“You can’t be a man of the people sitting behind a desk in your London office,” one of my Martians said, over a £15 latte with trimmings that I had told her very specifically was not going onto my expenses bill.
“I don’t sit, I stand up,” I replied tartly, knowing that this would only make it worse. People seeking to revitalise British politics do not have to stand up at a desk, with a laptop perched on top of three early-1980s mint-condition editions of Richard G Lipsey’s Introduction To Positive Economics and a decade’s worth of the Lloyd’s Bank Economic Yearbook, bound in red leather - the binding being a present from my prospective father-in-law. Three weeks ago I put my back out, which any Earthling would regard as a thoroughly populist thing to have done, but which the Martians see as a sign of weakness that must be never be alluded to, for fear of polluting the brand, as they call it.
A reedier voice said: “Sir, we are talking credibility in the electoral sense.”
I love it when the Martians call me sir. In the office it is a rule, even for them. We may not yet be in parliament, but the polls are going our way and we are practising for power.
“I take it you have a suggestion, Ash.”
I get to call them by their first names. Everyone else has a staff made up of Ruperts and Hugos with the occasional Clarissa. I have three Ashes. This one is the male, Asian Ash, short for Ashma, an unfortunate choice by his parents, given the wheeze in his voice. The first was Scouse Ash, short for Aisling, who is ginger and freckly in a way that I rather like. She came with a Masters in Social Psychology and a fundamental mistrust of the kind of politics that I represent - something that she and I share. She is the most human of all my Martians, with oddly normal penchants for diets, shoes and Tranmere Rovers, whose under-15 team her youngest brother plays for. I therefore cherish her opinion as I cherish the toast in an anchovy rarebit. Not present at this informal meeting was Ashley, a handsome, chiselled and deeply unpleasant Old Salopian (I had to Google what that meant; you should do the same if you’re interested) who will one day bring us all down, either deliberately as a power move, or accidentally if someone finds the hoard of extreme pornography and/or blackmail letters that I imagine he hides under innocuous filenames on his office computer.
“Don’t tell me I have to wear a hard hat. They make me look like a sadomasochist and they hurt my auricles.”
“No, we’ve done enough of those for the present time-band. Public credulity rates are at a post-peak precipice. What we need to do is engineer a scenario with cross-spectrum penetration and crowd-sourced outreach potential.”
Sometimes silence is the only option.
“We also need to shift the Manhattan on your age-demographic - pull it to the left, as it were.”
“The left? Excuse me, did I miss a memo?”
In a tone like a bored car alarm, Aisling said: “It’s a bar chart. Left means younger.”
“Thank you Ash,” I said. She was looking longingly at a brick-patterned display of cakes on top of the counter, which presumably didn’t figure in her latest diet. In the queue, young men with architectural haircuts had stopped glancing surreptitiously at me and were staring straight at her. Whether it was lust or because they had never heard a live Liverpudlian accent before was hard to judge. Regarding the former, I didn’t have many of them down as heterosexual. Perhaps they thought she was going to push in the cake queue.
Ashma continued: “The closer to the mainstream we paddle, the more mature the age bracket becomes. If the mode can’t be pulled back a little, then natural collateral damage kicks in, and that’s a problem when it comes to future ratings.”
“Ash?” I said to Aisling.
“He means your supporters are so old, they’re likely to drop dead before they get a chance to vote for you, so you need to get some younger ones on your side. Fat chance of that if you carry on being a misogynist arsehole.”
“I beg your pardon!”
“Sorry, a misogynist arsehole, sir.”
“Thank you. Well I didn’t write the bloody speech, did I? Did you see how long the sentences were? I was merrily spouting off about fair play in times of austerity before I even saw the bit about paternity tests and child benefit. I could hardly stop mid-sentence and say I was talking rubbish.”
She was right. The speech had been a PR disaster. Not realising that one of our baby Martians (interns, unpaid, deservedly so in this case) had written it without help from the Ashes, I hadn’t taken the trouble to read it before delivering it to an almost exclusively male and mostly Asian audience of ‘business leaders’ (read: shopkeepers with pretensions) in Bradford. If you’re going to call me racist for calling them sexist, feel free. I said mostly Asian, by the way; the non-Asians were just as bad. I saw their reactions, and the bit of the speech that Aisling was complaining about got the loudest applause of the night, from wavy-haired Pakistanis and bullet-headed Yorkshiremen both.
Aisling said: “You never used to play to the crowd like that. They used to respond to you, not just lap it up while you pander to their basest instincts. I never expected to agree with your policies but I always felt that you were speaking the truth, even if it made me uncomfortable. Isn’t that true, Ash?”
“Always an iconoclast!”
“I thought you liked everything to be iconic,” I sneered.
“I think you’re pulling my plonker, sir.”
