DJ Taylor: If you want to know what Gordon really meant, ask Molesworth

Speech day at St Custard's; my right-wing past; dirty tricks in Norwich; New Labour's worst ministerial performance (a hot contest); and ugly accents
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Listening to the short speech with which Gordon Brown introduced the current election campaign, I was struck by a faint sense of déjà vu. It was not that one had heard the words before, rather that the convoluted mental processes that seemed to lurk behind them seemed curiously familiar.

Some other great statesman, perhaps, addressing his country at a time of trial? Some bygone ideologue putting his cards squarely on the table? No, the person whom Mr Brown most reminded me of was Grimes, headmaster of St Custard's, Nigel Molesworth's alma mater in the series of books by Geoffrey Willans and Ronald Searle, emceeing the prize-giving at the school sports. Outwardly, all is seemly calm. A marginal crib to the headmaster's "reel thorts", on the other hand, reveals a rising scent of panic.

"Each year" Grimes begins – spellings follow the original – "it is my privilege to introduce the charming lade who give away the criket bat balls spoons cups etc". The "reel thorts"at this point run "lucky I got 'em back from the pornbroker hem-hem". The "charming lade" is, of course, Mrs Grabber, whose son is, conveniently, victor ludorum. "Mrs Grabber I think you will all agree showed where her sons talent came from in the parents potato race..." By this time the "reel thorts" are a bleak "How long can I go on with this?"

All this seemed curiously reminiscent of Mr Brown's message to the voters. "I come from an ordinary middle-class family in an ordinary town," he began, which might be decoded as "my speech-writers have advised me to emphasise my lack of social distinction in the hope that it will contrast favourably with the plummy-voiced toff over the way". He then asked for "a clear and straightforward mandate to continue the urgent and hard work securing the recovery, building our industries for the future, and creating a million skilled jobs over the next five years". This meant: "We have not, alas, been nearly so successful as we might have been in our stewardship of the nation's resources, but let me assure you that the other lot will only ruin things even more". At the moment, Mr Brown's sales pitch is based on what might be known as the Belloc stratagem: "Always keep a-hold of nurse, for fear of finding something worse". He will have to do better than this.


Already the media have begun to line up a series of vox pops anxious to enlighten the public on their choice of party. As an experienced election-watcher, I always doubt the value of these exercises, if only because of the hulking motivational chasms that loom into view. Half the participants seem to be gripped by professional self-interest – NHS staff worrying about the NHS, teachers worrying about education cuts – and the other half so scrupulously disinterested as to render their fervour rather unworldly.

Even worse, perhaps, are the surveys of first-time voters. I always date the extreme right-wing views I held as a teenager to interviews with three 18-year-olds that appeared in the Daily Mirror shortly before the October election of 1974. The first, a bespectacled undergraduate, declared that he would be voting Conservative because of his parents and what he had read. The second, a cheery lad in a beanie hat, plumped for Labour under pressure from his gran – "She's Labour mad". The third, a woman, remarked that she would be voting Liberal because she "liked Jeremy Thorpe". What, my autocratic younger self wondered, was the point of giving at least two of these young people the vote if those were the reasons they came up with for voting?

Worse even than this, though, will be the file of celebrity voters whose views are sought in the final week of the campaign. Here the last words belong to Evelyn Waugh, who, asked by the Spectator how he intended to vote in the general election of 1959, replied that he would not presume to advise his Sovereign on her choice of ministers.


If one can predict anything about the next three and a half weeks, it is that some of the dirtiest local campaigns will be fought by the Liberal Democrats. Not long ago, I listened to an illuminating Radio 4 feature about by-elections, in which a succession of Tory and Labour activists stepped up to concede that, while they might have done some questionable things in their time, the sharpest practice always came courtesy of Mr Clegg and his helpers.

This was borne out by a publication called the "Norwich Mail", which flopped through letter-boxes here in Norwich South the other day. "The choice is clear," it insisted. "It's between hard-working local Lib Dem campaigner Simon Wright or Labour's Charles Clarke." The Conservatives apparently "cannot win", while the Greens "came a poor fourth in the last General Election in Norwich South, and came an even worse fifth in last year's by-election in Norwich North".

What this piece of analysis omits is the fact that in last year's council elections, the Greens topped the poll in this constituency. This, though, can be explained away as spin. Quite thoroughly inaccurate, on the other hand, is a bar-chart purporting to show "the result last time". Here the orange Lib-Dem bar trails the red Labour oblong by perhaps a centimetre, with the Conservative bar fading into insignificance. You would think from it that Mr Clarke's majority was a scant couple of hundred votes. In fact, as a glance at Robert Waller and Byron Criddle's invaluable Almanac of British Politics soon demonstrates, Mr Clarke received nearly 16,000 (37.7 per cent), the Lib Dems 12,252 (29 per cent) and the Tories a by no means disgraceful 9,567 (22.7 per cent). The bar chart, consequently, is horribly misleading. Pundits believe that Norwich South is a four-way marginal. On this evidence, it would serve the Lib Dems right if they came fourth.


Like several other commentators, I was charmed to read the defence of the public library system offered by Keith Richards. "When you are growing up, there are two institutional places that affect you most powerfully," the Rolling Stones' guitarist has been quoted as saying, "the church, which belongs to God, and the public library, which belongs to you."

Reckoning up my own private charge-sheet against the administrations of the past 13 years, failure to safeguard the health of the public library system, by ensuring that the main amenities present are books and silence in which to read them, comes surprisingly near the top. The worst New Labour ministerial performance I ever witnessed – against some pretty stiff competition – came from the then libraries minister David Lammy in an address to the Royal Society of Literature. It wasn't just that Mr Lammy was so conspicuously not up to his questioners' fighting weight, or that he persisted in saying "customers" when he meant "readers", merely that he seemed to regard a library as a kind of glorified coffee-shop.

Not long after listening to him, I was invited to a conference organised by the Queen's English Society, at which an eloquent black girl got up and denounced the modern library system. She was fed up with the shelves of books filed under ethnic minority interest, she maintained: she wanted to see what white writers were up to. As for the banks of computer screens and the chatty teenagers sending emails to each other, she'd quite like some peace and quiet in which to do her homework. "Libraries gave us power," the Manic Street Preachers famously declared in "A Design for Life". There is a terrible irony in the spectacle of the Labour Party trying to take that power away.


I was amused to read that the actress Gemma Arterton's Gravesend vowels proved too much for the director Stephen Frears, who cast her in his forthcoming adaptation of the Posy Simmonds comic strip Tamara Drewe. According to Ms Arterton: "I went into this meeting and he went: 'Oh dear, oh dear. Why do you speak like that?'" Ms Arterton's defence of her locution was "That's where I'm from." Mr Frears is supposed to have countered: "Well, you're going to have to sort that out." Oddly enough, despite coming from a part of the world with an instantly recognisable local accent, my sympathies are with Mr Frears. The sheer ugliness of certain local accents is a byword among people who don't speak them – I never met a non-Merseysider prepared to defend Scouse. Opinion polls tend to back this up: one of the reasons many call-centres operate out of Tyneside, apparently, is that people find Geordies reassuring. Ms Arterton's problem, alas, is that in the past 40 years all the old Home Counties accents have been overlaid with bastardised Cockney. Meanwhile, anything that can see off Estuary English gets my vote.