Gordon Brown's younger son, Fraser, has learned to pick up the phone in Downing Street, dial a zero to reach the No 10 switchboard, and ask to be put through to the member of staff he's taken a shine to.
The Prime Minister clearly finds this amusing, but his children are famously off-limits. As we sit in a first-class carriage on the 3.30pm train from Newcastle to London, accompanied by a handful of advisers, he gestures towards the tape recorder to indicate that he would like to change the subject.
Brown has spent the day in the north-east, accompanied by the New Statesman, meeting Labour Party activists and Unison members, and visiting staff and patients at Sunderland Royal Hospital. On the journey home, during a wide-ranging interview, he talks about his political fortunes, press criticism, socialism and the weekly ordeal that is Prime Minister's Questions.
He also reveals more about the real Gordon Brown than he is usually prepared to do . . . "Please, Please Me" by the Beatles was the first record he ever bought, he says; he talks about his favourite writers, who include Ian Rankin ("a great guy"), and his love of sport ("I could watch it all night"). He refuses to reveal what he bought his wife Sarah for her birthday, laughing, "Oh, come on. That's a secret," but then wonders aloud: "What might I buy her for her next birthday? I don't know. She does like jewellery." Sarah, if you're reading this, try to look surprised when you tear off the wrapping paper.
After a difficult first year in the job, Brown must have been hoping for a warm reception in Labour's heartlands. But although he is cheered and clapped when he enters the party's Newcastle HQ, it is obvious that some activists, who face daily hostility on the doorstep, believe their leader has weaknesses. I chat to Marjorie Kellett, the Bishop Auckland constituency secretary and a party member for more than three decades. "The Labour Party hasn't got its message across," she says. "He needs to communicate better."
She praises the passionate speech Brown delivers, prepared on the flight from London that morning by scribbling down a few keywords over a BA bacon sandwich, but says: "Once he's on telly he looks nervous. Eleven years into a Labour government, people say it's time for a change." There is no appetite to vote Liberal or Tory in this part of the country, but there is a BNP resurgence in her white working-class community, Kellett says. "The price of petrol, fuel and food, and the arrival of Polish immigrants, are the issues."
Robert Yorke, the constituency treasurer, joined the party 13 years ago when Tony Blair became leader. "Blair could condense his arguments into a soundbite, but Gordon can't," he says. "People want leadership and Gordon needs to lead. When Blair was there, you felt safe."
One of the problems for Brown, leading a government that is consistently 20 points behind in the polls, is that the public seems to share his own activists' view of his premiership and his character - although, on this trip, ordinary voters are eager to meet and greet their Prime Minister. Earlier in the day, at Sunderland Royal Hospital - a gleaming, freshly painted monument to the NHS - patients and staff respond well to Brown as he chats to them.
Many say he's taller and bigger in real life, and the words "personable" and "normal" crop up repeatedly. But even those who like him sense he's in trouble. "He's got a lot on his plate," says Gordon Fletcher, a 79-year-old patient who talks about the wonderful treatment he's received from hospital staff. Will he vote Labour? "I don't know . . . probably." I ask another patient, 78-year-old Robert Chambers, whether he will stick with the party. "Up here, you vote Labour out of habit," he replies, without very much enthusiasm.
Brown's leadership will be tested again this month at the Glasgow East by-election. It's one of the safest Labour seats in the UK. The SNP faces a huge task to overturn a 13,500 majority, but there is an expectation that it could succeed, and if Labour loses, there will be fresh speculation that Brown may be forced to stand down by his own party.
Earlier that day, I sat beside him in the back seat of a blue armour-plated, bulletproof Jaguar, surrounded by police outriders and protection officers, as he made a series of calls to the editors of Scottish newspapers, while we hurtled towards Heathrow. Each conversation followed a similar pattern: some small talk about football, followed by a serious chat about the importance of the Union and the threat the SNP poses to the future of the country.
When his Nokia isn't pressed to his ear, Brown is unfailingly polite and informal, insisting that I call him Gordon rather than Prime Minister, something his predecessor, supposedly more affable, never invited me to do. He talks about his holiday plans and asks about my work and my parents, but has the politician's knack of ignoring awkward questions. "You really need to hold on to Glasgow, don't you?" I ask at one point; he appears not to hear - maybe he doesn't - and continues to flick through his notes.
Brown must know that, even in Labour's strongholds, there is little enthusiasm for the government at the moment, and this is reflected at a Unison conference of health-care staff in the Gateshead Hilton on Newcastle's regenerated waterfront. Marion Langley, a 53-year-old administrative assistant for South Tyneside NHS Foundation Trust and a party member for 15 years, is pragmatic about the below-inflation pay deal awarded to health workers. But she says people are disillusioned with the government, claiming that although voters have been complaining for two or three years, it is not listening. She thinks Gordon is a problem: "He was an excellent chancellor, but maybe we need a new frontman. The policies are OK, but the shopfront is lacking."
Loss of faith
Not everyone agrees. James Anthony, a 26-year-old nurse, says he and his colleagues should have been given a more generous pay rise, but defends the Prime Minister. "I don't accept the criticism. He's a real person who cares." But that is not the majority view. Liz Kneale, a 55-year-old Darlington community auxillary, claims: "People have lost faith. The Labour flame was dying out anyway, but now our leader has to be special and charismatic." Does she believe there will be a Labour government next time? "Not unless something drastic happens."