Aisling looked as if she was about to be sick.
I know that Ashma is more comfortable with phrases such as ‘crowd-sourced outreach’ than ‘pulling my plonker’, but I also know that without his grasp of stats and how they relate to the supposedly real world that the rest of us occupy - how a point pushed in a speech can lead to a percentage point gained in an opinion poll - I would at best be a local councillor somewhere in the Midlands, standing as an Independent because I couldn’t make the grade in either of the major parties.
“But now I should be more circumspect.”
“No, that’s our basic problem, sir. You can’t back down now. I’ll see if I can pull the paternity test idea round to making the dads responsible. You’ll sound like a killjoy but you won’t look as if you want to force us all back in the kitchen.”
“The thing is, without you providing the common touch, we don’t have a lot to work with. It’s not as if there’s any substance here,” Aisling added, enjoying her moment.
I will punish her severely for that. Touring the country as I regularly do, the people I meet range from the enthusiastically stupid to the sourly misanthropic. I spend most of my time between engagements wondering how in God’s name I can have ended up representing people like this, questioning what aspects of my beliefs have propelled these dingbats into my orbit. I do know, actually. Although I make out that the old definitions of right and left are redundant in a post-industrial society (I don’t put it that way, I prefer to say, with feeling: “Who are the bosses and who are the workers, now that the factories and forges have gone, now that the real work has gone abroad to China, to India, to unregulated labour markets; now that the industry which made the north of England, the Black Country, south Wales and Clydeside the beating heart of the world economy has been sold and abandoned by successive governments for generations?”), actually I am a centre-right economic and social liberal with protectionist instincts who could, without much squeezing, fit into either the Labour or Tory camp. This moderation, you would think, would keep the weirdoes away, but instead the outliers see me as a blank canvas onto which they can project whatever they like. I am a working-class northerner (I’m neither), championing the forgotten workers’ cause against the metropolitan élite, or else I’m an old-school-tie, wogs-begin-at-Calais patriot championing the British cause against the ever-present threat from our nearest neighbours (I went to a comprehensive and I love France). In a sense though, they are both right. A politician is a representative of the people who follow him or her, so all of us really are blank canvasses. My lot happen not to be very bright, or even very nice, and this does rather rub off on me. For her cheek, I can make Scouse Ash spend days and days air-kissing south-coast ex-Tories so embittered that they are almost septic, who follow me because they think I’m strong on immigration and tough on the French. They will feed her their wives’ disgusting Victoria sponges and she’ll have to open her mouth and chew. I will follow that up with an excursion to the wastelands of Yorkshire and Durham - endless meet-and-greets with jaundiced, booze-pickled old union men who spend their lives in a state of beatifically northern self-righteousness over the miners’ strike, and have turned to me because they think I’m going to bring back ‘the real work’ (see above), not to mention that my federalism (“a strong Scotland, a strong Yorkshire, the North-West, the Midlands and Wales, self-determining, but always united!”) sounds a lot like London-bashing, particularly when I want it to. When in London incidentally, I speak to ‘real Londoners’, priced out of their own homes by the bubble-blowing policies of successive governments.
“So what’s the solution? How am I going to get down with the kids? I think I left my hoodie and baseball cap at home.”
“I’d stick to the middle-aged if I were you,” Aisling muttered, needlessly condemning herself to a week in our Doncaster branch, rooting out a handful of BNP types who keep trying to join us under pseudonyms.
Ashma said: “The festival season, sir.”
“Live debates on the festival circuit.”
“Who the hell is that going to persuade? I did Edinburgh once. You couldn’t hear me over the noise of the pub downstairs.”
“We’re banking on that,” Aisling said.
You’ll be cleaning the toilets in a minute, love, I thought.
“Proper festivals, not Hay or Edinburgh. You’re there to be seen. Getting heard is a bonus.”
“Proper as in cider and mud?”
“You’ll find they’ve moved on a little since your day. Most of them have a literary stage now.”
I didn’t know when they thought my ‘day’ was. Not recently, I assumed.
“But music festivals nonetheless?”
“Hobnobbing with Noel Gallagher backstage? It’s been done, badly.”
“You won’t be backstage,” Aisling said, “you’ll be out-front with everyone else, and then you’ll jump up for the interview, pint in hand, mud on your jeans.”
“I’ll be keeping a bucket of mud outside my trailer, will I? Not even the public are that gullible.”
“You’ll be camping, in the public campsites. No backstage passes, that’s the beauty of it.”
“I won’t,” I said.
“You will,” Aisling replied triumphantly, “sir.”
