Category Archives: Politics

“The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.”

A pipe-smoker from years ago, or perhaps from Yorkshire last week.

Mr Watmough certainly did things a bit differently. He was the geography teacher at my school in Bournemouth back in the 1960s. He doubled as the school’s second-tier, hands-off rugby coach who never once actually played any rugby, and tripled as the drama teacher for the boys who’d chosen drama as their ‘special subject’.

This was the name given to the one-hour period each week in which pupils could learn about a topic not covered by the national curriculum. As the other ‘special’ subjects included chess, running about and, unbelievably, additional maths, I chose drama.

There were around 18 of us budding thespians, not that we would have known what thespian meant at the age of 14. We didn’t have an allocated classroom so met in the dining hall about an hour before the dinner ladies started preparing that day’s heated sludge. We’d read parts of Macbeth, pretend to be other people, improvise dramatic conflicts, learn to project our voices (which we probably understood to mean ‘shouting’) and generally have a welcome break from the day’s usual routine of maths, double maths, corporal punishment and maths.

Mr Watmough smoked a pipe and he probably thought that teaching arty-farty, trendy-wendy drama in a room that wasn’t technically a classroom gave him permission to light up during the lesson. So he got out his pipe, filled the bowl with St Bruno, fished around for his box of Swan Vestas, struck a match, applied the flame to the tobacco until giant plumes of smoke began billowing around him and simultaneously replaced the match back in the box and put it in his pocket.

Then his jacket caught fire.

It wasn’t an instant conflagration by any means. A few moments passed before a curling wisp of smoke began snaking out of his right-hand pocket. We watched transfixed as Mr Watmough continued listening intently to a boy somewhere behind me who was extemporising haltingly about life being but a walking shadow, a poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage; the boy’s powers of concentration evidently compromised by the drama unfolding before him.

We should have said something, obviously. Was there not an ounce of common humanity between us? What if it was our own father slowly incinerating before our very eyes?  Of course we’d raise the alarm. And as the flames took hold, one of us did. “Sir!”

“Shut up, Bailey.”

“Sir! You jacket’s on fire!”

Seized by a sudden panic, old Watmough began beating his flaming pocket with a vigour he’d never displayed on the touchline of the rugby pitch. The dining room filled with smoke: from his pipe, from the wood and cardboard of the matchbox and from the material of his ancient sports jacket. I swear I can remember the awful stench of a singed leather elbow patch, although that may be amusing-but-false memory syndrome kicking in.

I was reminded of the incident yesterday when Donald Trump suggested it might be a good idea to give guns to teachers. My experience of teachers – of those who raged and lashed out, who relied on whisky to get them through the day, who seemed to derive pleasure from assaulting and humiliating young boys and who could actually set themselves on fire during a lesson – strongly suggests that this strategy might not be entirely without risk.

 

[edit] Although some boys could do with a clip round the ear!!!!!!!!!11

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The evolution of an election campaign

Wednesday 7 June 2017, 21.45
There. It’s over. Apart from the actual voting part. But as far as campaigning for the 2017 general election goes, that’s about it. The last leaflet fell through our letterbox just an hour ago. Like the majority of other campaign comms, it was from the Liberal Democrats. The fact that I have a giant, unmissable LibDem diamond-shaped signboard nailed to a tree at the entrance to our house hasn’t deterred canvassers from thinking that maybe I might change my mind, or that I’m not that committed. Neither has the fact that I volunteered to help with their campaign. I’m ‘known’ to the local party, so one would have thought my property would be spared. But no. Nothing has stopped the deluge of letters, leaflets and newspapers from arriving almost every day.

In the beginning there was Brexit

A bit of background: New Malden is mostly within the Richmond Park constituency, which Sarah Olney (Liberal Democrat) snatched back from Zac Goldsmith in December 2016 when he resigned from the Tories on a matter of principle (he promised to go if the Tories backed a 3rd runway at Heathrow, which they did). He stood as an Indy and duly lost, but it was close. So it’s understandable that the Lib Dems want to hold on to their only London seat.