That could include a Brown resignation. Back on the train, I ask him if there are any circumstances under which he would stop doing the job. First, he gives his stock answer: "It's the best job in the world and every day there is a new challenge." But when pressed, he insists: "I'm here to do a job and I'll leave when I finish the job. I'm not here for the sake of being here." Talking about the economy, he says: "I think the first thing people want us to be able to do is to see ourselves through this difficult challenge." But his ambitions extend far beyond that. "I want to build a Britain where every single child has the opportunity to realise their potential. If you don't have young people whose talents are recognised and developed to the full, you're not going to have a successful society or a successful economy."
It is a familiar Brown refrain, and one that hints at a deep-seated egalitarianism, but when I ask him outright if he is a socialist, he chooses his words carefully. The answer is not a simple yes. "I don't think these labels help. They confuse people sometimes. I admire some of the people like Nye Bevan and Attlee, but I also admire people like Lloyd George. I admire a lot of people who have been progressives and have made big changes. I would say that we're about progressive change. There is a big divide between the two parties. We believe in the power of opportunity to change lives. And we believe that there must be a guarantee through public investment of opportunity for all. I think that's the key dividing issue."
Brown's performances at Prime Minister's Questions have often been lacklustre, and I ask if he dreads the weekly inquisition, as some former prime ministers - Tony Blair included - have confessed, after leaving office. "The question is: does this sort of theatre illuminate the big issues," he says. "I don't think it's so much about how one feels. You've got to be up on every issue. There's nothing you cannot be asked about and I suppose . . ." He pauses. "The question is: does it help solve problems and illuminate the big issues and big challenges of the country? That's the real issue. And I think the country is asking whether it really illuminates all the big issues. The great irony about this, and you find it frustrating, is there are big challenges ahead. You've got climate change, you've got what's happening to oil prices, you've got terrorism and security and these are rarely issues that come up."
Most observers agree the Prime Minister has improved at the despatch box after being mauled by David Cameron early on. But Brown remains an unsympathetic figure in the eyes of the electorate. His advisers may have tried to turn his brooding seriousness into an electoral asset, but they must secretly hope he would share more private moments with the public, which seems to have decided that he lacks warmth.
There is a human side to Gordon. He may be uncomfortable talking about himself, but on the train home our conversation is punctuated with laughter, and most of it is neither nervous nor insincere.
Is he a romantic? I ask. "Ask Sarah," he chuckles. Some women say you remind them of Heathcliff, I suggest. Brown is, after all, brooding and intense. "Absolutely correct," he jokes. "Well, maybe an older Heathcliff, a wiser Heathcliff."
How does he relax? "I like watching sport on television, but I'd like to go to more sporting occasions. I could watch sport all night. Although watching Andy Murray's five-set match wasn't particularly relaxing. I'd just arrived back. It was the fourth set and it went to five. Andy Murray's had to change his tactics on the court. I think he's very determined and I think he's done pretty well," Brown adds. He's talking about his fellow Scot, but you can't help wondering if he's really describing himself. Like Murray, Brown has had a bad press, but claims to be unperturbed. "I think you've got to be sure you're doing the right thing. You can't be deterred by people criticising you or a few newspapers making it their business to criticise you." Surely it must hurt when he hears people saying he's doing a bad job? "I think I'm just like everybody else. If you believe in something strongly enough, you get on with it."
As one would expect, Brown is an avid reader when he can find the time. He consumes novels as well as non-fiction. I ask him what he reads and he replies without hesitation, "Ian Rankin. He's a good guy, Ian, and he writes well." A fellow Scot, too, I point out. "I think Raymond Chandler was a great writer," he adds, hurriedly.
It's difficult to imagine the Prime Minister unwinding in front of the TV with a glass of wine in his hand - "I tend not to drink. You've got to be fresh in the morning" - but he claims to enjoy crime thrillers. "One of the recent things I saw was The No 1 Ladies' Detective Agency done by Anthony Minghella before he died. Absolutely brilliant. Poor man. He was a great guy and he just died so suddenly."
Other questions are answered rapidly, and predictably. When were you happiest? "At the birth of my children." What's the most unexpected thing about the job? "The unexpected." What time do you go to bed? "It depends." How many hours' sleep? "It varies." Could he survive on Margaret Thatcher's legendary four hours a night? "No, that's not enough."
"What's the most common misconception about you?" I ask. "That's not for me to say. You tell me what people say and I'll tell you whether it's right or wrong." Well, I say, people claim you are always losing your temper. "When you've got difficult decisions to make you've got to be calm and considered," he says. "I don't generally lose my temper." As far as I can tell, this answer is not delivered through gritted teeth.
Towards the end of the interview, an hour away from London, I ask the Prime Minister to name his most unappealing habit. "I've tried to stop biting my nails. They're pretty good," he boasts, before glancing down at his hands. "OK," he laughs, "they're not." His attempt to cover up an embarrassing truth before coming clean is something we can all relate to. Perhaps Gordon Brown is not so different from the rest of us, after all.
Gloria De Piero is political editor of GMTV