On 2 May last year, the good citizens of Hartlepool elected a monkey as their mayor. Before he attained office, Stuart Drummond went by the name of H'Angus and dressed in a furry brown costume as the mascot of Hartlepool United. He was famous for having once simulated a sexual act with a female employee of the football team while she was trying to carry out the half-time lottery draw. Pundits observed waggishly that Hartlepool had a special relationship with apes, having once executed a monkey as a suspected French spy. But it was not just his simian persona that gave Drummond's mayoral campaign national attention. There was also the matter of his slogan: "Free bananas for all schoolchildren".
We are used to election promises being broken, but Drummond broke his more spectacularly than most. Just a few months into his mayorship, for which he is being paid £53,000 a year, he reneged on his only discernible policy, the policy to which he in part owed his job.
Unfortunately, he seems not to have considered the cost of his promise before he made it. Free bananas, it turned out, were just too expensive. A free banana a day for every schoolchild in Hartlepool (all 16,000 of them, including nursery children) would cost as much as £400,000 a year. What's more, Drummond now seemed to find his promise as embarrassing as the idea of a talking monkey. ("Forget about the monkey," he told a local newspaper. "The monkey was only there for promotion purposes. I am Stuart Drummond. I am the mayor of Hartlepool, not the monkey.")
When asked by the Northern Echo whether he would deliver on his pledge for free bananas to all schoolchildren, he acted as if it were as much our fault as his that it had got so much publicity. "I don't regret saying it, but it was one of those spur-of-the-moment ideas that everyone latched on to." (In other words: I do regret saying it.) "I'm not saying it can't be done, but to give every schoolkid a free banana every day would cost us tens of thousands of pounds." (In other words, it never occurred to me that free bananas for schoolchildren would actually have to be paid for.) "I don't want to be seen to be going back on an election promise." (But I am.) "We are still trying to promote healthy eating in Hartlepool's schools."
I contact Drummond via his new interactive webpage to ask him in what ways exactly he is currently promoting "healthy eating in Hartlepool's schools". He tells me, regretfully, that "as yet" he has "nothing really concrete", though he is still deeply committed to healthy eating in schools. Reading the press releases of Hartlepool Borough Council, however, the main food-related issues seem to be cheaper chips at summer events and celebration cakes for dinner ladies.
Drummond's story is a sad sign of the times, in which all politicians declare themselves to be ardent supporters of "healthy eating in schools" but few of them even know what they mean by it. In 1946, the new Labour government did give every child in the country one free banana for just one day. Now, at a time when bananas are much cheaper in real terms than they were then (sometimes too cheap for banana pickers to feed their own families), even a politician whose career was built on free bananas is unwilling to do the same.
Perhaps the saddest thing about the collapse of free bananas in Hartlepool is that it makes the idea of free fruit for schoolchildren appear little more than a gimmick, both stupid and unrealistic, when actually it is neither. A survey in 2000 indicated that one in every five children in this country does not eat a single piece of fruit in a week, and that the average child only consumes two portions of fruit and vegetables a day. The Lottery-funded National School Fruit Scheme is beginning to change that, by distributing free apples, pears and satsumas as well as bananas, though the process is slow and expensive.
But if we think that "tens of thousands of pounds" is too much to spend to bring fruit to every child in one city, then we should stop pretending that "healthy eating in schools" is really something that concerns us.