Election '97: THE CANDIDATE

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Up close an election campaign is a farce; a nonsensical confection. The raw material of it - the speeches and the visits - is ridiculous gobbledegook. Only at home, watched on TV or read in the papers - the backgrounds and obtrusions edited out and the best bits selected - does it make any kind of sense. Mr X went here and said that. Mr Y went somewhere else and contradicted it. All clear. But it isn't like that for the Candidate. He lives with his nose pressed firmly against the absurdity of it all.

His public day started with the need for some new history. A policy had changed, but it was necessary to show that this was the consequence of some slow, deliberative process. This meant reversing the normal historical pattern, and working backwards from the change; creating a reverse path. There would have to have been meetings, conversations involving senior party figures, and past interviews whose contents could bear no other construction than the new one - all leading naturally to the present moment.

This time the Candidate wouldn't have to bear the brunt of the questioning himself. His adopted brother, the troublesome other half of his political identity, would do that instead. The ursine Mr Brown, Gerard Depardieu to the Candidate's Tom Cruise, told the tale of meetings, conversations, colleagues and interviews. At the back Friend Bobby (the one they nicknamed the new Machiavelli) looked on, his physiognomy a study in edges. Long, sharp nose, sharp chin, sharp cheekbones. Sharp mind, tongue and eyes. Satisfied eyes. With no direct evidence that the new backward history was anything other than genuine, the London press pack let Mr Brown off with a couple of muffled groans and a small sneer.

Then the Candidate took a train for the West. This involved 15 minutes (and coffee) with the Press Association, 10 minutes (over kippers) with the Western Daily News, 10 more (toast and marmalade) with the Bristol Gazette - done by the same man - and 10 (napkin round mouth) with the oily representative of the privatised rail company. Meanwhile - kipperless - his speech-writer Paul, sat within fact-checking distance, consulting his laptop for West Country statistics. Bristol docks at 11 for a boat trip. Mrs Candidate ("Sheree, not Sherry! as in Demee!") was in nautical colours. Her navy blue and white-striped outfit with yachting shoes suggested an act of occupational empathy rivalling Marie Antoinette's dressing up as a rustic shepherdess. Except that Mrs Candidate's face was eager and vulnerable; completely lacking the brassiness of the happily artificial.

The trip though, was happily artificial. The Candidate's boat, stuffed to the gunwales with gap-toothed seven-year-olds (on a transport project, for Chrissakes!), made a few lazy circles around a bigger boat carrying the press. Thank God, thought the Candidate, children aren't self-conscious, they don't blame you for their own embarrassment like journalists do. But big A, the press officer, sat under the cowling - his face a blushing mask of discomfiture.

This one was for the photographers, that man tribe of cheerful cannibals, who live absolutely for their own pictures alone. Imagine the boys from Lord of the Flies never being rescued and actually growing up on that island, and you've grasped how snappers are. They push, elbow, kick and punch without rancour or bad feeling. No one is safe.

In Basildon the day before, an old lady hit the deck. When the Candidate moves, they move backwards in front of him, preventing him from seeing those who he is supposed to be visiting, and shielding him completely from their sight. Yet when you see the pictures at home, the photographer isn't there. It's like a beautiful landscape seen from a high-speed locomotive. You think it's wonderful. But all the person actually living in that timbered farmhouse sees is the bloody train whizzing past, making a noise from hell.

Yet all day the Candidate had to smile and wave, turn, grasp tillers and shake hands for the cameras. As he did when, a mile downstream of where he had got on, he got off again, to be greeted by a vision in powder blue - heavily rouged and lipsticked - the former "Red" Dawn MP (firebrand no longer, her past somehow dissolved, like a dream sequence from a film) standing on the steps of the quay, awaiting her leader. "This way! Smile!" yelled the snappers.

Hours later, and in the mid-afternoon shadow of a Devon cathedral, the Candidate met the first real people of the day, and rendered them his GP's speech about making things better. Above him, in the sunlit window of the fourth floor of the Royal Clarence Hotel, a young chambermaid leaned against the sill and gave an absent-minded clap.