JohnBird died this week, nine years after his sketch partner John Fortune. Having teamed up in the heady days of British satirical shows in the 1960s, they had a glorious new lease of life working with Rory Bremner from 1989.
So to follow the classic “You say potato” sketch (“on the perils of over-reliance on the written text”, as I suggested), here’s a playlist for their George Parr interviews, satirising ministers, diplomats, generals—more apposite today than ever:
Among my highlights there are the Washington diplomat (#2), the Home Office minister (#7), the British businessman in China (#8), and the merchant banker (#14). Alternating roles, they nail the establishment’s inane, complacent sense of entitlement, the blithe insouciance with which they barely bother to conceal the iniquity of their stances. All this can be heard on the lips of many a “government” representative today—this interview could almost be a verbatim transcript of the current Tory position on immigration and asylum:
I don’t like the word xenophobic, it suggests irrational prejudice… Of course it’s a Greek word, and I detest Greeks.
As an arcane warmup for the France–England match tomorrow: one of my favourite expressions, outstanding in its entitled pomposity, is this description of Teresa May’s Brexit plan from the patronising patrician lips of The Haunted Pencil:
the greatest vassalage since King John paid homage to Phillip II at Le Goulet in 1200.
I’d love to slip the bon mot (oops) into a chat over a pint at the Aardvark and Climbing Boot, but so far even “vassalage” has proved beyond me. Still, it might work as a new model of car (“Tesla Vassalage SR”), or in a catchy pop lyric—an early draft by Ken Dodd, perhaps, interpreted in the suave tones of Wee-Smug himself:
With this government one doesn’t need such a long memory as Tree-Frog, whoever the Prime Minister is this week, presiding over “the greatest fiasco since the day before yesterday”. May we be released forthwith from this Tory vassalage!
* My attachment to Skibbereen goes back to a rainy evening fuelled by inordinate quantities of Guinness on a Mozart opera tour, also memorable for a brilliant story at an Armagh pub session. I briefly flirted with the idea of applying for the Skibbereen Philharmonic, undeterred by the fact that there isn’t one.
To their admirers, proper binmen embody a lost postwar idyll—and the decline in national character can be seen in the appalling state of their modern-day counterparts, who are rotten in spirit, in character and in service. […]
Back then, in an unspecified period between 1950 and 1980, the binmen were stronger, more hardworking and more polite. Not just that—back then, the binmen were happy. Everyone remembers them the same way: always cheerful, always smiling, frequently whistling. They always had a kind word for you, never complained, and always closed the gate. They took pride in their job, which was hard work, but honest work. These judgments are delivered with absolute certainty. Back then, “They were always a really friendly crowd who you could have a good laugh with,” writes one commenter. “Not like the bin men of today, you are very lucky if they respond to a ‘good morning’.”
The historic shift in bin collection is taken to mark a wider crisis in masculinity. “That is when men were men, not the wimps we have today,” writes one Facebook commenter. “All be off work with PTSD nowadays,” chimes in another. Proper binmen “didn’t care about Health & Safety Shite”, writes another. The plastic wheelie bins we have today—with their emasculating pastels, often colour-coded for recycling, and their humiliating, labour-saving wheels—are just further markers of our moral, social and spiritual decline.
The supporting cast to proper binmen includes proper football man and proper Labour man. The key is noble suffering.
Stern voices have clamoured to remind us that being dangerously cold, being desperately poor and enduring powercuts, broken supply chains, food shortages and cold baths has happened to Britons before, and it would probably do us good, if anything, if it happened again.
Among numerous other fetishes are
One pound notes. Queueing to use a phone box. Playing in the street and yelling “car!”. French cricket. Jam sandwiches. Scabby knees. Skipping. Coal fires. The slipper. The cane. The ruler. Getting a thick ear. Cumbersome lawnmowers. Ink wells. Duffle coats. Tin baths. Marbles. Jack Charlton. Forgetting your PE kit. Bus conductors. Bob-a-job week. Wooden ice-cream spoons. Snakes and Ladders. Ponchos. Beans on toast. Men opening doors for women. Slow dancing to Nat King Cole. Worzel Gummidge. Sweets by the ounce. Icicles hanging from the window frame (“Before central heating!”). Miss World (“All natural. Not a bit of botox in sight”). The power cuts of 1972–4 (“we coped, we were strong”). Scrubbing and polishing your front steps (“That’s when people had pride in where they lived”). Outdoor toilets. Cigarette machines. Flares. Playing in bombsites. Jumping in puddles.
