in any one Parliament, with the four we took in the 1992 Parliament were very nearly our best ever. So next time a report exaggerates some terrible result by saying ‘Of course, in the old days the Lib Dems would have walked it, because they won every by-election’, we didn’t walk any of them – unless you mean until our shoes wore out, because they were all hard work – and remember the facts of how rarely we actually won and how great our joy every time we managed it, and how thankless all the many more (or, at the time, fewer) volunteers in the places we didn’t stand an earthly but still stood anyway. Also remember that by-elections were and will again sometimes be won by standing up for the right thing and not just the far right thing – Romsey in favour of Europe and immigration when the Tories were being UKIP Mark I; Brent against the Iraq War when both Labour and Tories backed spending blood and money like there was no tomorrow.
One – Best Doorstep Canvassing Experience Ever
A tiny old lady comes slowly to the door. I stand back but lean forward in my best I-am-listening-but-not-looming-threateningly-way. I ask her who she’s voting for. “Well…” the tiny lady says, in an even tinier voice. I lean in closer. “I’ve always voted Tory…” Suddenly she grabs me by both shoulders and shakes me as she yells, “But you’ve got to get the bastards out!”
Two – Canvassing Experience Least Likely To Be Repeated In May 2015
The man who saw me coming and ran out of his front door to beg me for a stakeboard poster to have in his garden… Because every single other house on the street had one and all his neighbours were curling their lips at him. Freedom from conformity!
David Rendel might also have been the best by-election candidate for the troops that I ever saw: seemingly boundless energy on the doorsteps, and however late he finished, he’d always go round HQ and thank every volunteer as if every single one of us had made his day (no, they didn’t all do that).
Three – Best Candidate For Keeping Her Head On Bad News
A canvassing team out on a lovely sunny day with an enthusiastic candidate in a sharp jacket and all of us feeling the wind was at our backs. What could go wrong? The most sourly Tory street in the most sourly Tory ward in the constituency, where not one single person was voting for us and most of them gave us abuse, ranging from immigration to That London to ‘You’re a layabout, bothering me in the middle of the day – why don’t you have a job?’ (ignoring that we were the ones out and about and they were the ones at home).
We met up on the street corner to report each individual tale of woe from sheet after sheet of unrestrained misery. Diana Maddock, the candidate, stood with her head tilted listeningly and nodded gently at each setback. Depressed, we all looked to her. “They’re all fascists, you know,” she said brightly. “But I think they’re going to vote for me.” And they did.
Four – Worst Lib Dem By-election Candidate Ever
South East Staffordshire by-election, 1996
Jeanette Davy. An utter misery who drove all her aides to distraction, was never seen to smile, tutted loudly at voters when she wasn’t sighing, and was generally impossible to work with. For those who didn’t meet her, she helpfully appeared on TV to say that if people voted Labour to get the Tories out, that was “a price worth paying”. I remember one council leader who turned up to help, heard that, swore, got back in his car and drove all the way home again, saying he wasn’t going to help such a stupid [expletive deleted].
That’s excluding the one who defected to Labour on eve of poll in 1994 and wrecked both by-elections and Euro-elections for us – and I delivered for the git, whose name ironically was a portmanteau of two Doctor Who characters who betrayed humanity to the Cybermen, in a continuity error in the real world. The two of them were in those rosy days the only two Lib Dem by-election lost deposits in England for donkeys’ years.
Five – Most Racist Voter
Eastleigh by-election, 1994
The man one sunny day in a suburban crescent who got more and more heated about immigration while the other two canvassers did the whole rest of the street and all the neighbours stayed out one by one to listen. Never have I delivered so many calm “That isn’t true, sirs” or “I must disagree with you, sirs” at such increasing volume as the voter went from slightly racist to shouting conspiracy theories. After my final “I don’t believe we’re going to agree, sir, so I shall say good day,” he opened his gate and lumbered after me to the corner, screaming of our candidate “Chidgey’s not an English name!!” [Hilarious fact: actually, it is.]
