DJ Taylor: How to win a million more votes

Pity Ann Romney, baring her soul and ill health to court votes. Plus, the modern Londoner, and memorable ads for forgettable products

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The week's most terrifying spectacle, by a very long chalk, was the sight of Ann Romney marching to the podium at the Republican convention to endorse her husband's candidature. It was not, let it immediately be said, that Mrs Romney failed to produce the goods, for her speech was acclaimed by newspapers not generally sympathetic to the Republican cause. It was not that she didn't look the part, for the potential first lady seemed to fit almost preternaturally into the role that Americans feel comfortable with on these occasions, which might be defined as a superior version of the cheerleader's mother in one of those high-school romcoms.

No, it was what Mrs Romney had to do to appease the baying hordes, which was to stand before an audience of countless millions and discuss – "directly but not cloyingly", as one newspaper approvingly put it – her miscarriages, the breast cancer she has survived, and the multiple sclerosis she fights to control, as Mitt, the contender, beamed vampirically at her side. How one feels for these Republican women – for the late Betty Ford, who informed her husband's supporters in the mid-1970s that she liked to make love with him as often as possible, or Elizabeth Dole, summoned to do a repair job on her famously lugubrious other half, Bob, back in 1996 – for their task, generally, is to expose themselves in public in the hope of making some unelectable stiff look a shade more fragrant to a yawning electorate.

This is not to question Mrs Romney's sincerity, her feelings for her husband or her ability to deal with the notably unpromising hand that life has dealt her, merely to point out that she is a victim of the expedience that colours nearly all front-line American politics. It was all uncannily reminiscent of Martin Amis's celebrated report from the 1988 convention, which saw the validation of the Bush/Quayle ticket. Here Mart hung out with representatives of the pollster and media-consultant community, all of whose values were so "professionalised" that – fascinatingly – they discussed politics in strictly apolitical terms, measuring each ripple of applause in terms of its electoral effect. Judged on this scale of values, poor Mrs Romney's breast cancer is probably worth a million votes and her multiple sclerosis half a million more.

To read Zadie Smith's new work NW, set in the clotted streets of Kilburn and Willesden, is to register some of the profound changes that have affected that good old fictional entity the London novel in the past century or so. Eighty years ago, when Patrick Hamilton produced his epic Metroland trilogy Twenty Thousand Streets Under the Sky, there was at least a sense that a single book, or series of books, could do justice to the immensity of its subject. The geographical key-note of Ms Smith's latest effort, on the other hand, is its insistence that London now divides up into a series of separate enclaves, each barely penetrable, in terms of language, ethnic mix and custom, to those who live beyond its borders.

And so Smith's characters are always running up against people from three miles away who don't understand them, are suspicious of them or, having no real understanding of London topography, imagine that Kilburn is somewhere near Notting Hill. Locations south of the river might just as well be on another planet for all the interest they inspire. All this raises the suspicion that there is no such thing as a "Londoner" any more, simply millions of people whose geographical compass extends only to the couple of square miles that are their personal beat. This lack of environmental nous is compounded by the habit of most Londoners not to live anywhere near their places of work. Ask a shop-worker in Earls Court for directions and he will probably tell you he commutes from Hounslow.

Naturally, major public events exaggerate this sense of spatial bewilderment. Puzzled by a Soho road closure the other day, I tagged along with a couple of policemen, only to find that they were as lost as I was. "We're from Hackney," they explained, "bussed in for the Paralympics. No idea where we are."

Renault is currently running a particularly good series of television ads under the banner "Four Years" – this being the period covered by the car's warranty. One shows a twentysomething relationship proceeding from first encounter to marriage, or at any rate shack-up, and children. Another has a personable professional type hooking up with a one-parent family and (or so we infer) winning the trust of his inamorata's toddler.

Boths ads are chock-full of detail and incident, and yet their collective drawback is the number of viewings required to remember exactly what is being advertised. This tendency, alas, is endemic to advertising. A quarter of a century after it played, I can still recall the ad in which Lenny Henry announced that his wallet had more plastic in it than Michael Jackson's face while having no idea what he was trying to shift.

Presumably this disconnect between product and aesthetic is horribly disillusioning to adland's creative directors. As an old flat-mate of mine who used to work for the advertising agency Saatchi and Saatchi once glumly explained, the most effective campaign he had ever worked on involved showing a bottle of Domestos in close-up while a brisk male voice instructed the viewers to go out and buy it.

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