‘I know what you want, you want a book.’
‘Umm, well…’ I started to say.
But standing in front of me on this unexpectedly sunny day in January, with the UK election still seeming a distant mirage, was Gobby, legendary former BBC producer for 30 years, lesser known as Paul Lambert and now Nigel Farage’s ‘Director of Communications’. And as countless heavyweight political leaders have found before this small photographer – when faced down by this man, it is generally best not to argue.
I agreed that having spent the previous few months spent photographing migrants in Calais I was an unlikely candidate to be asking to document the UK Independence Party and their leader Nigel Farage’s 2015 election campaign, but it felt important to me to try and understand their point of view. One way or another they said yes. We all regretted it pretty quickly, but by then my limpet-like qualities had started to exert themselves; I might very well drown on the way but I was clinging on until May 8th.
And so in February it began, as I bombed around the country in my tiny car, nearly always lagging some way behind Nigel and his team as they raced around in their blacked out Land Rover or private jet; from England’s bleak seaside towns peopled with the elderly who hark back to days of former British glory under Winston Churchill, to the former industrial heartlands of Heywood & Middleton in the North of England, from fishing and farming towns like Grimsby and Boston in Lincolnshire to his local constituency in Kent.
Looking back, the sheer lunacy of it all should have been evident quite early on. One grey morning we waited for nearly an hour for Joey Essex to turn up at the Grimsby docks and tell a bamboozled Nigel Farage that he was a ‘really reem guy’ at which point we, the by now starving media, had a feeding frenzy trying to capture this great and proud moment in British election history. Later that afternoon we waited for two hours for Nigel not to turn up for a photocall at a local pub after a small group of demonstrators frightened him away, while he had a meal of fish and chips in a cafe around the corner. This not being enough to deter us, we finally abandoned The Hope & Anchor and sped off in the direction of an ice cream parlour in Skegness for our next supposed rendezvous, only to find that the location we had been sent to did not exist and bemused local people were subsequently treated to the sight of a convoy of press cars and sat trucks driving up and down the only street in the village, hopelessly fighting with our sat navs, swearing and looking frantically at each other out of our vehicle windows.
Worst of all, somewhere over the course of this adventure, the little feature I had hoped for was inflating into ‘The Coffee Table Book’. I still don’t know quite how or who started it, but I know it became pretty embarrassing as I slogged around the wilds of Cornwall, Grimsby and Thanet, getting precious few photographs of Nigel Farage that you could use on even a pound shop pamphlet of any quality and racking up the miles, with my ever-hilarious press colleagues querying: ‘Will it be matt or gloss then, the Coffee Table Book?’.
‘I think really….’ I said to journalist and perennial Farage-follower Owen Bennett over a beer, after yet another soul-destroying day chasing Nigel around Kent, ‘…. coffee table books tend to be more about things like, well, ‘Elephants of the Kalahari’, that sort of thing, and not so much about middle-aged former City-workers called Nigel – you know?
A great photojournalist once told me that he’d got through almost his entire career by smiling when the going got tough. ‘When the shit hits the fan’, he told me with a grin to melt a dictator’s heart, ‘just give ’em a big old smile’.
God knows I tried. But it hit the fan pretty quickly as Nigel’s people seemed to be under the impression that while I could potentially be of use to them, I was also very possibly radioactive.
On the rare occasions on the UKIP trail that I got to see Gobby again he would ask me how I was doing, but somehow in the dulcet tones of a man who hoped the answer might be, ‘Actually Gobby, I’ve developed a serious medical condition that looks like it will keep me in hospital until May 8th and I have no cameras with me today because I’ve had to sell all my gear to pay for it.’
But by April, having come this far, it was impossible to give up. The curious thing was that as the campaign really got under way and became more and more intense, I started to wonder, watching him, if Nigel felt the same way.
And somewhere along the line it became strangely moving. As we visited endless locations where unemployment and austerity have ravaged people’s lives, it was a daily grind of seeing people who feel utterly let down and disenfranchised by the political system. Most aren’t inherently racist, the accusation levelled most heavily at the party for their right-wing views, but are laying their fears and sense of powerlessness at the door of immigration and the European Union.
And here he was, almost in Westminster, a leader, the man they’d been waiting for, who despite his own privileged background, makes these people feel that he understands their needs and would look out for their interests, not just those of the wealthy, the highly educated, the cosmopolitan, the middle and upper classes.
Ukippers never say they don’t want their photograph taken, they’re proud of who they are and who they support. They seemed pleased that anyone from the media would be taking an interest in their lives and opinions, genuinely touched that I’d stuck around this far. I was forever being offered cups of tea, biscuits, a sit down, the little things that your granny, people from the generation who remember rationing or who’ve known unemployment and hard times never forget.
It’s a fascinating thing to watch Nigel at work when the media circus has died down. Unlike some politicians he doesn’t give the impression that he wants to go home and have a good wash afterwards, he comes alive chatting to ordinary people. He’s nothing like the hard, combative man of the TV debates, he’s at home canvassing on the streets, in the pub, the club, and love him or hate him, it works for him.