The list could run and run—one might add cheery bus conductors, or the “innocent” sexism of Carry on films and “saucy” seaside postcards, for instance.
As Hancox notes, the rich and powerful profit from the philosophy of “We had it tough. We kept calm and carried on. We didn’t complain. We muddled through. We made do. We mended. It never did us any harm. It made us who we are”.
Underpinning this celebration of suffering is the masochistic idea that it is your individual responsibility—indeed an important test of your character—to withstand ruinous social and economic crises not of your making. […]
Elizabeth II herself was, we can reasonably assume from the tributes which followed her death, a proper Queen. Under the headline “The Queen’s 1950s frugality is key to our future”, one Times columnist praised her for being “naturally parsimonious”, personifying not obscene wealth and the plundered spoils of Empire, but the halcyon moment of High Binmenism, at some point in the 1950s, before the end of the Chatterley ban andthe Beatles’ first LP. “In this age of Amazon Prime and Kim Kardashian-style super-rich spending, her frugality may seem quaint,” Alice Thomson wrote, “but it feels timely. As the cost of living crisis hits, everyone is looking for ways to cut back, taking a Thermos of coffee to work, eating leftovers for lunch and sewing on lost buttons.” That even a literal Queen has to be explained in this way suggests how deep Binmenism goes.
Alongside their mission to excavate the rubble of the past, the Facebook nostalgia communities often pour scorn on the objects and rituals of today’s zeitgeist, in particular the damage done by technology. Computer games, smartphones, social media and TV are seen to create a disenchanted childhood, lacking in imagination, adventure and risk.
The vitality of the nostalgia industrial complex is a reminder of just how appealing it is to have your private reminiscences, buried memories, and hazy childhood images validated by others—whatever your age. It is a source of comfort to know you are not mistaken, that your version of your life’s story is shared. […]
Our gaze seems to inevitably turn backwards. The politics of the past few years abound with a desire for a return to an imagined, halcyon former version of Britain. This is true of both sides of the Brexit referendum; for remainers, there is often wistful talk of the 2012 Olympic opening ceremony or the New Labour period, while Brexiteers look back further into history.
Brexit, like the Memory Lane UK posts, partly speaks to an existential sadness about the passage of time and the desire for revenge on what we imagine it has done to us. You can only take back control if you have become convinced you once had it, and have had it torn from your grasp. […]
The nationalist leader holds out the promise of restoring things to how they were, including all the forms of brutality—such as capital punishment, back-breaking physical work, patriarchal domination—that social progress had consigned to history. For reasons Freud would have understood, this isn’t as simple as wanting life to be more pleasurable, but a deep desire to restore a political order that made sense, in spite of its harshness. It is a rejection of progress in all its forms.
All this can shade into racist memes like attacking the toppling of statues, criticising BLM, and advocating for “proper” history to be taught “again”. At least the current “government” is doing its utmost to restore rationing and poverty—and the return of child chimney-sweeps would doubtless be popular in certain quarters (cf. The Haunted Pencil’s paean to “uplifting” food banks). Our relationship with the NHS, and the migrants who continue to make it work, is another much-discussed aspect of post-war British identity (succinctly, see e.g. this 2008 article).
Hancox cites an LSE report into class identity, which interviewed “successful TV producers, actors, and architects who all brushed aside their own private schooling, housing security, and material privilege to foreground a single grandparent who was a coal miner”.
But he also notes a more tolerant strain of humanist libertarianism, concluding:
It is not good enough to merely dismiss the Facebook nostalgics’ sepia-tinted version of history out of hand, if you care about Britain today. The proper binmen are living inside many of us, pulling our strings and guiding us not just down memory lane, but into the future.
Obviously, my roundup of Tory iniquity was never going to be able to keep up. I was hoping to allow the revamped “government” some peace to enjoy their honeymoon, as they gaze mistily into each other’s eyes, lips spittle-flecked with venom. But as a self-confessed member of the Guardian-reading, tofu-eating wokerati™, I already find myself unable to resist outlining some aspects of the current clusterfuck.
Just when we thought the Tories couldn’t possibly make themselves look any more ridiculous, last month’s “Home Secretary” followed up her repulsive “dream and obsession” Rwanda speech (see e.g. here and here) with another unhinged meltdown—introducing an intriguing culinary theme.
