The polls were open, but nobody came

Or not many, in this part of Norwich: is politics history? Plus, the Reginald D Hunter to-do, and actors' inability to look the period part
  • @djtaylorwriter

And how, on Thursday morning, were the free and independent electors of Eaton ward, Norwich, exercising their democratic rights in the Norfolk County Council election? As far as this elector could make out, with extreme reluctance. The polling station, when I turned up at it, contained two registrars, two tellers, one voter (myself) and his dog.

Traversing a quarter-mile stretch of Unthank Road, one of the ward's principal thoroughfares, I counted one Labour poster, one Green and one Lib Dem – the latter outside the home of the local Lib Dem councillor. As for campaign literature, leaflets were received from the Lib Dems and the Conservatives, but of Labour and the Greens (who amassed 6,000 votes here in the last parliamentary election) there was no sign.

Two questions naturally arise out of this conspicuous lack of interest in the democratic process. When did the great mass of the population lose its taste for political engagement? And when did the tribalism that underlay it begin to disappear? To walk the streets of south Norwich at election time in the late 1970s was to patrol a landscape in which people not only took their politics very seriously, but divided up on class lines. Unthank Road in those days was a forest of blue posters, just as the council estate that adjoined it was a forest of red. Not only that, but adult interest rubbed off on the younger generation, and I can still remember a furious argument between two boy scouts over the entirely plausible question of "What have the Tories ever done for the working man?"

Ask a political pundit why the modern elector is no longer interested in politics and he, or she, will generally reply that it stems from a suspicion that all the major parties – a few mavericks excepted – are more or less the same, staffed by the same beaming impresarios (certainly Messrs Cameron, Clegg and Miliband look as if they could have been plucked from the same college photograph) and stalk a terrain whose ancient ideological divides have largely ceased to exist.

Worse than this, perhaps, is a widespread feeling that, here in a world run by international capital and rootless technology, genuine political autonomy is no longer possible and probably not even desirable. Even in the 1970s Tony Benn's calls for a properly left-wing fiscal policy (import controls, siege economy, workers' committees etc) were regarded as the ramblings of a dullard by his cabinet colleagues. Forty years later a Dodo spotted on the Mauritian strand would be more credible.


The fall-out from black comedian Reginald D Hunter's warm-up act at the Professional Footballers' Association award dinner lasted an entire week. Mr Hunter's performance, liberally sprinkled with the N word, was described as a "huge mistake", attracted vigorous protests from Lord Ouseley, chairman of Kick It Out, the anti-racism in football campaign, and a demand for the fee to be returned.

Several mysteries hang over this embarrassing incident. One is why the PFA were so keen on Mr Hunter, who confessed that he knew very little about football, and why someone didn't trouble to check out his racially provocative banter in advance. The other takes in the comments of the PFA chairman, Clarke Carlisle, who declined to criticise the contents of the act on the grounds that Hunter's comments would be acceptable in a comedy club – where "moral compasses" are left at the door – but not at a gala awards ceremony.

Dry old stick that I am, I have never understood the very common idea that certain kinds of behaviour are acceptable in certain places but not in others, and that – say – yelling obscenities at a football referee is OK whereas yelling them at your grandmother is not.

Complaining to the Advertising Standards Authority some years back about an advert in Viz in which a computer-game android offered to bite the participant's fucking head off, I was a bit puzzled to be told that the panel deemed it unoffensive owing to the nature of the medium in which it appeared. But surely a fucking head ripped off is a fucking head ripped off, whether in Viz or The People's Friend? If it comes to that, few places are in greater need of a moral compass than a comedy club.


The news that actress Keira Knightley has "channelled her inner fashion icon", as one columnist amusingly put it, to play Coco Chanel in a short biopic directed by Karl Lagerfeld, prompted the sad reflection that Miss Knightley, in her promotional photograph, looks nothing like her subject. She looks, in fact, like a modern actress got up to play a figure from the past. The same point can be made of all those historical epics in which Hollywood sirens with fine white teeth masquerade as Tudor princesses using the gestures and intonations of 21st-century New York.

There is absolutely no point in complaining about this, for popular art always takes from history exactly what it wants and reproduces the bits with which its audience feels comfortable. But it does make you pine for a production like Peter Flannery's Civil War-era The Devil's Whore, which appeared on Channel 4 some years ago, where Charles I looked like Charles I, Cromwell was authentically wart-ridden and Andrea Riseborough, playing the female lead, had clearly just stepped out of a Peter Lely portrait.