Lust For Glory
I’ve been a fan of the Scottish literary character Bob Servant from even before he was first published as I bore witness to a hilarious reading from some of his antics due to the heady mix of a celebrity asked for a quote for the book’s cover, a preview copy, and his pay-per-listen podcast. A resident of Broughty Ferry Servant will often remind you that he’s a veteran of the Dundee cheeseburger wars of the nineteen-eighties and that he went on to own the largest window cleaning round in Western Europe, until he had his ladders stolen by Gypsies, but that’s Bob all over. His first book Delete This at your Peril comes about after he happened to win a computer in the bowling club raffle and, new to the internet, took to engaging international spammers in conversation, leading them a merry dance, whilst all they were trying to do was extract his bank details. There was only ever going to be one winner.
It was at the time of the Eastleigh by-election of 2013 that Servant made the transition to TV; their Liberal Democrat Member of Parliament Chris Huhne, the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change, having got himself sent to prison for perjury over who exactly was driving his speeding car. The BBC series coincidentally followed Servant’s fight for political office as an independent candidate, a by-election having been called in Broughty Ferry, although on the Eastleigh ballot paper there was an independent candidate and character whom I liked to imagine as a real-life Bob Servant.
One of Bob’s quirks is his constant references to women as “skirt” and so it therefore amused me immensely, in serious political articles, to have them seemingly referred to by the seventies prehistoric terminology of “crumpet”. I say this as Ray Hall was standing on behalf of the Beer, Baccy & Crumpet Party although in the article I read they never seemed to reveal exactly what sort of “crumpet” he was promising.
I also couldn’t help raise a smile every time they referenced his headquarters which, because of his party’s long name, my eye kept picking out “Crumpet HQ”, and how can you not vote for a man who lives in a place like that? Saying that, though, in pictures taken at said lair Hall, pint in hand, didn’t quite look like a man constantly surrounded by girls, so perhaps he was just pushing griddled bread products instead.
When Franklin Roosevelt stood for American President he used the slogan: “A New Deal and a Pot of Beer for Everyone”, whereas I like to imagine that Ray Hall’s slogan was either: “A Pot of Beer and Crumpet for Everyone”, or “A Vote for Hall is a Vote for Crumpet”.
The article about Hall did a lot to build up his credibility somewhat, but then all that was immediately dissipated every time you remembered he was campaigning on behalf of the Beer, Baccy &Crumpet Party. This and that the one policy he seemed to be standing on, going off this article, was the fantastical notion of lending out your body parts. Not organ donation, but organ loaning, which meant you could request your spare parts back whenever you wanted.
As an independent candidate Bob Servant had some bizarre policies too, made-up on the hoof, which included direct trains to Ireland, shooting the dogs in Dawson Park, and when pushed on the issue of gay marriage he said that if, after a couple of drinks, men chose to have a little cuddle then that was “absolutely just about fine” although went on further to state his belief that lesbians were just an urban myth.
It’s probably fair to say that Ray Hall played little part in the eventual outcome of the Eastleigh by-election, garnering just 0.6 percent of the vote, although his did swamp the Monster Raving Loony and Elvis Loves Pets parties combined, but it was good to see that the spirit of anarchy that Bob Servant brought to would-be politics lived on, and this brought to mind my own lust for glory, surely rivalling Macbeth’s own, although as anyone questing for power should remember King Richard III who once had it all and he ended up with the ignominy of being tarmaced over by Leicester City Council to build a car park.
To misquote a line from Shakespeare: “Be not afraid of power: some are born powerful, some achieve power and some have power thrust upon them” and with my own tale I fall very much into the latter category as my default position, generally, is to hide away from the world, preferably under a duvet, although unfortunately throughout my life I’ve always had a nagging little voice at the back of my head: not so much adding a voice to the political views of the neighbour’s dog, but one that’s repeatedly forced me to put myself forward, volunteering for things I quite happily wouldn’t have, and all in the hope that it’d bring my “out of my shell” and make me a better, more outgoing, person.