Shortly before Suella Braverman fell on her sword (not for being an authoritarian law-breaking racist bigot, but on a “technicality”—rather like Genghis Khan being unable to pursue the sacking of Europe due to an unpaid parking fine), in what turned out to be the last rant of her brief office she listed those responsible for the Just Stop Oil protests:
“It’s the Labour party, it’s the Lib Dems, it’s the Coalition of Chaos [Hello?], it’s the Guardian-reading, tofu-eating wokerati, dare I say, the Anti-Growth Coalition that we have to thank for the disruption that we are seeing on our roads today.”
They can’t do Brussels, they can’t do unelected bureaucrats, can’t do immigrants… refugees is tricky, cos you just keep giving money to Rwanda, despite the fact that they’re not actually taking any… […] Single mothers just doesn’t work any more, the world has moved on, the nuclear family is in retreat […] Cyclists isn’t gonna work… What’s left??? Who on earth are brain-dead, Brexit-supporting Tory politicians going to pretend are your new enemies, in the hope of distracting you from the chaos and catastrophe that they continue to inflict upon your country?
Following on the heels of “PC gone mad“, the right-wing backlash against “woke” (“an awareness of injustice and the determination to do something about it”—see e.g. here and here) has been gathering steam, or hot air. Since this Sinister Cabal was exposed as the “Anti-Growth Coalition”, Twitter (“sewer of left-wing bile”) has been enjoying listing its members, such as this:
The Official Anti-Growth Coalition Membership List 👇
the AGC (“who are they exactly?”) Labour the Lib Dems the SNP militant unions vested interests dressed up as think tanks (!) talking heads Brexit deniers Extinction Rebellion lefty lawyers lefty nurses lefty traffic wardens lefty quantity surveyors the Archbishop of Canterbury all teachers Sadiq Khan the BBC cyclists anyone who criticises the Royals Meghan bloody Markle flexitarians magicians flamingos bus drivers who change shift—but not at a terminus Gary bloody Lineker people who watch mini-series on Apple TV triple-cooked chips anyone who played recorder at school mime artists the Dutch people who turn the corner of the page over when they’ve finished reading cockapoos anyone who’s had a temporary tattoo owners of more than three hardback cookbooks Pisceans anyone who got a Blue Peter badge the Keto diet plan Mumford—AND Sons people who keep the ramekins from Gu puddings cellists anyone who says “ooooh” when a birthday cake goes past them in a restaurant dressage fans smashed avocado the Tombliboos people who only like tennis when Wimbledon’s on Scouts the left-handed.
Since she is blessed with such media-savvy charisma, we can look forward to her glossy cookbook (cf. Prick with a Fork). It will surely be a best-seller—if anyone can still afford books, or food; and the spinoff prime-time TV series will also be compulsory viewing [sic: legislation being hurried through Parliament]—if anyone still has a TV and can afford to switch it on.
We can expect a wilting lettuce to form the basis of many recipes. But one dish that won’t be featuring is the delicious mapo tofu. Though basically white, it’s contaminated by suspicious-looking black beans and subversive Green leeks.
Despite the current Tofu amnesty, * with such a ringing endorsement, sales will be soaring—outranking even hummus and avocado, traditional dog-whistles for the anti-woke brigade.
* Among many others, Michael Rosen has taken up Tofu-gate with a vengeance:
The worry for parents is that our children or teenage offspring might find their way to Tofu, perhaps without realising it, thinking that it was perhaps halloumi or feta. Some catering outlets serve it up in soup where it is concealed behind noodles. Please be careful out there.
We need to go above and beyond Tofu-eating and consider the possibility of the Tofu-mentality: people who may not eat Tofu but have a Tofu mindset. They are a danger to the state because of their latent Tofu-ness.
Just when we thought this shower couldn’t possibly get any worse, they’re really surpassing themselves, with a new crop of evil self-serving xenophobic bigots! So I was spurred on to add a new tag Tory, from which I offer some highlights:
Many posts were “inspired” by Boris Piccaninny Watermelon Letterbox Johnson:
“Drawing a line under”, rather than referring to accountancy, reminds me of rubber bridge (which, you may well say, identifies me as a Posh Twat eligible for a safe Tory seat). But speakers of Plain English, even the fabled Plebs, seem to have been bamboozled into forgetting the language, wherein—and this is “not rocket science”—when you draw a line under something, you underline it. For the sake of emphasis.