It got worse. It was unacceptable, for reasons of the whole cross-spectrum penetration business, for me to go alone. That I could have handled. I would have stayed in my tent all day, walked to the interview via a bar and some convenient puddles, then gone back afterwards and drunk gin and tonic alone until I passed out. It would have been like a brief and noisy solitary confinement. Oh no, said the Martians, I had to be seen out and about, with my present partner-stroke-probable future wife on my arm at all times. My ratings amongst the distaff electorate are very poor, they explained, partly due to my abysmal lack of interest in women’s issues and my lousy attitude toward women themselves, but mostly because the ladies needed to see me with at least a permanent partner (although I would be so much easier to sell if I had a straightforward wife and kids) in order for them to feel that I have the requisite instinctive comprehension of ordinary people’s concerns. So, like it or not, my girlfriend was going to have to come to the festival and more importantly be photographed there.
“What the bloody hell do you think she’ll say to that?” I reasoned.
“You’ll have to persuade her,” they replied. “Persuasion is your job.”
“Anyway,” Aisling said, “I’ll be there with Ash - in the background of course. You won’t know we’re there, but we’ll look after your missus while you’re working. Tell her that.”
I thought for a moment she meant she would be accompanied by Ashma, who is the sort of man - I use the term loosely - who would get trench-foot if he stepped off the pavement onto a grass verge. The thought of him suffering lightened my spirits briefly. Then I realised she was talking about Ashley - horrible Ashley, braying, muscly Ashley. You could say my misery was complete, but only in the way of a defendant seeing the judge drape a square of black felt across his head, as opposed to the real completion of Pierrepoint pulling the handle.
Aisling might have an Irish name and the complexion of a Viking; she might have just enough twinkling charm to get away with calling my fiancée ‘your missus’, but she’s no more a prole than I am: she went to a minor public school on the Wirral, day-girls only, no boarders. Her parents are an investment broker and a teacher, both still working. I make it my business to know these things. Ashma wouldn’t have survived at a comprehensive, or indeed at a boarding school with the Ashleys of this world, so he was educated at home. Perhaps it shows or perhaps his mother did a sterling job to make him as normal as he is. Compared to this lot, I am actually a man of the people - state-educated, provincial, industrial middle-class. My dad worked on the fish docks, for himself in later years, a boss, not a worker, although I’ve seldom known anyone work as hard, and the reason I’ve turned myself into what I am, the reason I have a First in Applied Political Economy and years of experience working for politicians right across the left-right spectrum, the reason I spend ninety per cent of my time in London despite being a leading light in party devoted to decentralisation, has always been to avoid working on the docks. These days the avoidance is metaphorical; the docks don’t exist, thanks to forty years of snivelling cowardice on the part of successive Governments of every stripe caving in to the eco-boys and the French over fishing quotas (I meant that bit - did you notice?) but the smell of trimethylamine and their whole frostbitten presence still hangs over me.
This is why I keep the Martians around me, and is why, when it comes to the nitty-gritty of meaningless gestures to drum up support amongst selected sections of the voting public, I do what they tell me. It was why, that very night, I was gently massaging my fiancée’s shoulders in front of her home computer - partly to show affection but mostly to stop her from jumping up and running out of the room - as we read the line-up of the festival that Ash and Ash wanted us to attend.
“You like them, don’t you? I’ve heard you playing them in the car. And they’re on your running playlist, look,” I said.
I’m not going to tell you the names of the acts. I’d heard of some of them, and I like a couple of them, genuinely, but for me they are part of another world, the one you probably live in. The names sound wrong coming out of my mouth. Not for me a Gordon Brown / Arctic Monkeys personal credibility haemorrhage, as Ashma once called it.
“There’s a comedy tent.”
She peered at the screen again, then up at me.
“Do I have a choice?”
I smiled, meaning: Yes, you have the choice either to come along, or else find yourself a partner who doesn’t have a public persona to maintain.
I’m out of practice packing. To get into the mood, I changed into a t-shirt, jeans and hiking boots. What I needed to carry, it turned out, were three t-shirts, a spare pair of jeans, numerous underpants, a pair of wellies and sandals - and towels, lots of towels. It took many iterations and three different rucksacks to achieve this: I should have had a look at some websites for advice, but I’m always concerned that someone might be logging my searches. I braced myself for a shouting match with my fiancée as she tried to fill a suitcase with coordinated outfits and high-heeled shoes, but instead she came downstairs twenty minutes after I’d finished packing, carrying a tiny holdall.
“Hope you don’t mind me being sweaty,” she chirped. “Don’t worry, I’ve got lots of knickers in here, and plenty of underarm. You can take my wellies, you’ll look butch carrying them.”
She was wearing grey shorts and a darkish pink top, with walking boots not unlike mine. She had found a cap to wear, her hair ponytailed and threaded out of the back. A pashmina was folded into the handle of the holdall, ready to drape across her shoulders at the first sign of cold. She looked... lovely actually; a little wholesome for my tastes, but, yes, lovely. The get-up suited the sunny disposition that seemed to have taken her over. Now I started to worry: she was beginning to act as if we were going there to enjoy ourselves. I cursed my powers of persuasion.
