Commercial radio plays in the background – Spice Girls, Savage Garden, Simply Red, something I don’t recognise which could be a jingle. The tricky Su Doku is not being completed very quickly; I’m free enough to fill in every number from one to nine in every box twice over, though, turnout is not exactly booming. The Daily Mail is frothing at the mouth. It’s not my natural choice but for now it’s the only thing to hand: I read it from top to bottom, copyright included.
This Polling Station is a church hall, smelling faintly of over enthusiastic spraying of air freshener. Jesus on the cross looks down over the ballot boxes. Those who are coming to vote do so with gaps of twenty or so minutes between each other – a man in a Slayer t-shirt, an old couple with polite if dismissive smiles for me and my orange rosette, a young lad with confusion in his eyes. I wait for some kind of guide to the mood of them, but there’s nothing more than a “Jesus on a bike” reaction to the two-foot European Parliament ballot paper. Time clicks by very slowly. I struggle with the Su Doku until the whole exercise becomes so intense I can hear the numbers laughing at me.
“Telling” probably sounds totally useless for most of the population. Honestly it probably is. Even in times before technology the numbers were only as useful for the short timeframe between getting them from polling station to agent. Today the computer programme used to log the numbers is clumsy, slow, with no connection to on-line analysis or communication to other party members in different parts of the city. Trying to explain why we need numbers is becoming increasingly hard, some people assume it is just one of those cute harmless traditions. Gruff young men – maybe voting for the first time – are less likely to fall for the oft-repeated line, “It’s just to stop us knocking you up later”. A young mother at another polling station smiles, “You can trouble me all you like but I’m not giving you my number.”
At a school sports hall, turnout is far more brisk. It’s the afternoon rush. “I’ve just voted for you,” starts a friendly enough bloke in a builder’s merchant t-shirt, “but not in the Euros.” He leaves the subtle hint in the air long enough for me to get the hint. With nobody saying it out loud it’s hard to guess how many people have made a choice they could live to regret on the wallpaper-sample sized ballot. Reports come from one part of town where people are queuing out of one polling station; from another such tumbleweed quietness there’s an unsettling sense of isolation from the outside world.
“We read James and The Giant Beanstalk. How would the giant feel?” With nothing else to read, I take a look at the features on the wall. I fince he wud be angrily becuz jack stoled all his hings reads one of the hand-written captions. I wonder how Gordon Brown feels now…
I open a packet of crisps. Two voters walk in. I try again. Three voters walk in. And again. God does not want me to eat these ready-salted crisps. A woman chats to me about litter and dog-mess on pavements, proving that these things really do come high on peoples lists at election time. As she talks to me, an older man is getting vocal with the electoral staff in the next room. He has never received a polling card and wants somebody to do something about it there and then. Calls are made to Town Hall, mumbled conspiracy theories are bounded around. Nobody suggests, as UKIP end up doing, that folded ballot papers are experiment in mass disenfranchising.
Another hour in another church. “How’s turnout been, like?” “Fairly ropey”. The man is middle-aged, sporting a robust moustache. “I mean to say, like, if you want to get rid of…I’ve heard them, ‘oh I don’t want to vote for them, they all need to go’, I mean, what I’m saying is, if you want to get rid of them, you vote them out, don’t you?” His wife, three strides away, folding her arms, nods her head. “Vote them out, absolutely”. A young woman with art teacher hair and a sensible beige dress gives me an awkward smile. She leaves the polling station chatting into her mobile phone, “Green or Christian Party? Green? I didn’t know there was a Christian Party.”
Unusually for an election day, there is no other party member on telling duty. An old councillor used to chat for hours about every election story he’d ever experienced. Sometimes sweets are handed out, sandwiches if you’re lucky. Old hands spot known voters, wink or shake hands or hug. Today there are no other tellers on duty. As signs and auspices go, it has a fair amount of value. Somewhere there’s party workers desperate to get out their vote, and limited resources are clearly being stretched.
British election days are quite unique. There remains an old-fashioned, quite sweet historic nature to them. The stubby pencils, the school halls, the elderly married couples walking hand-in-hand to do their duty. The mood of the nation is highly tense, predictions for results are pretty pointless fingers-in-the-wind. It’s the greatest game show in the world. For all the tedious hours spent sitting on plastic chairs in empty halls, I wouldn’t change it for the world.