Among those who would have been happy to draw a line under past indiscretions are Stalin, Mao, and Jack the Ripper (cf. the Piranha brothers).
So, “getting behind the programme”, here are just a few of the Tory crimes that we are asked to draw a line under:
In these terrible times, the release of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe from six years of captivity was a rare moment of rejoicing. But soon she had the temerity to open her mouth, prompting a deluge of sexist and racist abuse—from both Tory politicians and their hangers-on (analysis here). In response, Marina Hyde wrote trenchantly as ever:
Many people are simply not happy with Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s failure to react to her belated release like she’s just won Miss World in 1957. You know the playbook: deeply indebted tears at a flow volume that won’t disrupt the mascara; silence broken only by a pledge to work with children and animals. British children and British animals, just to be on the safe side. […]
And yet, having spent a lot of time at her press conference yesterday thanking a large number of individuals and organisations who played a part in her eventual release, Nazanin did mention the fact it took just the five successive foreign secretaries before something repeatedly promised to her actually happened. […]
isn’t the whole point about liberating someone from the clutches of some backward theocracy that you don’t immediately then go and tell her to know her place?
I just think… you need to show a little bit of gratitude to the people who let you come over ‘ere. Back over here. […]
And why does she look so healthy, by the way? Hostages are supposed to be malnourished and upset—she was glowing and articulate. How do you know she wasn’t just sunning herself for six years, having a jolly? I just think you’ve got to do things in a more British way when you come over ‘ere. Come back over here.
“Male bus driver and female conductor chatting by their bus; both are recent recruits from the Caribbean”. Photo: Henry Grant, 1962.
When passengers get off the bus (or “alight”, as the quaint officialese term has it), I’m surprised how often I hear them calling out “Thankyou Driver!”.
To their less confident, silent fellow-passengers the parting salutation, flaunting a sense of etiquette, may seem like a rebuke. One might suppose it to be one of those hallowed customs trumpeted by the Brexit brigade, like queueing, child chimney-sweeps, and bendy bananas; but it’s only since the 1980s, when drivers had to fend for themselves without a conductor, that it has become possible to thank them audibly.
Little did I know that it has become a common topic of debate, with its own meme. A 2018 Guardian article on the topic prompted 1,380 comments! Like Life, It’s Complicated, with no simple divide between the courteous and the callous.
It seems fair enough when one leaves by the door where the driver sits (cf. the ticket-collector in Alan Bennett’s Sermon). When boomed from the distance of the middle door, more timid souls may find it unseemly—almost virtue signalling, drawing attention to oneself as a pillar of the community. *
It’s also regional. Popular in Scotland and north England, it’s common in Australia too; the article has some comments on bus protocol elsewhere, such as in Germany, Spain, and Russia. One BTL comment noted:
I used to thank bus drivers when I lived in a city where that was a thing people did. For now, I live in a city that mercifully rejects small talk and the forced emotional labor of giving and accepting thanks (New York)—so I no longer do.
It’s not just used by Little Old Ladies, though from my limited sampling in London it does tend to be more of a Woman Thing (statistics, please—“broken down by age and sex”, like Keith Richards). I can’t find the source of the poll showing that 82% of people (“more than 15,300”) thanked the driver, but I’m incredulous.
Don’t Get Me Wrong, I’m all for a bit of personal contact. Maybe it’s the physical distance between them: while the greeter’s boldness impresses me, somehow the use of “Driver” makes it less personal, drawing attention to the grubby contractual relationship. Of course one thanks people face to face, people with whom one has had a certain amount of contact—like a taxi driver, or a doctor. But in other routine exchanges with public (or private) servants, one doesn’t say “Thankyou, Handyman” or “Thankyou, Hedge-fund Manager”.
It seems a bit patrician to me, like a greeting to Staff—the kind of patronising remark that Jacob Tree-Frog ** makes to one of his chauffeurs on the successful completion of a charabanc outing, rather as he dismisses one of his butlers or scullery maids from his August Presence.
In the event that the passenger actually knows the driver (“Thankyou, Bob”) then it’s fair enough. To me it suggests that the driver had made a special diversion to deliver them safe and sound right to their front door, and is going to hop out and take the shopping in for them too.
* Rather like clapping the NHS, which nurses and doctors came to see as a “hollow gesture” compared with, like, supporting fair pay or even following public health guidance—see also here.