“Where’s the tent?” she said.
“Ash will sort that out.”
“Which one? No, if we’re going to do this, we need to sort ourselves out. I thought that was the point. Don’t worry, there’s a Decathlon at Lakeside, we’ll get one there. It’s on the way.”
The point, I wanted to yell in her face, is for me to be photographed at the festival with you there for decoration, not for both of us to be seen prancing around a dystopian simulacrum of the consumer society in darkest Essex looking for tents. And then I thought, perhaps a bit of accidental exposure alongside White Van Man is precisely the point. Getting papped there and at the festival would be like getting a favourable write-up in the Sun and the Guardian on the same day.
“Good idea,” I replied breezily.
“And you can get a hat - for the sun,” she added, in a mumsy tone that I could have done without.
Days went by. The rucksack and holdall sat threateningly in the spare bedroom. Tickets arrived at my desk labelled “Admission and General Camping”. I searched the envelope in vain for a VIP pass. I spent hours on the treadmill, trying to up my stamina in preparation for the ordeal to come. Then the fateful Friday morning arrived. We showered together, put on our Festival clothes and we were off, my fiancée and I, to mingle with the target demographic (35-45, degree-level education, working full-time, ‘partnered’ and with children all called Alfie or Emily).
I had a moment of weakness before we left, a frantic check through my rucksack to check I hadn’t forgotten anything, and a swift tug on the doors of my two home-safes (the one my fiancée knows about and the one she doesn’t) to make sure that both were securely locked. The wasted time put paid to breakfast, unfortunately. Never mind, I thought, there will be food at the festival.
I must say, Lakeside was a success. The wide aisles in the huge retail space encourage striding, and with my sporting background I am good at that. Camping equipment brings out the Desert Rat in all of us. It is hard not to strike a commanding pose when pointing at canvas. Even the weediest man has the air of a giant next to a tent and a Calor gas camping stove. Allowing ones partner, an attractive woman (though not intimidatingly so, from the point of view of the female voter) who was looking her best in a rustic sort of way - to choose the double sleeping bag added an agreeable erotic frisson. All of this happened in view of mobile phone cameras, one at first, building up to three by the time we reached the till. How’s that for cross-spectrum penetration? I thought. I’m being Twittered and Instagrammed with not a single paparazzo involved.
It was daunting though, realising I would have to be on for forty-eight hours straight. In a tent I wouldn’t even be able to snore without someone hearing.
As we ventured past Colchester, traffic got heavier, and finally came to a stop within a mile of our destination. In the two hours we spent queuing within sight of the festival entrance, with the car engine turned off in the baking heat, my fiancée loudly played CDs of the acts that she wanted to go and see. She was still taking the idea of enjoying the festival too literally for me. I concentrated on silently answering imaginary political and personal questions despite the ongoing racket. After a while the questioning, in the style of John Humphrys but mostly in the voice of my father, descended into the sort of raw personal abuse to which my father would never have resorted, but which my psyche dishes out at will, especially when the target is myself. I gave up and waited for the queue to move.
Inside the site, the queue went triple-laned, and I started to get looks from all sides. I am increasingly prominent these days, surprisingly so for a politician not actually in parliament yet, whose party still only has a handful of local councillors. I learned a long time ago to act the part even when no one was taking notice. I glanced at each one of them and gave the slightest of smiling nods in acknowledgement of their interest. By the law of averages, few of those staring will be sympathetic to our cause, but even if they hate my guts they will feel a little warmed, in spite of themselves.
The people taking our tickets took no interest in my smiles and nods, so I took it a little further.
“Looking forward to it,” I said as if they had asked, and on my left, my fiancée gave an excellent display of grinning teeth to back me up. This she continued throughout the process of parking and lugging our possessions to our chosen spot, picking up wristbands, and even while putting up the tent. For this I was grateful because however commanding I might appear next to an erect tent, while it is going up I am unmistakably a middle-aged man with a dodgy back. My fiancée has fifteen years on me, and put the tent up on her own, smile intact. By clever use of gestures and chat I was able to make it seem superficially as if I was in charge. A lot of cameras were out, although none were pointed at me: most people were taking pictures of their own tents, presumably for Twitter, such is the narcissism of the age.
With our bags safely stored in the tent and a day and a bit to wait before the interview, there was little for it but to enter the festival grounds and soak up the atmosphere. My fiancée was boiling hot from her exertion, so I bought her a cold lager, which led to three more in rapid succession, leaving me forty pounds lighter, financially speaking, and a little more drunk than I would have liked. It hadn’t rained for weeks: far from wading through mud, the entering crowds kicked up a dustcloud worthy of migrating wildebeest.