It was in the final year of Primary School that I was appointed Head Boy, which was quite a surprise, especially as it had only been a year previous when they’d actually decided that I was finally capable of using a pen to write with. However as another of my academic failings was an aversion to football it may have helped that the appointment required someone to forego the weekly Thursday afternoon of running around a field and instead to spend it, in the warm, visiting all of the teachers to collect their nominations for that week’s merit badge and have their comments written in my little book. Thus I was privy to the secrets that lay within.
So, having had a taste of it, when Secondary School came along and each form was asked to provide representatives that little voice got to work and made sure I was putting myself out there. Seeing as we were a room of mostly strangers, amalgamated from different Primary Schools, my previous form came in handy as I overheard Lucy Hargreaves selling me to the others on the back of my sterling Head Boy role. Well, as it turned out, it was more than anybody else had.
Similarly, at my Birmingham University Halls of Residence, student representatives were immediately sough from each floor – of which the numbers involved were fantastical: 23 students, 1 shower, 1 cooker – and there I was again putting myself forward, finding myself attending meetings for a couple of months, before news of the big one came up.
Chamberlain Hall had seven hundred students, with some claim about being one of the biggest halls in Europe, and seeing as the JCR filched thirty pounds from each student it meant that they commanded an annual budge of over twenty thousand pounds. The elections for all the JCR posts were held three months into the university year and, for some crazed reason I still cannot fathom, I decided to seize power and run for President. I cannot stress how ill-suited I would have been for the role at the age of eighteen, but by now I guess I felt it was something that I should do, and in the end it took the death of my Grandfather to prevent me from making such a fool of myself.
The elections still went ahead, the candidate I voted for didn’t win, and some smug-looking guy with a name a bit like that of the Hollywood film star Tim Robbins, although different, did and the highlight of his year-long power trip was when his team were caught dipping their hand into the JCR cash to pay for takeaways for themselves because they “thought they deserved it”. The grudge I’ve retained against him is admittedly set against a girl called Angie Meadows whom he replaced who throughout my time at Birmingham I held as the ideal role model for the job, almost as if she cared, and every time I hear Angie by the Rolling Stones on the radio I still think of her.
That boat may have sailed, but then I stuck around in Chamberlain Hall for another year and then, for whatever bizarre reason, I just couldn’t help myself. At least in the intervening period I’d lowered my ambitions and decided to go for one of the Vice-Presidential roles in the form of the Secretary; even though I have no clue what that job entailed now and, I suspect, didn’t have much of a better idea back then, but like Hunter S. Thompson before me: I was on the campaign trail.
One of the benefits I had of having liven in halls for a year longer than most was that I’d seen other people’s campaigns the previous year and what really stuck out was that all their posters had been boring. Really boring. These people came along and blue-tacked up their boring posers, left them there, and that was it. The only variation was in how they got defaced and vandalised. So I set out to do it better. My posters weren’t going to be boring. My posters were going to be different. And my posters were going to change throughout the campaign so boredom didn’t set in. However, due to the elections taking place in the first term after Christmas, all the material I had in my PR armoury was one issue of Doctor Who Magazine (number 245), one issue of The Fortean Times (number 93), and some magazine I’d picked up for free on the Virgin train down there. And with the limited pictures contained within, and access to an imagination and a photocopier, I began my campaign.
My self-deprecating humour, or maybe just my low opinion of myself, was obviously present even then as looking back most of my posters seemed to be designed to tell the electorate how rubbish I was. Either that or I was dazzling them with startling reverse psychology in reaction to every other university candidate, seemingly ever, who post up claims about how they’re absolutely just the best despite failing to offer up any corroborating evidence to substantiate this whatsoever.
For the first one I took a picture of Rodin’s statue The Kiss and fully channelling a Terry Gilliam Monty Python sketch cut some finger holes in her and had him suggesting “You hum it and I’ll play it” whilst from her kneecap emerged a fluttering of musical notes. All this above a simple Vote S*******n. This was about as normal and as positive as I got and it wasn’t so much downhill from hereon in but more down the rabbit hole.
Next with a definitely genuine photograph of a hulking American Bigfoot, conveniently looking straight down the camera lens, I gave him the speech bubble “What you looking at?” as the touchy-feely mollycoddling of the electorate clearly wasn’t for me.
