London's own grim fairy tale

With genies, the Pied Piper and strange omens greeting him at every corner, Blake Morrisonfinds the

Perhaps I read Dick Whittington too often as a child, but I've been having trouble taking this mayoral business seriously. Sure, the job of running one of the world's greatest capital cities is extremely important. But whenever someone says "mayor of London", I think of gold-paved streets and Bow Bells chiming out "Turn again". If I'd had policy statements to study, I might have cured myself of this frivolity. But to date, not a shred of campaign bumf has come through the letterbox. Which only adds to the fairy-tale quality of this election.

Resolved to become a better informed and more responsible voter, I set off to a student hustings in the Museum of London at which nine of the 11 candidates were due to speak. I had imagined a rowdy caucus of social science undergraduates. But most of the "students" were schoolchildren aged between ten and 14. Nothing wrong with that; indeed, a worthy initiative from the Institute of Citizenship to get kids interested in politics before they reach voting age - after which interest inevitably wanes. Still, some of the children seemed more excited at having the afternoon off school than in grilling the future mayor.

While the organisers waited vainly for Ken Livingstone and Frank Dobson to attend their photo-call, I wandered through Roman London, Saxon London, Medieval London, Tudor London and Victorian London, before reaching London Present and Future. Would there be an exhibit of Livingstone's London, I wondered? Not exactly. But for the period 1945-2000, the following major historical landmarks were listed: 1965, Man Walks in Space; 1963, GLC Created; 1989, Berlin Wall Comes Down. Spot the odd one out.

Back in the auditorium, all the mayoral exhibits were now on display, apart from Livingstone. Martyn Lewis, in the chair, put it to the audience that Ken should be given a black mark for unpunctuality. "No," howled the kids in protest and cheered for Ken's empty seat.

Since this meeting was also intended as an object lesson in how modern democracy works, the questions which the children wanted to put - and the order in which they were to put them - had all been agreed in advance. "Do you ever use public transport to get to work?" someone asked. A bit of a soft one for starters (no politician would be seen dead driving in London these days), but the theme came back several times. Everyone agreed that traffic was a mess, and that under-investment in buses and trains, and overuse of cars, were to blame. The only dissenter was Geoffrey Ben-Nathan, of the Pro-Motorist and Small Shop Party, who wants free high-street parking and a ban on clamping. His message did not go down well. The spirit was with those who plan a congestion tax. According to Livingstone, whose eventual arrival was greeted with whoops of delight, public enemy number one in London is: "cars, cars, cars. Asthma and pollution are murdering us. The freedom to drive is really the freedom to kill."

On the question of how to get young people more interested in politics, Ken talked of "getting schools involved in setting up an environmental task force - cleaning up gardens, planting trees, and creating nature-corridors". This seemed a surefire crowd-pleaser, but Ken had reckoned without the child who pointed out that "we get so much homework nowadays, there'd be no time for it".

A heftyish boy from Hampstead had a better idea: mock-elections in schools. They were having one at his, he said, and he was playing the part of Ken Livingstone.

"Then you'll have to lose a bit of weight," said Martyn Lewis, and was roundly booed and hissed.

By now, the children were restive. The candidates were difficult to tell apart, and not only because of their blandly similar policies. "Look at you," complained one schoolgirl, "Suit, suit, suit, suit - it's quite boring." At least Frank Dobson had a red tie on. And Susan Kramer's suit was vivid and undeniably female. Ken, in shirtsleeves and braces, pointed out that New York's Mayor Giuliani is a cross-dresser, hinting at fun to come in the new-look London over which he'll preside.

With panto finally triumphing over politics, the candidates were allowed one wish by the genie for improving London. The answers were predictable: clean the place up, make it safe, reduce traffic, stop racism. A more novel suggestion came from one of the audience: "My wish would be for mayoral candidates to actually answer the questions." But, by this point, half of them had gone, leaving the children to hold an election in which Ken Livingstone triumphed (45 per cent), and only Susan Kramer among the rest scored respectably.

Curious to see how the candidates might win the hearts of present rather than future voters, I inquired what they were up to on the next day. "Don't ask me," said Ken, who'd come without a minder, "I'm only the candidate." He gave me a phone number to ring. But the lady answering was sorry to say there'd been a change of policy towards the press, and that no journalists were being allowed on Ken's bus. This seemed a mite paranoid to me, given the media's friendliness towards Livingstone and his 37-point lead. But I can imagine how you could go off Ken if you spent time with him (the coldness of his manner, the lack of friends), so perhaps his team knows what it's doing.

I asked about Dobson's movements, instead. "His aide is the one in the anorak," I was told. But a dawn appearance with Frank among commuters at Hammersmith tube sounded far too anoraky to be fun.

That's why I ended up in Golders Green next morning, following Steve Norris. Dobbo would surely have felt at home in this follicly profuse community, though I doubt he would have been made as welcome as Norris, who could hardly believe his luck. Schoolboys with yarmulkes, rabbis, shoppers in the kosher supermarket, young wives in black headshawls, ancient pensioners with tremulous vowels from Mittel-europa - all rushed to shake his hand, pledge their vote . In Blooms, a man who'll be 103 on 3 May attributed his longevity to having lived chastely as a bachelor.

"Me, I'm going to die an early death then," said Norris.

"Down with Ken!" shouted a man out in the street. "That's right," said Norris. "What's it they say about Ken? Respected by all who don't know him."

Later, while Norris entertained supporters with a perfect impersonation of his rival's nasal whine, one of his aides tried to persuade me they could still win - that support for Ken is "soft" and will slip away.

Norris, more realistic, was probably just enjoying the novelty of not being sworn at. Back in 1997, his catchphrase while out knocking on doors was: "Do you want to hit me, or shall I hit myself?" Golders Green in 2000 was altogether different. Not since the heyday of Mrs T can a Tory have had so pleasant an outing.

After shamefully accepting a cappuccino, doubtless paid for from Conservative Party funds, I drove east to Walthamstow to spend the afternoon with Liberal Democrat Susan Kramer. (Sorry about the car, but I was just proving the point: the eight-mile journey took me well over an hour.)

Kramer is rather keen on getting out there among the public: this was her 104th high-street walkabout since being nominated. She sports a pair of yellow Doc Martens for the purpose. I seem to remember that the Pied Piper also wore yellow.

The Doc Martens weren't her only gimmick. She also had a high-powered young man with an American accent masterminding her itinerary - her son. On a cold, windy afternoon in east London, most of the locals looked bemused by the sight of Kramer's stalwart supporters bearing down on them.

A lollipop man, already wearing yellow, was given a yellow sticker. A sub- post office was besieged, in order to be offered help. "Closing them is an urban as well as a rural problem," said Kramer. "We're really fighting on this." A community leader was promised support for combating racism. At the end of the walk, all the leaflets were carefully gathered up, to be recycled on another high street.

Kramer's is an energetic, good-natured, multi-ethnic campaign, and she will surely pick up a decent number of second votes. But all the omens are for Ken. Finding my car again, I noticed I'd parked it in Livingstone Road. And that a "Ken4London" poster - my first sighting of election propaganda - had been stuck in the nearest front window.

I don't usually believe in omens. But then, this election has very little to do with reason. Ken is going to win, first because he's Ken, and second because he's not Dobbo. It's hardly much of a case. But all right if you think of this as folklore and panto. And I will find it hard to give my first vote to any of his opponents.