I could see straight away that Aisling’s crack about appealing to the middle-aged was not unjustified. This was a gathering of the 1970s-born generation. There were youngsters around, but they all seemed to be hanging around with their parents. I tried to imagine my parents taking me to something like this. In my day, you knew where you stood with your parents, which was as far as possible from where they were standing. Had the youth of the nation completely lost its spirit? I could use this, I decided. Youthful rebellion - alluded to, nothing more - provided an image of renewal (could I bring nationalism in at this point?) that hinted at virility whilst remaining gender-unspecific and not at all creepy. Poking fun at these kids’ conformity would, at the simplest level, ingratiate me to the parents, which was of course the point. I would have to keep the humour sly, so that they didn’t feel as if their young were under attack. Parents can be protective toward their offspring - apparently. Mine never were. I would have to be subtle also because I’d be talking bullshit. Kids were hanging around with their mums and dads in order to score a free pint of expensive lager before going off on their own: their behaviour was in reality a function of inflated beverage prices, not the apathy of post-banking crisis youth.
My fiancée had returned with two more pints of beer, then gone to find a toilet, and I had inadvertently drunk both of them as I was musing about my potential speech. I’m not normally a drinker, but the afternoon was getting hotter by the minute, and dust was starting to catch in my throat. I decided I had better replace her drink, otherwise her pleasant and amenable mood might not last as long as I needed it to - which was twenty-four hours minimum, given that we could if necessary make a dash for home after the interview, no matter how much the Ashes wanted us there for the whole thing.
I got up and immediately fell sideways, bouncing off a man who was walking by and then tripping over a woman who was setting out a picnic rug. I apologised, not too profusely but with what I hoped was self-deprecating wit. I began seriously to wish I hadn’t skipped breakfast, and wondered if I should get some kind of sustenance inside me before I started consuming more alcohol.
What I wanted was a bacon sandwich, but to a public figure, they are this year’s toxic foodstuff. I happen to think that Ed Miliband was ordered by his Martians to eat one in order to prove that he’s not really Jewish, but maybe that’s me having a lower opinion of the electorate than I should have. He should have known better anyway, being at least part-Martian himself. Thinking about Miliband’s agonised bacon face killed my appetite, so I returned to the bar and queued for beer. Some band or other had finished on the main stage - actually I knew who the band were, by the age - my age - of the thirsty people suddenly swarming at the bar. I remembered from reading the line-ups - and I remembered deciding that I wouldn’t be seen dead watching - a reformed eighties synth outfit who no longer had the hair to lather with gel and put into ridiculous shapes as they used to. There were more like this on the bill, nostalgia acts to please fifty-year-olds, forty-year-olds, thirty-year-olds. Then there was the long list of unknown acts. Probably some of those were themselves five years out of date, and were there to attract the twenty-five-year-old nostalgics; I didn’t know. Swelled with codgers like me, the beer marquee was suddenly as full as a West End pub on a Friday night, or the bar at Aston University Students’ Union, circa bloody decades ago.
“Shut your eyes and you wouldn’t know the difference,” one of the crowd said, about the band, which made me even more glad I’d missed them. I thought, how can I make a speech that hints at revitalising the country’s culture through youth-style social/artistic rebellion when my generation is represented by this tired old rubbish?
I held my ground, as I always try to do, against the crush, caught the barman’s eye with a raised brow of my own, and bought two more beers at a fiver each. At this rate I was going to be borrowing money off Aisling before the weekend was out.
Or Ashley. In the brief gaps between crowds of punters leaving the main stage area, I could pick out my fiancée sitting close to the spot I had vacated. Next to her, unmistakeable because of his size, the jut of his chin and the angle of his bearing - he always looked as if he had just thrown back his luxuriant hair and was gazing out to sea - was Ashley. She seemed tiny and vulnerable next to him. Once again they disappeared behind a swathe of sandal-footed bare legs. I couldn’t help but feel protective toward her, and quickened my pace. Almost inevitably, I stumbed on a raised divot. I felt myself begin to fall and the only other feeling I had was an intense irritation that I was going to have to go back to the bar and queue for yet more bloody drinks - unless I could just keep myself upright. In what must have been the blink of an eye, I gained control of my limbs, and then lost it again as the legs themselves seemed to take over, one buckling under me and the other shooting forward like the legs of a Cossack dancer. As one leg took my weight, the other shimmied back, then itself took the weight while the other one made a low half-step. While all this was going on I kept my arms raised and my eyes forward and in two or three steps I was upright, steady, and still holding onto the drinks. On my hands there was barely a drop of spilled beer. Years of running and the dancing days of my youth had served me well, I decided.
