So who are you going to vote for as mayor of London? This, I know, is the dinner-party question of the moment. Actually, I know no such thing. Who am I trying to kid? No one ever asks me to dinner parties. I don't know why because, while I'm beginning to find the whole mayoral business rather boring, I do have other valuable and pertinent things to bring to the conversation, like: if Sainsbury's tomatoes are now "grown for flavour", what were they previously grown for? I don't know why I'm not invited out every night, frankly.
Still, I can see that, as election day on 4 May fast approaches, the tomato question might have to be put aside for some real thinking, which would be a first, admittedly. But who to vote for? Who, in fact, is there to vote for? Frank? No. Or, as the well-known saying I've just made up goes: never vote for a man with a beard because he's probably got last night's soup in it. Nobber Norris? It's not the nobbing I mind. I'm all for nobbing if nothing's on the telly and I haven't just had my hair done. It's just that a) he's a Tory and b) he looks like someone trying so hard to convince himself he's a serious politician that it's impossible to take him seriously. Ken? Possibly, not least because he knows his newts, which I've always found attractive in a man. But his personal ambition is starting to be a worry. Susan Kramer, the Lib Dem candidate? OK, I don't know the first thing about her, either. But I shall meet her and find out and let you know. Believe me, you are in safe hands here, because my judgement and foresight are known to be impeccable. It is, after all, me who annually predicts that I'll steal my young son's birthday money to pay the cleaner and, as of yet, I have never been wrong.
The initial signs, I must say, are not promising. I first meet her via her website www.susankramer.org. This gives some helpful biographical detail, yes - married, two children, a high-powered banker who spent 20 years in America and now runs a business from Barnes with her husband, John, "arranging the business side of infrastructure projects in Hungary, Poland, Romania and Austria". (Yikes!) All well and good, until you notice a fair section of the site (as much as has been given over to her policies, which include raising money for the Tube via bonds and a new community constabulary system) is devoted to her cat, Whittington. Should you have nothing better to do - which I imagine would be hard, as peas always need to be poked out from the dishwasher sieve thing - you can get to Whittington by clicking on "Paws for Thought". Whittington has quite a lot to say, including: "Susan has my full support. I have been happy to accompany her on her visits to Purfleet, Catford, Purley..." This is distressing, obviously. I just don't think London needs a cat that puns right now.
I meet her properly at her campaign headquarters in Vauxhall. She is 49, and pretty, although with an odd hair-do that gives her the strange, pulled-back look of someone marching into a strong wind. She is wearing something very lilac, which might be Berketex. I don't think she is especially racy. I tell her the thing she needs most is a good scandal, to get her name about. A sex one, preferably. Come on, Susan, there must be something. She says not. She says: "If you've been a working mother for most of your life, there isn't much time to get into hot water. When am I going to go out on dangerous dates at 2am?" OK, I offer. I'll invent one for you. She considers this. "If you could think of a good one, which we could back up..." But then, disappointingly, decides it wouldn't work. "All my friends will say: 'Susan did what? Don't be silly'." This is a great shame because I'd planned to get her into bed with the local vicar and six under-age altar boys by the time I'd left. Still, never mind. It's not such a catastrophe and I understand purrfectly, as our friend Whittington might say.
Oh, that reminds me. How is Whittington? "She's becoming a cult figure." Truly? "Yes. Two lovely little girls... absolute sweethearts... just e-mailed to say they feed their neighbour's cat, could they come and feed Whittington? And Whittington sent back a list of the things she likes. I believe that caviar was quite high on the list." I don't know much about political campaigning, but do instinctively suspect that ditching Whittington might be wise.
What, anyway, made her want to stand for mayor? She says it came during a moment of Tube rage on the Piccadilly line. "For the third time in a week I got stuck in a tunnel, and I thought: 'Right. this is it, I've just had it.' I crossed the Rubicon and just said: 'Enough. I'm not part of a herd of cattle, things can't go on in this way, and I know how to raise the money that is needed.' The next day I called the Liberal Democrat headquarters (she has been an active Lib Dem since her return to Britain in 1993) and said: 'Send me the forms'."
She has vowed, as part of her campaign, to walk every high street in London and has so far done 60 of the 174. Golly, what a bore, I say. She says: "Oh, no. It's a gas. You meet so many people." I ask if she's done my own particular favourite, which is Golders Green High Street. "Yes," she says. Did you, I continue, notice the Jaguars triple-parked outside Chinacraft and, if so, can you explain it? She laughs and says she didn't actually, "but I did go into Blooms, of course". She is Jewish, as it happens. Well, at least her mother was. Indeed, as it turns out, her background is quite unexpectedly, and shockingly, interesting.