Whipping off the front cover of the Doctor Who Magazine which had Colin Baker pointing at the camera, whilst supporting the actor Tony Selby, made an effective clichéd Lord Kitcherner-style poster apart from my taking into account Selby’s pained look, giving him the more revealing contradictory speech bubble: “No, I’ve heard he’s crap”.
Next, and Doctor Who again, with a classic photo of the original William Hartnell leaning over the TARDIS console, his fingers dancing across switches, with a long and winding speech-bubbled monologue which began as a variation on the Mary had a little lamb rhyme and ended with Hartnell turning on me disparagingly with a descriptive expletive, obscure by an ink spill, that clearly rhymed with Manchester City.
The “reverse psychology” then continued with a poster of lines from classic British TV. These days I’d be all over the internet getting the exact quote, but then I had to rely on what was engrained in my memory, but why that train magazine had a picture of John Cleese that accompanies the pen line from Fawlty Towers in the first place I do not know. This poster was really quite meaningless and ran down, past Bullseye’s Jim Bowen, to Hercule Poirot announcing: “Il Est Completemont Kake”.
And then a whole poster with a quote from one of the early episodes of Red Dwarf – “Six, that’s a poor IQ for a glass of water” – which I guess is meaningless without knowing the context. This large quote then accompanied a simple hand drawn glass of water – all four lines of it – pleading with the electorate to vote for me.
I don’t know why, I must have been having so much fun doing all this, that then I just got puzzling. More puzzling. I mean, beefing up the former Olympic athlete Liz McColgan with meat products to play on the BSE crisis? All accompanied with the slogan Barking Beef Mad.
A picture of a man covered in bees playing a clarinet? Grist to my mill with the slogan: They Don’t Call Him the Honey Monster For Nothing even though I don’t think people ever referred to me as the Honey Monster at all, but I guess you just have to play the pictures from the magazines as they lie.
Then from the puzzling to the bizarre. I mean I started relying on people’s ability to identify my posters as I even stopped adding my name to them. New Secretary, Same Old Rubbish accompanied with a headshot of the crazed Master of the Land of Fiction with his eyes coloured in red. I had to buy a special red felt-tip pen just to do that, ten years on from being begrudgingly awarded my pen licence and now look at me go, but I’d moved from the black & white confines of the photocopier and into the world of colour… even if it was just for two small dots. This poster also included a disclaimer that the slur wasn’t actually referring to anyone in the role past, present, or future, and how other candidates were available.
Bright Eyes set above what looks like the letterbox view of the Esso tiger, himself peering out from between two red curtains, to the caption “Tony Blair or his more famous brother Lionel?” was a combination of the haunting song from Watership Down sung by Art Garfunkel, a famous poster at the time trying to demonise Tony Blair (it didn’t work, he won the 1997 election with a landslide), and my enduring belief in that there’s something innately funny in the mistaken belief that the former Prime Minister was actually related to the light entertainment tap dancing star. It probably still isn’t funny now, it didn’t promote me or mean anything credible, but by this stage I was unstoppable, and with the curtains I went to town with my new felt-tip. Getting my money’s worth.
My neighbour on the fifth floor, a year younger than me like everyone I lived amongst, started to get in on the act towards the end of the campaign. Perhaps he saw how much fun I was having, but he decided to invent another underground candidate for me to fight against in the form of a Leopard. I don’t know why, perhaps there was some explanation at the time, but still I wasn’t too proud and reissued one of my old posters with my own celebrity endorser, William Hartnell, the man who’d previously called me out for being “shitty”, only this time with the speech bubble “I’ve changed my mind, vote Leopard” and the punch line “Knocks spots off the rest”.
Viewing all this now it does look like a cry for help. Perhaps I should submit these posters as evidence somewhere, to see whether I should be admitted to some sort of institution, but I hope that you’ll agree that I was certainly committed in the fight for this election. There was something about a chemistry degree going on at the same time, but that was very much in the background, but after I’d warmed up the electorate with my publicity campaign then came the hustings where I would come face to face with the ugly voting masses. And I had my own special plan about how I was going to deal with them too.