I turned to both sides and nodded with a half-smile, in case anyone had seen. I felt a fool of course, but the trick is always to pretend otherwise. I was still holding the smile when I reached my fiancée and Ashley.
I handed my fiancée her drink and said to Ashley: “I’d have bought you one if I’d known.”
“You made it, sir, I was starting to worry,” Ashley said.
The words arrived as a drawn-out glottal whine like the noise of a distant bandsaw, in an accent formed in the school dormitory and remolded by internships in the States, over-winters in the southern hemisphere, and seasons in Megève.
“Less of the ‘sir’, we’re in public. How did you find us?”
“You’re hard to miss, with the staggering about and falling over. Nice recovery, by the way. So I hear you didn’t manage to put your own tent up. I hope we’re not going to be treated to images next week of you standing around being useless on YouTube. That’s so not why we’re here.”
“Excuse me!” my fiancée said. “That’s not what I said at all.”
Ashley ignored her, and added: “Seriously sir, if there’s anything else you can’t do, call us. We’ll arrange for you to look as if you’re doing something else. We’ll be in touch.”
With that, he rose to his full, impressive height in one movement.
“Here’s your festival phones,” he said. He raised one eyebrow as if mugging for the cameras, and reached onto his pale blue man-bag. He pulled out two phones that looked ten years old and handed one to me, one to my fiancée. “No camera, no wi-fi, and it’s charged. You’ll find our number in ‘contacts’.”
He turned in the military fashion and began to stride off into the crowd. I tried to think of something to yell at his back that would stop him in his tracks, but nothing sprang to mind. Instead I concentrated on looking anywhere but at my fiancée.
“What?” she said, after taking a long time to spot that I was ignoring her. “We were discussing camping. I was telling him how easy our tent was to put up, and happened to say that we’re looking after your bad back. I barely know Ashley, I was trying to make conversation.”
“I’m sure. Well I’ve finished this beer. Shall we go and enjoy the festival then?” I mimed rabbit’s ears quotation marks around ‘enjoy the festival’.
“Oh, for heaven’s sake!”
I conducted a brief recce of the Literary Tent, in which I would be debating. It was full, despite there being another band on the main stage. There was a bulky, middle-aged woman on the stage who appeared to be dressed in a floral curtain, and even that failed to cover her up. She was reading from a book, presumably her own, a passage set in a village square in Portugal - scents of wild herbs and pine, the usual - in which her eyes meet with those of a handsome local who turns out, hallelujah, to be a widower, and... I didn’t want to hear the rest. It was a bit florid. It was also quite hard to hear over the noise of the band on the main stage, and the sound-man kept turning her up. It was definitely her own work and it didn’t sound like fiction. I could tell that she wasn’t happy reading the story. It was plain to see in her eyes that she didn’t want to tell the world the details of her love life, but for reasons that seemed to tie in with her dress sense, the need to be artistic or ‘transgressive’, she felt that she had to. Maybe her publisher had told her to do it.
This is how it is, I thought. Power used to be an aphrodisiac. Now it’s the other way around and you have to prove your virility before anyone listens to you. Once, the young were the ones who had all the sex, or wanted to but didn’t, and sang pop songs about it; meanwhile the middle-aged and the old got on with running the country and writing books about the human condition and the state of the world. Now the stage is overrun by men in their fifties singing juvenile songs and plinking about on keyboards, this silly old woman is forced to boast about her Latin lover in print and in public, and I am reduced to parading my girlfriend around a field in East Anglia in order to prove my manhood to the great mass of the middle-aged and middle-class.
“Let’s move on,” I said to my fiancée.
“I’m listening,” she whispered back crossly.
Fine, I thought. I stood up and walked off with my hands in my pockets, looking in retrospect like a sullen, pouting teenager. I know this because I’ve seen the footage.
Topographically, the festival site was a natural bowl. As I stamped away from the literary tent I could feel myself being pulled to one side. To compensate, I leaned, which made me sway. Highly amplified music came from all sides, filtered by distance and the breeze so that all I could hear was a wooden thud like the repeated closing of a heavy kitchen door. These thuds came in separate rhythms from the different stages and tents dotted around the main stage down in the bowl, and as I walked I became sensitised to the syncopation, following the beats and waiting for two of them to hit together. I pictured it as three or four tennis players bouncing balls on the turf with their rackets at different heights. I desperately needed to eat something before my woozy state turned into full-on synaesthesia.
At times like this, you can keep your halloumi wraps and saltfish patties, only chips will do. I was not in a minority thinking this, and queued for a good twenty minutes, then just as the woman in the van was handing me my chips, I realised that I had spent all of my money on beer. She was still holding the tray of chips out for me, and I made the decision to take them off her before she could take them back. I was about to leap up, grab them like a seagull and run away when I felt a tap on my shoulder.
“Hello,” Aisling said. “I’ve been looking for you.”