** In the latest instalment in JRM’s mission to remind us that he is a fatuous, dangerous lunatic, he explains why Tory MPs don’t need to wear face masks in the Chamber:
“We on this side know each other” and have a “convivial fraternal spirit.”
Last week David Cameron was keen to remind us that the current rabble of Tory ministers doesn’t enjoy a monopoly on venality, duplicity, and incompetence. As he reflected on his informal consultancy role for Greensill, stimulated entirely by a desire to help people [Yeah right], he offered some useful tips for alleged gang members politely requested to attend a hearing. Some handy expressions:
I accept that no matter how laudable the motives and cause, [nailing people’s heads to the floor] can be open to misinterpretation.
The amount I stood to gain is a private matter. I don’t recall exactly… I haven’t got a complete record of how many times [I used the private jet].
I take a different view. I was motivated by how to help small businesses.
There are great advantages to be had from technical innovation [just look at chainsaws].
My threats communications were not excessive or a distraction.
[Mugging old ladies] was an honest mistake. I have spent most of my adult life in “public service”. I believe in it deeply [sincere face]. I would never put forward something that I didn’t believe was absolutely in the interests of the public good.
I welcome this enquiry and the related reviews. I am as keen as anyone to learn the lessons.
Dodgy Dave’s turn may remind us of the old Piranha brothers sketch:
Interviewer: I’ve been told Dinsdale Piranha nailed your head to the floor. Stig: No. Never. He was a smashing bloke. He used to buy his mother flowers and that. He was like a brother to me. But the police have film of Dinsdale actually nailing your head to the floor. [pause] Oh yeah, he did that. Why? Well he had to, didn’t he? I mean there was nothing else he could do, be fair. I had transgressed the unwritten law. What had you done? Er… well he didn’t tell me that, but he gave me his word that it was the case, and that’s good enough for me with old Dinsy. I mean, he didn’t want to nail my head to the floor. I had to insist. He wanted to let me off. He’d do anything for you, Dinsdale would.
Homeless people are in desperate need of your support. Please help. Cash donations only, in strictest confidence.
I have the greatest admiration for people who learn to manage their speech impediment to speak in public. Not among them is Bumbling Boris (for his full title, see Stewart Lee—since “Boris” and “BoJo” seem too generous in their familiarity, Lee’s solution “Turds” seems suitable; “Spaffer” also has a certain ring to it).
Along with the tousled hair and shambling walk, his disjointed speech—seeking to convey a spontaneous happy-go-lucky image, making it up as he goes along—seems a public-school affectation. Mystifyingly, in some quarters this is apparently considered attractive, like Hugh Grant’s “Posh Twat” persona, or Jacob Tree-Frog eternally trapped in the ridiculous fancy-dress outfit that he once wore for a laugh at a school party.
Or is his stumbling a recognition that if he does somehow manage to string more than two words together consecutively, the result will inevitably consist of fatuous offensive clichés, or is it a cunning attempt to dissociate himself from them?
Er er er, bumble wumble, ow-ow-our [smirks] European friends [the AfD], the-the-the…, um, ipso facto [smugly], I-I-I, letterbox, i-i-s a… er, world-beating [Ha], um, roadmap, blah, [ruffles hair “endearingly”], Winston, er er… (what was his name again?) pifflepafflewifflewaffle steady ship… um, um um, cavalry…
Well he said, you’ll be the greatest president in the history of, but you know what, I’ll take that also, but that you could be. But he said, will be the greatest president but I would also accept the other. In other words, if you do your job, but I accept that. Then I watched him interviewed and it was like he never even was here. It’s incredible. I watched him interviewed a week later and it’s like he was never in my office. And you can even say that.
Or perhaps the difference is that Tweety blundered on relentlessly [enjoy that past tense], whereas Spaffer peppers his own drivel with cute hesitancy. So much for oratory (and for fluent impromptu exposition in Indian raga, click here).
Created at a time when the idea of either of them being allowed anywhere near power seemed utterly ludicrous, Paul Whitehouse’s character of Rowley Birkin QC combined the posh Spaffer mannerisms and the relentless Tweety gibberish (playlist):
Here’s Matt Lucas:
Recently a Spaffer–Birkin hybrid has emerged:
I might have a greater tolerance of such eccentricity for a politician not wallowing in a cesspit of opportunism, xenophobia, and duplicity. For a less-than-ringing endorsement from a former colleague (“a clown, a self-centred ego, an embarrassing buffoon, with an untidy mind and sub-zero diplomatic judgment”), click here.
