You couldn't make it up

The Campaign - Fake smiles, balloons and magic wands: the stage-managed banalities of the c

Thank God it's over. I hate portraying myself as an outraged citizen, especially when that is exactly what I am. The little shards of sincerity (fury, disgust) that get through, in spite of myself, when confronted with the mimsy farce of democratic representation, make my insides curdle. Now I can return to the cleaner, more invigorating, nothing-surprises-me-baby cynicism that me and mine have missed so these past weeks.

How odd that Tony Blair should have disparaged cynicism when it is so effective at keeping genuine rage at bay; but like his concern for disappointed Guardian readers, he couldn't care less about the underlying anger of those on the left who don't agree with him. Remember that old car sticker, "Don't blame me, I didn't vote for Thatcher"? I want one saying "Don't blame me, I didn't vote for anyone".

If I hadn't gone soft and fallen for the Poet, I'd still be in the Hampstead and Highgate constituency and could have voted for the Nun of the Above Party, whose candidate is a bloke in a habit - offering the only choice I could wholeheartedly have put my cross against. As it was, the Poet and I took to our bed early on election night, and spent the sleepless hours singing well-loved hits of the Fifties and reciting favourite nonsense poems in a manner suitable for folk slipping ineluctably into terminal apathy.

At least I can stop pretending to be a woman about the world, get back on the sofa and revert to my day job of writing fiction. And thank God for that, too, I say, because whenever I encounter it, real life (or non-fiction, as they call it in the bookshops) is so riddled with cliche that I'm ashamed to put it down on paper. "Mummy," I once said during a pause for breath in the middle of a family tempest. "This is like living in a storybook." My mother abandoned the venomous argument she was having with my father and turned on me in a howling fury, and quite rightly, because what it was actually like was living in the world.

Having experienced the unbearable triteness of being for several decades without really coming to terms with it, I finally realised that if one can do nothing about the bad-taste storybook narrative of existence, then one must write a world of one's own, where there might be the possibility at least of surprise or originality. But, oddly, I still sometimes forget, and convince myself that there is some point in going out into the world in the hope of finding a better perspective than the one I get on the sofa. Well, look what happens. I offer the following story only because it actually occurred.

One afternoon last week, I accompanied Anne Campbell, the sitting Labour candidate for Cambridge, to the gates of a local primary school to leaflet what they called "the mums" picking up their kids. There were four or five people in the Campbell entourage handing out balloons and stickers to the kids - "Mum, Dad, vote for that nice lady who gave me the pretty balloon" - while I hovered in what I hoped was a journalistic fashion to watch and listen to the response of Campbell's constituents.

For the most part, the parents manoeuvred a path through the melee and out of the gates that avoided the electioneering, though it was difficult and caused arguments because what kid doesn't want a balloon and a badge to stick on their jumper? Behind me, someone grumbled that we were in the way (which we were). Another woman swerved sharply aside after throwing a poisonous glance in our direction and snapped impatiently to no one in particular: "I can't be doing with all this."

But a couple of women did make a point of approaching their previous and prospective member of parliament. Both of them were polite to the point of apology at daring to mention their complaints: neither could make ends meet. One was a single parent with two small children who found she couldn't juggle the earnings, benefit and childcare cost conundrum in a way that gave her enough money to live; the other had just given up her job as an NHS booking clerk, not considered under Labour legislation a "key worker" worthy of the new and hardly princely living allowance ("It's not only doctors and nurses who keep the hospitals going," she pointed out).

Campbell, like any true politician, has perfected the public, sympathetic smile. "Yes, I can imagine it must be very hard. I'll be doing my best for you when I get back to parliament."

The women thanked her, apologised again and went away. I stopped the one who had left her NHS job and asked if she was satisfied with the response she got. She wasn't, but neither was she surprised. I asked Campbell if she thought she had given either of them hope of a solution to their problems.

"When I'm in Westminster, I talk to several senior Cabinet members every day."

"But the NHS has just lost another member of staff."

"We can't just wave a magic wand . . ."

You ask a question about policy, and you get an answer about magic.

Finally it was quiet, most of the parents and children had dispersed, and we were left standing in a small group while the parliamentary candidate, Campbell, and the county council candidate discussed with their supporters how valuable the exercise had been, and how visible the red balloons were, bobbing down the road.

As they did so, I gradually became aware of a noise that I realised had been going on for some time. I looked across the narrow street and saw a girl of seven or eight sitting alone and disconsolate on the pavement. She was crying noisily, sobbing in a way that was supposed to attract someone to her predicament. I waited for a moment to see if anyone else would notice. She sobbed louder, heaving and hiccuping her distress. Nothing. No one turned, no one seemed to hear a thing. I crossed the road and squatted down.

"What's up?"

"I don't know where my mummy is . . . she's never late . . ." And she scared herself into an even greater upsurge of choking tears.

Do you remember the terror of finding yourself eight years old and abandoned in the universe? Someone was late picking you up from school or a party and you knew, without a doubt, that you had to make your own way in the world from now on, but that you were too young and you didn't know how to. I murmured unhelpful things about traffic jams or watches being wrong and, after a bit of coaxing, took her back into the school, past the still-chatting, self-congratulatory huddle of candidates and Labour Party workers, to find the school secretary and get her to phone around. When I came out, Campbell noticed me.

"Oh, have you been to look round the school?"

"Not really."

She wondered if I'd be wanting to accompany her that evening knocking on doors. I thanked her but said I thought I'd go home.

"Seen enough, have you?"

I had.

This article appears in the 11 June 2001 issue of the New Statesman, There are years of fun to come