It isn't often that one finds oneself agreeing with Eric Pickles, the Conservative Party's ebullient and straight-talking chairman, but in the matter of parliamentary election counts he is bang on.
The general election need not take place until June 2010, but there is a strew of evidence suggesting that many local authorities are already planning to delay their counts until the Friday morning. According to Colin Bland, chief executive of Broadland Council and acting returning officer for two Norfolk seats, "for us, this is now the tried and tested method. The most important thing is getting an accurate result, not the speed, and I'm convinced this is the way to do that". A spokesman for King's Lynn council has confirmed that it will be planning Friday counts for the South West Norfolk and North West Norfolk seats "for the same reasons".' One of these, it turns out, is cost. A dry run at the recent Norwich North by-election saved between £1,000 and £1,500 on staff wages.
As a concerned voter and amateur psephologist, for whom election night provides a feast of entertainment unmatched by any sporting event, I can't be the only person to feel that this is the worst idea that local government and its cheese-paring minions have dreamed up in a very long time. Practically all the excitement and public interest that was once associated with politics is gone. Hustings, in advance of which the electors of a century and a half ago would hoard bad eggs and dead cats to hurl at the candidates, have barely survived into the TV age. Even "personality politicians" – such independent-minded eccentrics as Gerald Nabarro and Clement Freud, who bestrode the landscapes of my youth – are sharply in retreat. And now comes a scheme that, once enacted, would rob the political process of its last shred of drama. Half the fascination of the average election count comes from its taking place at 3am amid a kind of battlefield full of false hopes and misinformation.
There is a wonderful letter of Evelyn Waugh's to Nancy Mitford in late 1951 which describes their friend Randolph Churchill's attempt to defeat Michael Foot in Plymouth. "Poor Randolph. It was a very difficult seat and he didn't think he could get in .... He asked the town clerk, who presided: 'How am I doing?' 'Thirty something thousand and something.' 'Isn't that rather good?' 'Oh yes, you're quite safe. We've only a few more to count and they can't affect the result.' Dazed with joy he rushed out and told his committee. All embraced. Two minutes later the town clerk padded out. 'Oh Mr Churchill I made such a silly mistake. I gave you Mr Foot's figures.' He then had to be protected from the mob by 40 policemen while he went to his train home." None of this, clearly, could have happened in daylight. But no, Mr Bland will have his good night's sleep.
Still in East Anglia, great amusement has been expressed at Norfolk County Council's decision to use the slogan "Normal for Norfolk" in an advertising campaign designed to lure skilled workers into the county. "Normal for Norfolk" or "NFN", as any custodian of the word-hoard will remember, was a phrase coined by doctors to denote on medical records that the patient, while several forks short of a dinner service, was perfectly able to semaphore to his neighbours out upon the Breckland heaths. The new campaign will, however, give this slur a decisive twist, by inserting the prefix: "World Class". As with the district council's plans to move election night counts to Friday morning, all this stirs the gravest misgivings, if only because it supposes a degree of sophistication in its target audience that may very well not be there: all that will stick in many people's heads is the joke. It is rather like the Millwall & Lewisham Building Society, if such a body exists, sponsoring an ad that ran "No One Likes Us But We Don't Care" or a West Midlands enterprise board promoting itself by way of a Crossroads Motel-style theme park and a banner proclaiming: "Come to the Benny Hawkins County."
Then there is the fact that most of Norfolk's predominantly ageing population are deeply opposed to any attempt to develop, enhance or otherwise alter their locale. They don't want the A11 dualled, "gateway to Norfolk" or not, or the Broads drained for a hotel complex, and they certainly won't fancy an influx of new workers, however skilled, as this means more house-building and further pressures on the qualities that give the county its charm. I suspect it will end in tears.
There was some righteous tut-tutting over at The Daily Telegraph about Sean Mathias's forthcoming West End production of Breakfast at Tiffany's, and in particular the ironing out of any ambiguity that might attend the character of Holly Golightly, a role made famous by Audrey Hepburn and here to be played by Anna Friel. "Is Holly a prostitute? What does Fred actually do to make his money?" Mathias was quoted as demanding. There were "implications raised by Truman Capote's work" which he intended to bring out. "Holly's fiancé Rusty is mentioned to have a penchant for dressing up as a woman and is described as 'someone who should settle down with a nice fatherly truck driver'. There's a lot going on here."
No doubt there is, and what a shame, The Telegraph's Tim Walker concluded, that we live in an age where there is no such thing as lightness of touch. The real shame, though, endemic to TV and to a certain extent the theatre, is the average director's haste to spell his characters' motivation out in words of one syllable, lest the audience – nearly always envisaged as sensation-hungry morons – lose their grip. Some years ago BBC4 produced a (mostly) brilliant adaptation of Patrick Hamilton's inter-war London trilogy, Twenty Thousand Streets Under The Sky. The second part is a prostitute's account of how her career began. The book concludes in an open-ended but nicely suggestive way with her waking up bewildered in a strange house and proceeding to the pub with the man who brought her there. The film, naturally, ends with a tremendous bonking session and the theft of money from her paramour's wallet while he slept. You can guess which version carried the greater artistic (and psychological) conviction.
Several of Keith Waterhouse's obituaries referred to the pair of fictional shop assistants named Sharon and Tracy with whom he began to people his newspaper columns in the early 1970s. Witless and self-absorbed, Shar and Tray were supposed, as one obituarist put it, to symbolise "the vacuity of modern life". The class basis of modern child-naming has been under-explored by sociologists. At primary school in the late 1960s I knew, instinctively, what the naff working-class names were: Sharon and Tracy, certainly, but also Donna, Dawn, Cheryl, Sandra and Julie. The funniest of all, inevitably, was Wayne. Then, proceeding to university a few years later, I came across other names, equally hilarious, from the farther edge of the class divide. Even now I have trouble keeping a straight face when introduced to anyone called Henry, Simon, Nigel or Jeremy.
Extra surnames were funny (I knew a viscount at college who, together with his girlfriend, managed a joint score of four) as were exotic combinations of the "Perdita Foxe-Strangeways" kind that occasionally turned up in my PE-teaching mother's form-lists. It would be interesting to know whether the old class- and profession-based nomenclatures survive, whether, to particularise, there are now earls called Gary and Sid or policemen (infallibly called Ron and Harold in '70s cop dramas) named Cuthbert and Hugo. According to a survey published last week, teachers have identified genre crops of likely trouble-makers ("Callum" apparently tops the list.) On the other hand, purists would probably allege that these ancient divisions became irrevocably blurred from the moment the Queen allowed her granddaughter to be christened Zara.
The Hollywood websites were terribly excited by the dietary licence allowed to Matt Damon in his preparations for Steven Soderbergh's new film The Informant!. Mr Damon, who plays a well-lunched corporate mogul, was advised to put on weight for the role, and described the process of being "chunked up" as "very, very fun". As someone who has devoted large parts of his life to trying to gain weight rather than shake it off, I read these accounts of how easy the whole business apparently is with deep envy. Nine-and-a-half stone throughout my twenties, even thinner after an auto-immune condition kicked in, I spent years trying to cope with a metabolism that seemed weirdly reluctant to convert calories into avoirdupois. Cyril Connolly once declared that within every fat man there is a thin man screaming to get out, but this adage works equally well the other way around. Mr Damon doesn't know how lucky he is.Reuse content