“What I can tell you is this“: on behalf of the, um, stammering “community”, I would like to dissociate myself from this kind of flummery—FFS, either get a proper speech impediment or just learn to engage mouth with “brain”. Ideally, go away.
Unlike many people, I’m all too accustomed to solitude (cf. On visiting a hermit), so apart from not being able to enjoy my daily swim, my routine has hardly changed—including my activities in the kitchen.
Bearing in mind that pampered Grauniad readers like me have been panicking for some years about the shortage of hummus and avocados (“and other mysterious things that add up to nothing much when it comes to making meals”—Love, Nina), I must confess that I do now tend to stockpile. I recklessly bought two whole tins of baked beans the other day, and—undeterred by the fascist futurist fulminations of Marinetti—I now snap up pasta with unprecedented relish.
The present anxiety is having one influence on my culinary repertoire: a welcome comeback gig for risotto, a simple and versatile dish that I had cruelly neglected for several years. It’s a pleasure to relearn the subtleties of proportions and timing (not entirely like jazz)—frying the leeks (onions, whatever), and then turning up the heat to add the rice and then the white wine; then lowering the heat as I gradually add the stock. Then toying with various combos of vegetables del giorno—lovingly picked by the migrants upon whom our so-called government temporarily finds itself dependent, just like “our” NHS. * All topped off (the risotto, not the migrants) with freshly-grated parmesan. That’s cheese, BTW.
Some last-minute lemon (or if you’re feeling really racy, lime), and rocket, can be pleasing too. Then, turning off the heat, cover and leave to stand (It Says ‘ere). Practice makes perfect.
And as a change from my legendary dinner parties [legendary in the sense that they never existed?—Ed.], I don’t even have to share it—YAY! Imagine if we started to realise that all that frantic economic and social activity was overestimated all along. Don’t be tempted to make enough risotto to last for several meals, though—it’s a kinda one-off (一次性) thing, like…
BTW, these may be trying times for anyone, of whatever age, asked what day of the week it is, or the name of the Prime Minister. On the recent return of the latter, the old Brezhnev joke may be apposite.
I never cease to be amazed by newspapers which shyly make him say “f***ing black c***”, leaving intact the one word which aroused Mr Ferdinand’s wrath,
and calling on the unlikely couple of Charlotte Brontë and Ken Loach. See also this LRB review of a book on a 1923 trial revolving around women’s use of “foul language”, class, and the uses and abuses of literacy—with a pre-echo of Paul Kratochvil’s splendid story in a quote from 1930: “soldiers used the word ‘fucking’ so often that it was merely a warning that ‘a noun is coming’ “.
In Stewart Lee‘s latest book March of the lemmings (2019—not aka The bumper book of Stewart Lee jokes: jolly japes for all the family) he pursues the style of How I escaped my certain fate with typically expansive Teutonic footnotes to the script of his show Contentprovider [or should that be C***ent provider?]. In one of these, warming to several topics, he reflects on the efficacity of his “so-called comedy” with purposeful, insistent use of “the c-word (cunt)”—which I hereby feel obliged to emulate.
First we should hear him doing the live version that prompted this tirade, since it gains so much from his masterly inflection, timbre, timing, and delivery:
And it isn’t, to be fair, you know, and I think—look, we’re gonna leave the EU, that is happening, and I think people have gotta put their differences behind them now and try and make it work. And I—I don’t know if you can make massive generalisations about people that voted to leave Europe anyway, because people voted to leave Europe for all sorts of different reasons, you know, and it wasn’t just racists that voted to leave Europe. Cunts did as well, didn’t they? Stupid fucking cunts. Racists, and cunts, and people with legitimate anxieties about ever-closer political ties to Europe.*
So here’s the footnote:
* How does this joke, which drew tears and cheers, even though I say it myself, night after night for the best part of two years, work? (1) Firstly, shock. I rarely swear on stage, and compared to most edgelord stand-ups, my swears count is probably only one level up from the sort of acts who market themselves as “clean” to get gigs at hospices run by born-again Christians. So it is a funny shock to hear me abandon my usual vocabulary and say the c-word (cunt). The c-word (cunt) is probably a way-too-heavy word to use here, and the deployment of such a disproportionately heavy weapon is part of what makes choosing to do [it] so funny. (2) The structure of the bit has a relationship with the much-touted idea that liberal Remainers should look outside their bubble and seek to understand the fears and concerns that drove 17.4 million people to vote Leave (“People voted to leave Europe for all sorts of different reasons, and it wasn’t just racists that voted to leave Europe…”), but then subverts the progression of thought by just calling them the c-word (cunts). To quote an old Lee and Herring routine, or possibly Viz’s Mr Logic, “Our expectations were subverted, from whence the humour arose”. (3) This second idea is then given what we in the trade call a “topper” by doubling back on the original premise and conceding that some Leave voters may also have “legitimate anxieties about ever-closer political ties to Europe”. There is then a second topper, in the form of a letter from a punter [“Dear Palace Theatre, Southend, please inform the “comedian”, and I use that word advisedly, Stewart Lee, who I had the misfortune of being taken along by friends to see last night, that I actually voted to leave Europe and I am neither a racist nor a cunt. Merely someone with genuine anxieties about ever-closer political ties to Europe. Yours, A. Cunt, Burnham-on-Crouch.”], which is a real letter (with the name changed) received during an early stage of the show at the 2016 Edinburgh Fringe try-outs, which just replays the joke again but in a funny voice and with more swearing, and with the town the complainer comes from changed to some local place every night—in this case, Burnham-on-Crouch.