It made my going all Churchillian when people argued about immigration and refugees when I was an actual candidate seem positively tame.
The same by-election gets runner-up awards for two types of paternalism:
The man who growled at the Lib Dems and refused to let me talk to his wife when I politely enquired, because she voted the way she was told. Canvassers, never treat a house as monolithic (even if there’s an opposition poster there – a Labour poster-bearer at a different by-election told me quietly that he was a member and had to, but was voting tactically). The second he slammed the door, the upper window sprang open, and she quickly confided: “I always tell him that for a quiet life. But I always vote for you lot.”
The Labour voter on the next doorstep along from me who thought government should tell the workers what was good for them and hand out what they decreed when Tony Blair got in, because Labour and the unions knew best. And the Lib Dem canvasser I was tag-teaming with stoutly telling him that, no, workers should be involved in management rather than everything being from the top down, and the Labour man’s incredulous cry of “You can’t let workers make their own decisions!”
Six – Worst Evening’s Canvassing
Hexham, 1991 (party of students up to help out)
In my late teens, shortly after I’d unwisely had all my hair buzzed off (and in a snowy January), and paired with an especially camp other Lib Dem in what was then a very Conservative and evidently conservative seat, it was probably the least successful evening’s campaigning I’ve ever had, from the very first house where my canvassing partner exclaimed “Oh, no, you’ll have to do this one!” and there was unstoppable tittering from the gate while I tried to keep my face straight asking, “Good evening – Mr Love…?” right to the point where we called it a night as one man set his dogs on us one way while trying to rev his van into us from the other.
My then-underweight (less than half my present size), skeletal student looks, though with hair grown back, were better deployed canvassing later that year in Kincardine and Deeside – almost as chilly, and shivering pitifully, I kept being sent to canvass old ladies because I got the best ‘mother me’ response from them.
Seven – Worst Day’s Leafletting
Islywn by-election, 1995
Where it never once stopped raining. I’d hitch-hiked there, eventually being picked up by the police while striding along the dual carriageway towards Islywn after being dropped at a motorway junction at 2am, and on hearing what I was there for they kindly drove me to the Lib Dem HQ (making them much nicer than the unsympathetic Leicestershire officers who’d arrested and charged me when hitching back from Bradford South the year before). Disbelieving Valleys coppers: “You’re wasting your time. A donkey with a red rosette gets in round here, and we’ve had one for twenty-five years” (thank you, Mr Kinnock). I snatched a couple of hours’ sleep against a radiator and half-dried one side before going out all day delivering.
The only metaphorical ray of sunshine was the woman who stopped me to ask why she should vote Lib Dem instead of Plaid – I quoted Lloyd George about hating fences and wanting to kick down any he came across, because Liberals don’t like neat little boxes and borders that individuals can’t cross, and that’s what we don’t like about nationalists. I got us that one vote, but eventually had to go back to HQ with half the leaflets undelivered: not because they’d turned to papier-mâché and were coming off in thick clumps rather than one at a time, though they were; not because the highlighter pen had run off the photocopied route map, though it had; but because the toner had run off the map itself.
Hitch-hiking back was even worse, because the time you most need a lift is when no-one wants to spoil their car with a soaking straggler. I remember being dropped, eventually, soaked to the bone and freezing, at Cockfosters – as far out on the Tube as possible – and teeth-chatteringly ringing Richard from a phone booth. He poured a hot bath and peeled me into it at the far end, hours later. When he towelled me down afterwards it was the first time I’d been dry in over two days.
Eight – Worst and Best Dog Bites
Taunton, Local elections 1999
Long narrow garden path, dog suddenly leaps out at the far end. I stuck the leaflet in and ran for it, but spent election evening 1999 in A&E and still have the scar.
Christchurch by-election, 1994
Dog locks its teeth around my thigh; owner comes to the door, pales, and immediately offers to take a super-size stakeboard poster. At the corner of two big roads. Result! And, bonus, no flesh torn, though card wallet punctured and outer card needed replacing from the canine canines’ dent.