I’d been eying up my competitor through the medium of his posters. Besides the Leopard the only real competition I had was a guy called Matthew Patient who used various guff quotes such as “The faintest ink is more powerful than the strongest memory” which, in the context of souped-up popularity competition, were ultimately meaningless. And it was only at the hustings, when we finally met in the flesh, that we both got a shock when we realised that we actually knew each other. Just not our surnames.
As much as I planned to sweep away all presented to me I did like Matt and so I felt a little sorry when in front of the crowded audience filling the large TV room, of as many of the seven hundred residents who were interested, I got to go up first. I’d seen this the year before and so my appearance was a reaction to the pretentious long speeches, from people you didn’t know, droning on about how they were going to be the best. I think when I stood up I told them all that, before adding that the only promise I could offer them was that I would try my best, and with that I could say no more…
And so I didn’t.
I sat down.
And everyone cheered for the startling and brief honesty.
That night I tasted success and knew that in the political stakes I was a shoo in.
I actually saw the colour drain from Matt’s usual red face as he then had to stand up to give his lengthy pre-written speech for which he’d prepared. And all the time I was sat there watching on the front row and afterwards I thought he looked like a man who’d been just been mugged.
Then came the election and, despite being the quiet loner with no social life, I had people coming up to me in the dining room whilst I ate my tea shaking my hand and telling me that they’d just voted for me. I’d earned some local notoriety and, the legwork having been done, it was a downhill coast to victory.
I should add that, on a heartening note, not one single poster of mine got defaced or vandalised. I put them all up, I took them all down again. I took this as a sign that people had respected my efforts and that I was in tune with the student population. I gave them the gift of humour, and variation, and in return I asked for nothing… except that they all went out and voted me into power like some sort of benevolent Hitler.
And then the ballot was counted, the results posted up on the wall for all to see, and it was with the same apprehension that I’d later approach tabulated exam results that I embraced my anointing with destiny.
Except that I lost.
Quite badly, as it happens.
With only twenty percent of the votes, compared to Matt who pulled in over half, it really probably wasn’t worth asking for a recount.
With a turnout of about twenty percent I swept the boards with thirty-one votes, whilst six people puzzlingly ticked the box asking for the nominations to be reopened: I don’t know why as it was surely a right sideshow of candidates to begin with. More surprisingly there actually was a third candidate I’d never even heard of called Christopher Norman who didn’t bother to turn up at the public hustings, or even to advertise, so if this was a science experiment then he would have been the control group. And I only managed ten more votes than him. All that effort for ten votes! One of them was my own.
Posterity also records that fourteen of the seven hundred students who could be bothered to vote saw fit to spoil their nomination somehow. My neighbour running the guerrilla Leopard campaign only saw it fitting to deface the official result poster and claim these votes for his candidate. And in turn, despite the deference displayed to mine, this was a poster which shortly afterwards some lout pinched off the wall. Bloody students.
I remember my time at Birmingham University as my forgotten years, can’t remember much about them, certainly didn’t enjoy myself, and so holding the election result poster in my hands now, all this time later, I somehow can’t balance this account on the campaign trail, taken from primary sources, with the miserable loner that I believe myself to have been. I guess we can’t both be right.
It was heartening to see that Bob Godzilla Servant went on to have fun with his posters too. He too didn’t go for the bold claim that he was the best, but instead played on his local advantage and told his campaign manager Frank the Plank to incorporate the message that they all knew him and that he was alright kind of guy. When Bob took Frank to task about the finished result, an all text poster reading “Vote for Bob Servant because you know him and he’s ok” Frank defended the message in his handiwork with “You’re not going to send it much better than that. I mean, this… This sends it. Exactly.”
I have no recall whatsoever of how I felt after my defeat, but I suspect that I might have secretly thought I’d got off lightly and thus, after the thrill of the campaign, that I’d had the best of both worlds. I had been standing for a role that I was probably ill-capable of carrying out as I surely lacked the social skills then to arrange social events for hundreds of students; social events of which in my three years living in Chamberlain Hall I would never go on to attend myself. I didn’t even drink at the time, and could hardly have afforded to if I did, so it was probably just heartening to know that enough people saw through me for the fool I may be as, after all, they’d probably had the best out of me already. But then I don’t have any regrets because, in elections, as in life: It’s all about the journey.