Her mother, Elizabeth, came from an orthodox Jewish family from a small village in the hills of Hungary. She was, says, Susan "a brilliant woman who had wanted to be a lawyer", but whose family wouldn't have it, and, anyway, universities were closed to Jews back then. Instead, she somehow became an exotic dancer in the Middle East. "I've seen her costumes and they are, shall we say, risquÃ©." She eventually settled in Athens where she met Susan's father, Harry Victor Richards, who was there with the British Army. When he returned to England, he cabled her to join him with a one-word telegram that simply said: "Come." I think if I'd have been Elizabeth, I'd have probably cabled back with: "Certainly not. I've just had my hair done," which does tend to be the Jewish way of doing things. But Susan's mother was not so inclined and did come, yes.
Susan Veronica Richards was brought up in Holborn, in a small flat. The Richards were not well off. Her father worked in the aviation business, while her mother quickly became an invalid. "She had rheumatoid arthritis, but in the most severe and extreme form. It affected every single joint in her body. Her hands were terribly deformed. She couldn't pick up a cooking pot. The sorts of things that people take for granted, like being able to put a saucepan on a stove, she couldn't do." Was she in pain? "Constantly. From the time I was 12 onwards I cannot remember when she wouldn't have to take fistfuls of painkillers just to get through the day. Yet she was terribly brave. My daughter was born in the United States and she very much wanted to be there for Abigail's birth. The doctor's told her that the plane journey would kill her. She said: 'I want to see my granddaughter.' Ten days after Abby was born she flew back to England where an ambulance met her at the airport. Within six months she was dead." That's a proper Jewish grandmother for you, I say. "Yes," she agrees.
With her father away a great deal, much of Susan's childhood was spent looking after her mother. She didn't mind, she says. "I just thought of it as normal." Were you lonely? "Never," she says. "Life was very full, and I read voraciously. In the summer holidays, I would make two trips a day to the local library." At six, she says, she read The Dam Busters. The Dam Busters? At six? "Yes, because I couldn't tell the children's books from the adult's books." She is still a big reader. "I always have four or five books on the go at once. I read fiction very widely, plus a certain amount of military history. I'm also quite fascinated by the pop-science stuff." She has not only read A Brief History of Time, but largely understood it. "I had taken a course in particle physics and cosmology, so had a bit more of a grounding than most." She is now quite into "string theory" which, apparently, has nothing to do with the best way to tie a parcel. I must say that, as someone who can't find her way around Ikea, I'm absolutely full of admiration for those who want to find their way about the universe.
She went to St Paul's Girls School in London as a scholarship pupil, then on to Oxford, where she met John Kramer, whom she married nine days after her PPE finals. They then moved to Chicago and had their two children. (Abigail, who works with HIV-positive women in San Francisco and Jonathan, now 25, who has taken a break from his MBA in Chicago to help his mum with her campaign.) How, I wonder, did she get into banking? "Quite unexpectedly, actually. When the children were small, I was determined to start work again, and getting a masters in business administration looked to me like a union card. It could provide an entry into almost any kind of career. I wasn't sure which direction I wanted to go in, but then I found I really enjoyed the problem-solving that comes with dealing in finance." In 1987, she became vice president of Citibank in Chicago. Still, she always missed England horribly.
"I never thought of America as home. There is a huge insularity there, whereas here you get the complexity that layers of history bring. Americans see the world very much through American eyes. Only 14 per cent of them have passports. I lived for some time in a small town, and there was a man just about to retire and he said to me: 'My wife and I talk about travelling to Europe and round the world, but then we realised that the best of everything is in America so there was no point in going'."
I wonder, what does she think her chances of winning actually are? "The polls obviously show Ken way in the lead, but I think a lot of that is a very soft vote. People are starting to think: we're talking about four years here, not just a campaign." So, vote Susan Kramer? Yes. Why not? Whittington notwithstanding, she seems a good deal more rounded and clever than most. However, much more importantly, why should tomatoes sold "on the vine" be the most expensive? It's not like you've had to pay someone to pick them. Plus, are they meant to taste better and, if so, why? Will we, even, be getting apples "on the twig" next?
I just thought I'd leave you with something to think about, as I invariably do.Reuse content