But the argument has moved on, at least as far as the Lib Dems’ early campaign literature is concerned. It’s all about Brexit now, and their initial door-drops talk about ‘stopping the hard Brexit’. Voters are urged to ‘change the direction of your country’ in the forthcoming ‘Brexit Election’. A few leaflets later and there’s a subtle change in the wording. The Lib Dems are now ‘challenging the hard Brexit’. (Does that definite article annoy you? It does me.) The next leaflet asks ‘What kind of future do you want for your country? That’s the choice facing people across the country on June 8th.’ That’s not a choice, it’s a question. The newspaper-style format gives them room to talk about ‘the’ hard Brexit as well as reprising the third runway issue and concerns about health and education.

Enter the SS

About this time in mid May, the first leaflet from the Conservatives appears, with its Union Flag border and multiple uses of SS (strong and stable). Vote for the Tories and Britain, it is claimed, will be the strongest country in Europe, although it doesn’t say by what measure.

Their next leaflet is from Zac, who’s standing again, back as a Tory this time, despite the Tories sticking resolutely to their 3rd runway policy. How does that work? A picture shows May and Goldsmith wandering about in a wood somewhere, Theresa hanging on his every word. His next leaflet features a quote from the prime minister, delivered outside No. 10. “On June 8th, every single vote for Zac Goldsmith is a vote for SS leadership in the national interest.” There’s no evidence she has actually said these words, and certainly didn’t deliver them in Downing Street.

Letters from leftfield

Back with the Lib Dems, all manner of election comms continues to pour through the letterbox. Some from Tim Farron, most from Sarah Olney, and a few from Mike, Clare and Edward. Who? Well, Mike Smithson runs a political betting website, and he doesn’t want to tell us who to vote for. “I’m not here to tell you who to vote for,” he says. But if Labour voters lend their vote to the LibDems, they could stop the Conservatives from winning locally. “Just saying,” he doesn’t say. Clare is Dr Clare Gereda, a local GP (and ex-Chair of the Royal College of GPs), who isn’t as squeamish as Mike about where we should put our Xs: “A vote for the LibDems is a vote of confidence in our NHS”. Then Edward’s letter arrives. His double-barrelled surname and title (‘Conservative Member of European Parliament 1984-2010’) make me think he’s been drafted in to help the Tories, but further reading reveals that he jumped ship in 2010 and joined the Liberal Democrats. “Like many pro-Europeans, I’m horrified with the direction Theresa May has been taking the country.”

Vote for one of us!

More stuff from the Tories. The copy is indistinguishable from something Ukip might say, and in fact did. A succession of leaflets asks us to ‘Vote Theresa May’, then to ‘Vote for Zac’, and then to ‘Vote Theresa May’ again. The whole presidential-style approach that the Tories have adopted for this election might come unstuck when stupid people – and there ARE stupid people – get to the polling booth and look in vain for Theresa May’s name.

Like the Lib Dems, the Tories don’t settle on a winning format for their canvassing. We get postcards, letters, roll-fold leaflets, pretend magazines, A3 newspapers, mailpacks delivered by Royal Mail, letters from Zac and another one from the Prime Minister. This one ditches the SS references in favour of ‘standing up’. It mentions ‘standing up’ for Britain no fewer than 18 times, a rate of repetition that would prompt a forest of tracked changes if presented by a copywriter to any normal client.

We also get a leaflet from Zac Goldsmith in which he attempts to explain and excuse his flip-flop, flimflam, weaselly and shamelessly opportunistic approach to local democracy. Hopefully it won’t fool anyone.

Brexit takes a back seat

Meanwhile, the Lib Dems continue their onslaught. ‘Changing the future of Britain’ somehow becomes changing the ‘future direction of Britain’. What other direction could we hope to affect? Hard Brexit gains a capital H, like Grassy Knoll did eventually, but overall the focus is gradually switched from Europe to education and the NHS. For the first time, campaign literature mentions an extra penny on income tax to pay for increased investment in the NHS, but the leaflets choose to portray this with a picture of a HUGE penny, rather than showing a tiny penny in someone’s palm.