Nine – By-election (Lack of) Experience I Shouldn’t Admit To
Winchester by-election, 1997
I’d been there a week, and the night before polling day, the sub-agent who was going to be running the sub-office – the secondary HQ out in the country somewhere, not the central city one I’d been at the whole time – fell suddenly ill. The agent was already worn to a frazzle, and everyone had all their jobs mapped out. Disaster! But, luckily, there at hand was a familiar face from all those by-elections, and a senior-ish figure (then) in the party. “Alex Wilcock will be running the sub-office,” she announced. I went for a late-night pizza with a well-known party staffer and blogger-to-be and confided just one tiny worry. Or, rather, hinted at it, though he immediately guessed what the problem was. In all the elections I’d worked in, I’d delivered leaflets, and canvassed, and done the press, and been a candidate, and even got the doughnuts. The one thing I’d never done was any of the agent-y stuff, so running a committee room or the art of the Shuttleworth were mysteries to me. Should I tell the agent? “Best not,” he said, trying not to spit pizza in all directions with laughter. “She’s got enough to worry about.”
So at 5am on polling day I was taken to be what appeared to be a disused aircraft hangar down a load of tiny roads, across bridges and through fords, and didn’t have a clue where I was or what I was doing. Trying to keep calm, I thought to myself, what can I do? I can learn very quickly on the spot, I can wing it brilliantly, and I can cheer people up. So, surrounded by experienced volunteers both local and national, one side of the room surrounded by ready-to-tear coloured strips that had some mystical connection with the election, I gathered my troops and gave them a brief word before they went off with the Good Morning leaflets. I told them how vital it was we won; I told them that the evil Tory had only challenged the result on a technicality, and that the voters wanted our candidate but couldn’t be allowed to be complacent; I said what we stood for (sadly our key topics from the leaflets rather than anything exciting); and I said something on the spot to make them laugh. All in uncharacteristically bullet-point brevity.
“There’s one more thing,” I told them, very seriously. “I’ll be here co-ordinating the day, taking all the information, reporting it to the agent, and I’m not allowed to tell you how we’re doing – in fact, even if the candidate walks in, I’m not allowed to tell him [he did, and I did as I was told and only told him it was very tight and he had to go out and do more]. Now, I know I’ve been put here by the main party, and that some of you have been working to win Winchester for years and know far more about it than I ever will. So as well as acting on your local knowledge whenever something comes up, one of the most important things I can do is make sure that those of us from outside are working in the same way those of you who live here do. Before you start knocking on doors, then, just so we know everyone’s getting it right, I’d like [potentially stroppy but very experienced local party member I’d been told to keep on side] to quickly explain to us outsiders how you do it here…”
By the afternoon, though I’d been told even I shouldn’t think about the data I was reporting to the agent, my estimate was that we were looking at a majority of well over 20,000, and I was worried that I’d got it all terribly wrong. I hadn’t.
Ten – Best Coming-Out Moment
Kincardine and Deeside by-election, 1991
Surprisingly, my best coming-out moment wasn’t while being an out gay candidate myself (the first time I was quoted as one of only two for the Lib Dems, which I was completely certain wasn’t right, so four years later I put together the list of over two dozen myself because no-one else was doing it), but at my very first Parliamentary by-election. Being driven up to North Aberdeenshire with a coach-load from Scottish Lib Dem HQ and then staying there several days, we all had to be found places to sleep. I was spoiled: unlike many later campaigns, this wasn’t a sleeping bag on the floor, but a big actual bed, with only one other person in it, it being assumed that studenty types wouldn’t mind. Nice bloke, we’d got on well while chatting earlier in the day, and as we tucked in he warned me hesitantly, “While I’m asleep, I tend to grab onto things, but don’t worry, I’m not a homosexual.” I’m sure there were many ways I could have broken it to him more reassuringly, but given a feed line like that I couldn’t resist replying, “Don’t worry – I am.” Which is the first time I’d come out to someone while already in bed with them. He was a good Liberal and absolutely fine, so we nattered away very happily until he said something about Americans and I did it to him again: coming out as half-American, though, made him groan and roll over.