One young mother in a Ramsgate pub took him on just days before the election: ‘Look Nigel I don’t know if I’m going to vote for you, not sure I care, I don’t see the point’. ‘Well why not?’ he said. Five minutes later you could tell that when it was just her and her pen hovering over a box on on a piece of paper on May 7th she would probably vote for him. He signed her excited little boy Fred’s UKIP flyer. ‘He probably doesn’t know who he is,’ she laughed afterwards, ‘thinks he’s a celebrity or something.’
While UKIP attracts more than its fair share of eccentrics, there are also many very sane and thoughtful people who feel left behind in their own country and it has frequently been uncomfortable to watch over the last couple of months. The feeling in the voice of one elderly man still resonates with me now from the moment he stood up after a public meeting in Cornwall and said: ‘Nigel, Sir, when the country needed him Churchill came, he was a leader, and you Sir, are a leader.’ His fears for his country may well be unfounded, but there is every chance that his family, his father, fought for freedoms we take for granted now and he does not deserve to be mocked and ignored.
There are few things that can traumatize the nation’s press like a General Election and by the time May rolled around the end could not come quickly enough for most of us. By day I attended Nigel’s endless photocalls, public meetings and book signings in pubs, village halls, town halls and community centres. By night I was having horrible dreams where I found myself running around Westminster hopelessly looking for Nigel and Gawain, his ‘Head of Press’.
One long evening in Ramsgate. I tried to convince Dan from Getty that it was a really good idea to get a shot of Nigel walking into the hall of St Luke’s Community Centre, beneath the mural of a joyous football ground with the words ‘The Players Tunnel’ painted large over the entrance.
‘Of course it’s a bloody photo!’
‘But what does it mean?’ he queried like the artist he is. ‘I’m just really not sure it means anything…..’
‘It means, Dan….’ I replied, by now teetering dangerously on the psychological edge, ‘that he’s in the game, ready to walk out onto the Westminster pitch for God’s sake, a man mountain with bouncebackability and if it comes to penalties he can make himself big in the goal and if he gets elected he shoots and he scores and if he doesn’t? Well then he thinks it’s all over and it is now!!! Okay?!’
Quietly, he looked away from me and towards the ‘Players Tunnel’. He was right. It was a horrible picture.
Despite it all Nigel himself remained endlessly fascinating. Like most of us I suspect, I’d bought into the image of the ‘probably evil but generally gregarious, jovial beer-swilling, cigarette smoking’ character he presents to the world.
What slowly emerged was a calm, serious, thoughtful, poised and increasingly tired man quite frequently in a lot of physical pain and not untouched by the abuse hurled his way. There is an unexpected subtlety about him, that he extinguishes in front of the press like a light.
I cannot think of many politicians so prescient in their understanding of the power of the image. Sure it was a horrible photo, but he paused for a moment and gave us that shot of him in the ‘Players Tunnel’; others would not have. Nor can I think of one that would sign books for pensioners long into the night in a village hall in the back end of beyond, for just a handful of votes. Nigel Farage knows better than anyone that UKIP is unlikely to survive for long without him at its head.
I cannot pretend to agree with Nigel’s policies and ideas for the future of the UK. His soaring rhetoric always left more questions in my mind than it answered, but I learned a lot about the party, its followers and the man. When the election results were finally announced on the morning of May 8th, to boos and hisses from his many detractors, Nigel, his team and supporters who had worked for months against the big political machines were trying to hold back tears. On stage he looked like a little boy in a suit that was a bit big for him, enduring public humiliation, his dream over.
One night, towards the end of this seemingly impossibly long campaign, Nigel held a public meeting with local candidate Mark Reckless in the Rochester Corn Exchange after a series of heinous photo calls in tiny Kent bookshops and tea-rooms designed to hold a group of pensioners on a Saturday afternoon not forty-five sweaty and irreverent members of the British press.
I’d long been thinking that if I pushed my luck any further I would be out on my ear. Increasingly desperate though, I gambled and begged Sarah, Nigel’s press officer, to get me a few minutes photographing him before he went out on stage.
Five minutes later, wordlessly, he stepped out in front of me. His bodyguard James, nodded, ‘Hello trouble’. I took this to be security speak for ‘You’re on’ and started snapping away. After a moment, unexpectedly, Nigel came over for a chat – wasn’t it a beautiful building? These old once-loved places, so sad. We talked briefly about the lovely venues we’d encountered on the campaign before he wandered away to the entrance doors where he stood looking out into the conference room, waiting to go on. And then briefly, for a fraction of a moment he leaned gently into the door frame, ever so slightly supported by it. The sheer scale of his campaign, this small party punching above its weight because of this man, in one of the most unforgiving democratic election systems in the world, written in his body language.
I know that for just a fraction of a moment we were both thinking – this is a photo. And then it was gone. One of us decided that although it was a photo, they probably weren’t 100% sure it was the look they wanted to achieve. Because in the next frame on my memory card it’s gone; he is standing bolt upright in the doorway again, ready to walk out on stage, the man dissolved back into the myth that is Nigel Farage.