Jeremy Clarke

Low Life | 29 August 2009

Candid camera

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I inserted my earphones and stepped up on the treadmill. I kept my finger on the treadmill’s speed-control button until it showed 11.5 kilometres per hour, then I pressed ‘recently purchased’ and ‘play’ on my MP3 player. The first track was Albert King doing his version of ‘Honky Tonk Women’. I was up and running.

If I’m in the right mood for it, I go a bit mental when I run on the treadmill while listening to music. I mouth songs, or dance and run at the same time. I get a few looks, but let them look. Running’s the governor, as boxing trainers say, and I enjoy running more than anything else at the moment. The novelist Haruki Murakami put me on to it. Last year he published a meditation about running called What I Talk About When I Talk About Running. It’s hard to read his book, even in your 50s, without wanting to take it up.

At our gym, the treadmills face four flat-screen televisions fixed to the wall at eye level. They are permanently tuned to the four terrestrial channels. You can plug your earphones into a socket on the treadmill, select a channel, and watch telly while you run. I never do this. Once I’m into my stride and sweaty, I’m far too deranged by endorphins to concentrate on a telly programme.

But on this particular day I was facing the ITV screen and the ITN lunchtime news was on. Gordon Brown and Ed Balls were visiting a secondary school. They were shown seated side-by-side on a sofa in the school library. You could tell they were devoted friends. A group of pupils were kneeling in rows on the carpet in front of them. The Prime Minister and the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families were grinning like naughty schoolboys. The children were grave as statesmen.

What were the Prime Minister and his minion doing there, I wondered? (As Albert King picked a blues lick with exquisite precision and sang about this gypsy bar-room queen he’d met in Memphis, who’d tried to take him upstairs for a ride. I increased the speed to 12.1.) Had they decided to apologise, perhaps? They didn’t look apologetic. If anything, they were looking pleased with themselves, as if they’d come there to receive the schoolchildren’s gratitude for some act of kindness.

This grisly scene fascinated me. Everybody present in the room had obviously been told to try not to look at the camera. The Prime Minister and the Schools Secretary managed it, just about, and overcame their self-consciousness by directing a kind of insanely animated joviality at the children, some of whom looked afraid.

The camera swung away and showed us around the library. The few books looked brand new. Perhaps that was it: more money was being given to state schools for library books, and this item on the ITN lunchtime news was a harmless little piece of government propaganda. But what a shame it is that these government propaganda slots in the television news are so boringly staged and then filmed with so little imagination.

From the row of new books, the camera dutifully returned our attention to the important pair on the sofa. One of the schoolchildren, a girl of about 13, appeared to be asking the Prime Minister a question — a serious question, judging by the wise nods of agreement from her fellow students. As he listened, sorrow and hilarity contended for mastery of the Prime Minister’s unruly countenance. There was no outright winner. Finally, an expression of the most vicious, goat-like lust unexpectedly seized control. The question was doubtless a stage-managed question designed to allow the Prime Minister to restate his personal commitment to this, that or the other. And it was at this point that something glorious happened.

As the Prime Minister, still leering horribly at the girl, began making his political point, the camera suddenly trucked back across the room to the bookshelves, where it focused on a single-word notice above one of the shelves. The notice said, ‘Fiction’. The camera wobbled slightly, held the shot a moment longer, then returned once more to the Prime Minister. It was a very small, but rather exciting act of rebellion by a camera operator as sick to death as everyone else by the continual lies, and I was elated at having seen it.

To celebrate, I increased the speed to 13.6. Meanwhile, Albert King’s tale of woe continued. To get him upstairs for a ride, the gypsy had to heave him right across her shoulders, because he just can’t seem to drink this other woman off his mind.