I span around in surprise, then asked: “Have you got any money?”
“What? Yes, wait a second.”
She reached into her handbag, pulled out a purse and began opening and closing zipped compartments. Finally she pulled out a ten pound note and handed it to me. I turned and waved it at the woman with the chips, who had gone behind the till. When she emerged again, she was serving someone else.
“Excuse me,” I said. “My chips.”
“You’re too late, someone else had them.”
“You can’t do that! Can I have some now please?”
“There’s the queue.”
“I don’t care who you are, Mister man-of-the-people, if you want chips, queue for them.”
In my mind, she had turned into a mediaeval hag, all chin-hairs and warts. Lamely I said: “I did.”
With that, she turned to someone else, ignoring my further protests.
“Never mind, eh?” Aisling said, leading me firmly away from the kiosk.
I was annoyed that Aisling hadn’t managed to pay for my chips, but was so pleased with her for inadvertently saving me from doing something incredibly stupid - stealing them - that I could have kissed her. Then I kissed her, which was incredibly stupid.
In my defence, I was drunk, lightheaded from hunger and suffering from mild heatstroke. These are the defences I’m going to have to use over the next few days as this whole bloody mess unravels.
Aisling took offence. She bolted back to the main stage which led to the VIP area, and that was the last I saw of her all weekend. I have no idea if she told Ashley, not that it mattered in the end.
I thought about chasing her across the long sloping paddock, but a brief moment of clarity showed me how like a dangerous lunatic I would have looked, chasing a small freckled woman, on whom I had just planted an unwanted kiss, across a field to the martial soundtrack of a thudding bass. Instead I trudged, defeated, back to my fiancée in the Literary Tent.
She hadn’t moved, but the curtain-clad author had been replaced by a young comedian who I recognised from television quizzes. My fiancée smiled at me. Evidently I was forgiven, which made me more miserable than ever. I thought briefly about breaking up with her, there and then. It would have got it out of the way. We could have gone home separately, one of us driving, the other with Ash and Ash. She could have stayed if she wanted, given that she was so keen to enjoy the festival, not to mention that she’d put the tent up by herself and deserved to have a night in it. On the other hand, I didn’t know if Aisling was going to tell, and if not, it could have been forgotten.
And so I settled down to ‘enjoy’ the festival. I was too sick in my stomach to be hungry any more, and I was more sober than I’d been in hours. I accompanied my fiancée to one of the smaller stages, where we watched the second half of an alt-country band’s doom-laden set of hushed pedal steel ballads, and then witnessed an unscheduled appearance by a young singer who even I know to be number-one in America. Once again the air above the crowd’s heads was chocka with camera-phones, and not one was pointing at me.
“You stay out if you want,” I said. “If I don’t go to bed now, I’ll fall asleep here.” I meant it, as I seemed to mean everything I said over the next however many hours it was that we were at the festival.
“No,” she replied, “I’ll hit the sack too.”
She didn’t sleep at all, she said in the morning, what with the music being so loud and drunken people tripping over and kicking the tent on their way past. I slept like an innocent and woke up with barely a hangover. My performance at the debate was solid, as far as I remember. The main parties sent a couple of minor functionaries each, and I was probably the only person onstage with any real ambitions in politics, which rather gave me the edge. I got in a few lines about hoping for a new youth culture, but it wasn’t necessary; my usual tropes were sufficient. There were no interruptions from the main stage because it was too early for the music to have started. Sadly that meant it was also too early for anyone except a few elderly Radio 4 types to want to attend. I didn’t see any phones pointing at me, and the festival didn’t record the debate. The chairwoman shook our hands afterwards and apologised for the poor attendance, and we the debaters all ignored each other.
In case it was the last afternoon we would spend together, I didn’t hurry my fiancée out of the festival. There was a nineties band on that she wanted to see. I dutifully went with her, and at one point we even danced together.
This final dance was recorded, and indeed broadcast on YouTube, although not at the correct speed and not to the same music.
It took many hours to get packed up and drive home, and when we did, my fiancée was ready for a well-deserved rest. I was ready for whatever shit was going to get thrown at me. I managed to divert my fiancée away from the landline phone and the messages it held, and plugged in my smartphone. There were forty missed calls and half as many messages, all from Ashma and Ashley. Ashley couldn’t decide whether to be furious with me or to gloat, and somehow managed to do both at the same time. Ashma sounded as if he was having a panic attack, repeatedly. In message after message, he told me to look at a YouTube channel that was posting videos of me. Repeatedly, and in an ever-higher voice, he told me to talk to no one, please!