Not a sexy story in the end, then, but back in 1998 I did manage to canvass for the Alliance Party in Belfast, where my accent managed to put off both ‘sides’, when a man in a much-too-small kimono that covered very little of his chest hair and almost nothing of his thighs came to the door, and I had to concentrate hard on remembering every single word of my usually automatic spiel…
Eleven – Best photo-opportunity
Wirral South by-election,
I worked for a couple of weeks in what was going to be Labour’s last by-election gain before the first Blair landslide, and our vote holding up surprisingly well was a good omen. My favourite bit, unusually, was a press conference wheeze I came up with: somehow our mostly-detached technically-Lib Dem local-ish MP David Alton had been persuaded to turn up in support, and wanted to run on law and order. The Major Government had cut police numbers in Merseyside, and we had all the very serious statistics of exactly how many hundred they were short which, amid the blizzard of daily figures from all the campaigns, no-one would listen to. Until I took two police officer pictures (one woman, one man) from our standard artwork, blew them up on the photocopier, and the press trooped in to find the wall covered with a photogenic 236 (or whatever it was) alternating A4 police heads to illustrate the point.
It was the only one of our press conferences that I remember getting decent coverage other than the one that was meant to be our Transport Spokesperson complaining about the trains, and which he had to give via his mobile when the train he was coming on broke down and stranded all the passengers (his researcher was later cleared of putting sugar in the engine).
Twelve – Best Result (ish)
Monklands East by-election, 1994
Squeezed between Labour and the SNP, though we had a great candidate he was never going to be their next MP after John Smith. But after spending a few days helping out there, I went to Germany for a meeting of European Young Liberal Leaders. As Chair of the Liberal Democrat Youth and Students (England and Wales) I was there, as was the Chair of the Scottish Young Liberal Democrats, and in those pre-Internet boom days we tuned in to British Armed Forces Radio first thing on the morning after polling day. We came down to breakfast arm in arm and grinning ear to ear. ‘Another great by-election victory?’ the others asked us. “No, we lost our deposit – but we went up to third and beat the Tories!”
Baker’s Dozen – Best Order and Dodgiest Opinion Poll
Eastleigh by-election, 1994
Possibly my favourite by-election memory was striding one morning into the local bakery to utter the unusual but satisfying words, “Could I have two hundred doughnuts, please?” They offered ridiculous discounts for multiple buys, so that, say, one doughnut might be 85p, but you’d get three for £2, or ten for £5, with escalating discounts the more you bought. These were for the cheery campaign HQ and all the hundreds of volunteers rather than personal consumption, but the huge stack of boxes had the advantage of obscuring the rosette that might have put off the opinion pollster who then stopped me on the street. “Oh no,” I remember saying, “I wouldn’t like that Tony Blair as Labour Leader. Margaret Beckett’s the one you want, she’ll be very popular, and John Prescott, he’s a sensible man.”
Since then, I’ve always taken opinion polls – and what people tell you on the doorstep – with just a pinch of icing sugar.
You’d think I’d have lots of stories from the two times I was a Parliamentary candidate myself, and I probably do somewhere, but they’re buried deep in a part of my memory labelled ‘long slog’. My first time, when I was the youngest candidate in the region, I did at least get some media attention, partly because the media wanted someone under thirty and I was it. The other reason was that the Lib Dems’ Regional Media Co-ordinator put me up for radio shows and other places where a candidate might be asked Very Hard Questions (actually, that reminds me of my debates in that campaign, but they’d need a post all of their own) because she claimed that there were only two Lib Dem candidates in the region that she trusted to know all our policies and put them across effectively, and she kept putting my name forward instead of the other one – because he was David Rendel and he had better things to do, like winning his seat, while I could do far more good for the party as a spokesperson than tramping round a Labour-Tory marginal in which I was inevitably dead meat.
If only someone had done a similar assessment for where to put Natalie Bennett!