DJ Taylor: If this election is getting to you, just find a dark room and lie down

Sleepless nights of inner conflict aggravated by severe Cleggmania? You need the soothing ministrations of a Florence Nightingale...
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The Independent Online

With four days to go, we have reached that point in the general election calendar when one's thoughts turn to all those millions of people who will be casting votes in defiance of their most deeply held beliefs.

Take, for example, this white male, married-with-children, late-fortysomething voter living in a marginal Labour constituency in the east of England. As the product of a God-fearing, middle-class suburban home, ground down by a taxation system that takes more money away from me the harder I work, profoundly depressed by an educational orthodoxy in which the interests of those being educated come last, and by a mass culture based on the glorification of stupidity, all my natural instincts are conservative. And yet, as general election follows general election – even in 1983, in a gesture of hopeless quixotry – I have generally slunk into a polling booth and voted Labour.

Clearly, there is some sort of psychological dualism at work, a kind of double-think not unlike the scene in Peter Jackson's film of The Two Towers in which Gollum argues with himself about the relative advantages of knocking Frodo on the head with a boulder or leading him to Mordor. Half of me – the conservative half – suspects that genuine equality and individual freedom are probably incompatible, and that old-style paternalism sometimes does a better job of helping the marginalised than state intervention. The other half knows that certain kinds of liberty are simply a licence to exploit the vulnerable and would be better curtailed. Half of me yearns for an educational system in which the clever and industrious are helped to succeed, while the other half of me sympathises with the idle and feckless, whom no amount of goading will ever enable to pass their GCSEs and whose destinies are pre-ordained by accidents of birth. Half of me incubates the most romantic illusions about "England" and "Englishness", while the other half is guiltily aware of the spectacular damage that English romanticism has done to us all over the past half-century.

There are several drawbacks to living in a state of permanent ideological confusion. One is that any statement you make about politics is automatically suspect. Another is the morale-sapping awareness that a middle-aged man really ought to be more convinced about the stanchions that hold his world in place. And so I shall be off to the polling station next Thursday to enact a time-honoured piece of moral sleight-of-hand – not voting Conservative but secretly exulting whenever the words "Con gain" are flagged up on the small-hours television screen.


And how has the general election "impacted" on this family of five residing in the Norwich South constituency? Apart from a profusion of posters in people's windows and front gardens – Lib Dems and Greens neck and neck, I should say, Labour third and the Tories a very bad fourth – one would hardly imagine an election was taking place. A few party newsletters have come through the door, a solitary Green Party councillor trudged up the drive in the first week of the campaign, the Conservative candidate was seen patrolling the neighbouring street, but of Lib Dem and Labour canvassers there has been no trace. One encouraging sign is the interest taken by the children, although the conclusions reached have differed radically from those of the commentariat. Watching the first TV debate, for example, we all decided that Clegg was nervous and repetitive and couldn't understand why he came out top.

A bit less encouraging, on the other hand, was the phenomenon known as "Cleggmania" – not because Mr Clegg doesn't deserve a hearing, or because a "progressive alliance" that breaks up the post-Brown Labour Party wouldn't be a splendid idea, but because the focus on personalities has seen off at least half a dozen issues that could have done with some kind of debate. The general shiftiness over how the public finance black hole might be filled is regrettable, but what about transport, climate change and regional infrastructure? If any politician has uttered so much as a sentence on any cultural topic, then I fear I must have missed it. As ever, materialism has been the order of the day, with the usual ominous silence about materialism's consequences and the distinct possibility that one of the Western world's most cherished consumer assumptions – that you can have whatever you like whenever you want it – may very soon have run its course.


I was fascinated to learn that the lantern which earned Florence Nightingale her title of "The Lady with the Lamp" will soon be back on display in London. The lantern, held aloft by the Crimean War heroine as she made her nightly round of the hospital wards in Scutari, will be exhibited at the Florence Nightingale Museum in the grounds of St Thomas' Hospital, which reopens next month after a £1.4m revamp.

Doubtless, Miss Nightingale's admirers will be cheered by this refurbishment, but there are times when an absorption in the past and its personalities can be compromised, or even undermined, by a reliance on artefacts. The excitement of being taken to a French museum as a child and shown "Napoleon's hat" tends to pale when you discover, as an adult, that every museum from Dieppe to Biarritz has one on display. And then there is the question of verification. Six or seven years ago, an unusually heavy parcel thumped on to the doormat. Torn open and unpacked, it turned out to contain a squat, gun-metal stapler – "Orwell's stapler", according to the friend who had bought it for me at a left-wing fundraiser, dating from his days as literary editor of Tribune.

My pleasure in this gift took a knock a couple of months later when Alastair Campbell wrote a diary column in The Spectator celebrating his purchase, at a charity auction, of ... Orwell's stapler. Six months after that, the RMT union announced a similar event at which one of the principal lots would be ... You guessed. No doubt Miss Nightingale's lamp has been duly authenticated, but it would be nice if somebody checked.


One of the really significant moments in the interrogation of the Goldman Sachs management team on Capitol Hill came when it was revealed that senior executives had very little knowledge of the complex financial instruments in which their minions were dealing. This kind of specialisation, and the cheery abnegation of responsibility that tends to follow it, has been a feature of the commercial landscape for decades. The Barings collapse of the mid-1990s was largely a result of management assuming that Nick Leeson, the "rogue trader" whose speculations brought the bank to ruin, was simply a bright boy with a lot of abstruse know-how who should be allowed to get on with his trading.

Working in the City, 20 years ago, one would regularly find oneself devising a press release about the latest pensions legislation which the head of the firm's tax department would claim not to understand. Eventually, some wild-eyed technical expert would be routed out of his den to pronounce the immortal words "seven forty-sevenths", or something like them, and the non-specialists would sink back in relief. In academe, of course, this process of fragmentation, in which even the finest minds struggle to stay aware of developments in the field, has been going on for the best part of a century. Gilbert Murray, the distinguished Oxford classicist, was once approached by a visiting American scholar who gravely inquired: "Tell me, professor, are you interested in incest?" Murray's answer was: "Only in a very general sort of a way."


One incidental delight of the past week has been the reminder that at least two of our political leaders have serious literary connections. Nick Clegg, The Times pointed out, is nothing less than a great-nephew of the legendary Moura Budberg, mistress of H G Wells. David Cameron is the cousin of the distinguished novelist and former TLS editor, Ferdinand Mount, not to mention being connected, through his wife, to Enid Bagnold, author of National Velvet. But what about Gordon Brown? What literary forebears hang from the boughs of his family tree?

My first thought was that he must be related to George Douglas Brown, a leading ornament of what was known as the "kailyard school" of late-Victorian Scottish novelists, and whose book The House with the Green Shutters is described by The Longman Companion to Victorian Literature as "extravagantly grim". Then I realised that, no, Mr Brown was far more likely to be the remote descendant of the Dundee literary critic George Gilfillan (1813-1878), like Brown senior a man of the cloth, and the author of an epic poem in nine volumes, the all-too symbolically titled Night. For what it's worth, I have £20 on at Ladbrokes at 11/4 for a small Conservative majority.