I turned on the computer, and while my fiancée was taking a shower, looked at the YouTube link that Ashma had helpfully included in an e-mail to go with all the phone calls and texts. There were five videos in all, four of them being clips of me at the festival. The first was of me falling over as I tried to stand up, cutting to me managing to keep my feet as I tripped up whilst carrying the beer, the second was me flouncing out of the Literary Tent, to the soundtrack of the author in the flowery dress getting louder and louder as the passage she was reading got more and more explicit. The third video was of me arguing with the woman from the fish and chip van and then kissing Aisling. The woman’s ‘Mister man-of-the-people’ sneer came across particularly well. The fourth, ridiculous but poignant, was my fiancée and me dancing. Differences in picture quality indicated that the videos had come from different sources. Someone had taken the trouble to bring all this together, and I wondered what the hell else there was out there, waiting to incriminate me further.
Nothing more would be necessary. The fifth video was a compilation of the previous four, slowed down and set to Debussy’s Arabesque Numéro Un. I had to admire it. It would have been so easy to speed it up and set it to Yakety Sax, but this way the agony lasted for an eternity. My recovery with the beer glasses became a strange, alien dance, and the kiss changed from being a sloppy, relatively innocent smacker, to a clinch that hovered somewhere between the romantic and the disturbing.
The landline rang. I hadn’t noticed my fiancée getting out the shower, and she answered it.
“I’m sorry?” she said. “I’ll get him, he’s... what do you mean? All right, I’m doing it now.”
She turned on the television, and there was the slow-motion video, blown up to forty-two inches. A studio audience was laughing, almost drowning out the gentle, soothing music. She smiled a little at first, giving me a rueful little glance, which I couldn’t return. She froze at the kiss and pulled the towel more tightly around herself. When the video finished, she went into the bedroom without looking at me. I watched a little more, as a panel of three comedians and a retired former minister wiped tears of laughter from their eyes. The ex-minister said: “Words fail me,” and the audience erupted into further hilarity.
- - -
It is three days later. I don’t have anything to resign from. I’ll leave the party if they want rid of me, but we are beginning to pull the situation around. I am actually associated with the phrase ‘man of the people’ now. It used to be just a jokey office shorthand to describe the populism that we aspire to, but now someone has said it, out loud and on camera - and it doesn’t matter how sarcastically she said it, the phrase is starting to stick. It doesn’t hurt that she said it in a grating Suffolk accent that sounds like something from the nineteenth century. I know it is a Suffolk accent, not just because the festival was in Suffolk but because the Daily Express traced the woman to a chip shop in Ipswich, where she very graciously commented: “I was just tired. It was a long shift. I quite like him, really.”
Aisling has agreed to pretend to have had an affair with me. The kiss will look like part of that, rather than the small-scale act of personal violation that it was. She is single, luckily. I didn’t know that. Will anyone think the worse of her because they think she slept with me? My Dad will, but he lives in an old people’s home in Cleethorpes, and no one has cared about his opinion for years. My real exes haven’t done too bad, the ones I’m in touch with anyway, so I can’t be all that toxic. Aisling will break up with me, as of now, quietly but making sure that everyone knows about it. She will cite a personal/professional conflict of interest, and insist that she wishes to continue working for our cause, and indeed to continue working as one of my Martians.
I don’t know what the price will be. She can have all the fancy coffees she likes, and she will never have to deal with Keep Eastbourne British or the Doncaster blackshirts. In the present climate, where a charismatic man is seen as an incipient rapist, she could have hung me out to dry, so I am hugely in her debt. It may well be that I end up working for her cause, and to be frank I’m not too worried if that’s what happens. If she wants me to speak up for women, I’ll do that. If she wants me to be a spokesman for ginger-nuts from the Wirral, I won’t mind. For years I’ve lacked a direction, and as long as she doesn’t tell me to invade somewhere or sell off the NHS - neither of which are quite her style - I think we’ll get along fine. Ashma knows the score, and says - in his incomprehensible way - that he doesn’t think anything has changed, which I find quite insulting. Ashley sits in his office and stews. I don’t think he had anything to do with the videos, but someone has put out hints that he did. Him knowing about my bad back is not really comparable to the hold that Aisling has over me.
My fiancée and I have split up, sadly, and obviously. The kiss, she said, wasn’t anything in itself, but it showed that my heart wasn’t really in the relationship. Yes, she said, she knew I wasn’t going to run off with Aisling, but as soon as I got a sniff of the power that I crave, I would be off with someone.
“They all do. You all do,” she said. “It’s best that we’ve found out before it’s too late.”
She doesn’t know about my phantom affair with Aisling yet, and it will be quite humiliating for her when it goes public. To make amends, I know people who know people, who have visited people. The clips still on YouTube and occasionally doing the rounds on television have been very slightly edited, about a quarter of a second trimmed so that my former fiancée’s face no longer appears in the flouncing out section. The clip of us dancing together has disappeared completely. I owe her more, but that is all the power I have at the moment.