Speaking of which, a Lib Dem leaflet turns up with something like an idea in it. Albeit an idea of the kind had by a child or by a particularly literal client. It carries the headline ‘It’s in your hands’ and shows an image of…and I think you know what’s coming…a pair of hands. Inside, there’s no mention at all of Brexit, and nobody thought to put anything on the back. 25% of the leaflet is wasted space.

Token missives from the rank outsiders

At some point during the campaign we get the one and only effort from the no-hope Labour candidate. His name is Laurie South, and he sound like a decent sort of chap, although we learn nothing of his lavatorial habits, unlike his predecessor. A leaflet from the local Ukip candidate turns up, showing a stern-looking bearded bloke who’s anti-human rights and who was, in an statement that will draw knowing nods from kids who were locked up for littering or loitering or looking a bit wrong, a serving magistrate. Neither of these guys has a snowball’s chance in hell of even coming second around here.

And still they come

More leaflets arrive. None appears to be printed on recycled paper or claims to come from sustainable sources, so we can only assume that trees are being sacrificed in the name of local democracy. The Tories’ final postcard states that the loss of just six seats would be enough to wrest power from them. The intention is clearly to prick complacent conservatives into voting, but could have a similar effect on Labour or Lib Dem voters who had been resigned to a Tory victory, but now felt stirred into action.

Door-drops from Lib Dems are now going hell for leather over the ‘heartless Tories” Dementia Tax. The last one I retrieve from the doormat plays the familiar two-horse-race angle, but while it shows a picture of Sarah Olney, Zac Goldsmith’s profile is greyed out. The Lib Dems clearly know how much his supposed good looks appeals to certain voters. (The ones we could do without, really.)

The final tally

In the closely-fought constituency of Richmond Park, the results of the 2017 general election junk mail campaign are as follows:

Labour: 1
Ukip: 1
Conservatives: 13
Liberal Democrats: 36
Total weight: Exactly 500g
Minds changed: Probably zero.

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Those pesky canvassers!

It’s Tuesday evening, around 36 hours before voting begins in the 2017 general election. Someone has just rung the buzzer of my house. Rather than answer the intercom and listen to dead air, I leg it down the path to the gate. If it’s kids messing about (again), I want to catch them, if not in the act, then at least shortly afterwards.

Not that I have any kind of plan in mind. I’ll probably make a sarcastic comment. Not a threat or warning or anything like that. Never threaten anyone who knows where you live. So I’m hoping it’s not kids or early evening drunks, but maybe a delivery guy or even friends passing by and seeing if we’re free for a drink. (This hasn’t happened in 20 years of living here, but you never know.)

It’s not kids or drunks or ASOS drivers, and of course it isn’t friends. I look left and right, and the only person in the vicinity is a middle aged man, and I shout ‘hello!’ to him as he rounds the next corner. He turns briefly to look at me before disappearing out of sight.

I open the gate and run after him. In my slippers. As I turn the corner he’s there with two other people, a woman and another man. I can tell from their badges and stickers that they are canvassing for the LibDems. Shame. I was hoping for God-botherers or Tories.

“Can I help you?”

“Did I knock on your door?”

“No, you rang the buzzer then ran away, like a child.” His colleagues snigger at this. I instantly feel slightly ashamed.

“Oh. I was just wondering if I could count on your support for the Liberal Democrats.”

“Yes, you can.”

“Oh. Thank you.”

I smile and walk back to my house, past the intercom button, past the huge and unmissable Liberal Democrats poster that’s right next to it, and wonder briefly whether I’m supporting the right party*.

*I am, of course. I live in Richmond Park. The only other viable candidate is that shameless opportunist Zac Goldsmith. Labour has zero chance here.

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