The Write Stuff: The mayor speaks
I’ve seen it a thousand times before. That look. Bored, lecherous old man perking up at the sight of a pair of tits. Not that there’s anything to see. I know his reputation, so I’m buttoned up right to the neck, but that isn’t enough. You have to wear a sack on your head to stop guys like this giving you the eye.
‘I don’t believe we’ve met before,’ he says.
‘I’m features. Not politics.’
‘Of course. Of course. This is a profile piece, isn’t it? Do sit. Coffee?’
‘Black. No sugar.’ (I actually prefer it milky, but I’ve found that ordering black coffee makes people take you more seriously. It’s often the first question you’re asked, and it helps to give the impression of gravitas. You don’t actually have to drink it.)
He gestures me towards a sofa in the corner of his office while an underling retreats with our order. Out of his window, there’s a panorama across the Thames that’s one of the best views of London I’ve ever seen. Centuries of history and billions of pounds of real estate all visible in a single sweep – from horizon to horizon one unimaginably complex knot of human endeavour. There can be few other spots on the planet to match it. From up here, the city looks as diligent and industrious as ever – strangely, serenely normal – as if nothing has happened.
It occurs to me that it would be possible for a man working from this office to have no clue about what has taken over the streets. Only a few wisps of smoke, drifting up from the east, give any hint of the chaos. His view is dominated by the tower blocks of the Square Mile, teetering stacks of bankers, millionaire perched upon millionaire.
The mayor sits in an armchair opposite me, a chair which is, of course, a couple of inches higher than the sofa.
‘Not so much a profile as a kind of how-did-we-get-here piece,’ I say.
‘And the photographer?’ he asks, one hand rising to caress his fringe.
‘He’s coming later.’
‘So,’ I say, placing my digital recorder on the coffee table between us, ‘how did we get here?’
He laughs nervously, a high effeminate bark that seems to take us both by surprise. ‘That’s very direct. Aren’t you going to soften me up with some easy questions first?’
This is his version of charm, which seems to circle the outer suburbs of flirtation. The attempt is a little half-hearted, as if he knows this isn’t going to work, but it’s almost a reflex. He can’t switch it off.
‘Would you like me to?’ I say, a gratifyingly subtle put-down.
‘No, no. Of course not. So – how did we get here? Well . . . the situation is very grave . . . and . . . er . . . obviously the police are doing everything they can to restore law and order in highly challenging circumstances. Were my people given all the details about this interview? I honestly thought it was just a profile. Not too political. Aren’t you from a magazine?’
‘A weekend supplement. Are you uncomfortable discussing politics?’
‘Of course not. It’s just I’m giving daily press conferences, and this is a time when obviously there’s a huge amount for me to be doing . . .’
It’s clear that I need to change tack. Spikiness isn’t working.
I shift my position on the sofa, leaning towards him as if he is a rare and fascinating specimen I can’t quite believe my luck to have encountered in the flesh. It’s easy to forget, interviewing a man like the mayor, that you have to use the same techniques as on any fragile-egoed actor or musician. If you forget to act as if they are mesmerising creatures who are displaying extraordinary generosity in bestowing their time on a mere journalist, you’ve lost them.
‘Your people wanted a chance to get across the background,’ I say, my voice lower, warmer, breathier. ‘The stuff that gets left behind in the cut and thrust of press conferences. The idea was to give people a chance to see the real you – a sense of how a personality like yours copes under the strain of demanding circumstances.’
I’m now perched on the edge of the sofa, pen poised over a blank page of my notebook, my eyes brimming with expectation and enthralment. I might be overdoing it.
‘Your side of the story,’ I add. ‘The man behind the mask. That kind of thing.’
‘Of course. Quite right. Yes. Naturally, I . . . well, let’s go back to the beginning. I mean . . . in policy terms, since the last riots, we have scored some great successes. This is what’s getting overlooked. We took some great strides forward, thanks to the policies I implemented, but now we are facing a setback. A major setback.’
‘Great strides forward? Are you referring to your policy on Concentr8?’
‘Absolutely. The introduction of Concentr8 was an unqualified success for several years. Schools were behind it, parents were behind it, the medical profession was behind it, the police were behind it.’
‘But wasn’t the Concentr8 policy designed to prevent something like this happening again?’
‘I employed Professor Pyle after the last riots to look carefully into the issue of youth mental health, and with the benefit of his vast expertise, he recommended to me a decisive and effective solution. The medical profession has made huge progress in treating disorders which create disruptive behaviour in schools and in many cases criminal behaviour outside the school grounds. The police know who these people are, teachers know who they are, and guiding them away from the kind of misbehaviour in school that leads so often to petty crime and then serious crime, with a straightforward diagnosis and a tried-and-tested cure, is doing a great service both to them and to society.’
‘But Concentr8 is a new drug.’
‘Professor Pyle is a highly respected figure in the world of mental health. Concentr8 was his recommendation, on the grounds that it has fewer side effects, is significantly cheaper, and is in every way an improvement on other ADHD medications. Support for the programme, from the start, was enormous. The effect on school results and truancy was immediately noticeable.’
The coffee underling, who has entered the office without making a sound, places our drinks between us. I take a sip of the bitter fluid and ask, ‘Is it the job of a mayor to prescribe medicine?’
‘Of course not. But when society is suffering from a disease, it is my job to diagnose what’s wrong with this city and to seek a cure. My policy was simply to take a more proactive role in helping troubled children receive medical help. Prevention rather than punishment. It was a visionary policy that to the dismay of my detractors was an immediate success.’
‘At that point, before the current difficulties, there was some talk of you as a rival to the party leader. There were whispers of you leaving the mayor’s office to stand for prime minister. Was there any truth in that?’
The mayor lets out a short cackle, which is probably intended to sound self-deprecating, but the effect doesn’t quite come off. ‘The . . . er . . . the prime minister has always had my full backing.’
‘But you blame him for the current situation.’
‘It’s not a question of blame. The economic climate is a challenging one, and cuts had to be made. It’s true that I urged him not to withdraw funding for the Concentr8 programme, and we had very robust debates on this matter, but . . . I suppose I simply . . . without wanting to give any impression of a split within the party… I feel it’s important for Londoners to know that events on the streets today are not a result of the introduction of Concentr8. It’s the withdrawal of Concentr8 that has led to the current crisis, and I can’t pretend this is a cut that ever had my approval.’
‘So you do blame the prime minister.’
‘Of course not. At times like this, difficult choices have to be made.’
‘Do you have any comment on the rumours of an abduction from outside your office?’
‘I never comment on rumours. Police are examining some CCTV footage, and there will be an announcement if the situation evolves.’
‘One last question . . .’
‘Do you really have everything you need? I thought you wanted the man behind the mask.’
‘Your PA said I was only allowed ten minutes.’
‘Apparently you have a meeting with some kind of emergency task force.’
‘I suppose I do.’
‘I just wanted to ask if you have any message for the rioters.’
‘Just to . . . well, to stop it. At once. Enough is enough. Things have got out of hand and they need to know they will be punished. The rule of law will prevail. We will give no quarter to unbridled thuggery.’
‘And is there a question of dependency? Some people are suggesting that the removal of Concentr8 might be causing withdrawal symptoms en masse. Could this be a factor in the riots?’
‘There is no question of Concentr8 being an addictive substance. Absolutely not. You’ll have to ask Professor Pyle about this. He’s the doctor. Rigorous procedures are in place for testing everything that is prescribed in this country. Concentr8 is 100 per cent safe.’
‘Would you give it to your children?’
‘My children are in rude health. Literally. Thank you for your time. It’s been a pleasure.’
The mayor stands, shakes my hand briskly, strides to his desk, and stares at his computer screen with a now-I-want-it-to-look-as-if-I-am-hard-at-work expression settling over his face.
The interview is over. I get the feeling I haven’t made it on to Hugo Nelson’s Christmas card list.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
William Sutcliffe was born in London in 1971. He is the author of the international bestsellers Are You Experienced?, The Love Hexagon, New Boy, Bad Influence and Whatever Makes You Happy. His first YA novel, The Wall, was shortlisted for Guardian Fiction Prize and the prestigious Carnegie Medal in 2014. William’s work has been translated into more than 20 languages. He lives in Edinburgh.
Concentr8 is published in hardback, priced 12.99.