By now the c-word (cunt) has long become a veritable mantra. The ever-expanding footnote goes on to do battle with Lee’s critics, with a plea for context:
The Tory Brexiteer and Sun columnist Tony Parson, in the February 2019 edition of GQ, the sort of style and status bible Patrick Bateman in American Psycho would read in between dismembering prostitutes in a penthouse apartment, wrote, on the subject of the c-word (cunt):
In the little corner of Essex where I grew up,”c***” was practically a punctuation mark among men and boys [see above—SJ]. It was in the foul air we breathed. But it grates now. It feels like the rancid tip of a cesspit that is the modern male attitude to women. And what I find bewildering is that it is not just thick ignorant oafs who use the c-word with such abandon. It is the woke. It is the enlightened. It is the professionally sensitive. It is the Guardian columnist, the BBC-approved comedian who can be guaranteed to dress to the left. “It wasn’t just racists that voted to leave Europe,” Stewart Lee recently quipped, “C***s did as well. Stupid fucking [sic!] c***s.” Does Lee’s use of the word sound rational or healthy? Does it provoke tears of mirth? Do you think it might persuade the 17.4m who voted to leave the European Union—the largest vote for anything in the history of this country—they were wrong? Some of my best friends are Remainers, but such spittle-flecked fury when using the word “c***s” makes Brexit sound like the very least of Lee’s problems.
Obviously, like Julia Hartley-Brewer and other Conservative Twitter types who alighted on the Brexit bit, Parson removed the qualifying section that followed it, where I acknowledge the out-of-touch nature of the so-called liberal elite in London, which in turn buys me some leeway, and also makes the subsequent attack on the so-called non-liberal non-elite more of a surprise; and Parson, presumably knowing little of my work, doesn’t appreciate that the use of the c-word (cunt) reads to my audience here in a comical way precisely because using it is so out of character. It is not the swear word in and of itself that brought the house down nightly. It has to have context.
And of course, the word isn’t delivered with “relish”, and it isn’t “spittle-flecked” either. The c-word (cunt) is delivered here with a kind of despairing calm, as if the cuntishness of the Brexit c-words (cunts) was just a sad matter of fact. When I was directing Richard Thomas’s Jerry Springer: the opera at the National Theatre in 2003 (as I am sure I have written before), we were given the benefit of the theatre’s voice coach for one session, who took the singers aside to teach them to enunciate all the libretto’s swear words and curses, to spit them out with relish. I waited for the session to subside, respectfully, and then had to unravel the work that had been done. The swear words weren’t necessarily to be sung in that spirit at all. For the most part, they represented the disenfranchised Americans working, in heightened emotional states, at the edges of the limited vocabulary that was available to them, and had to be used to convey not simply hate and venom, but also love, hope, despair and longing, the feelings expressed in Richard’s music. If I’d really wanted this particular c-word (cunt) to read with spittle-flecked relish, you’d have known about it. There’d have been spittle on the lens. I’m not averse to spitting on stage (on an imaginary Graham Norton, for example), so a lens would hold no terrors for me. To me, the c-word (cunt) here was mainly about how utter despair drove the beaten and frustrated Remainer character on stage (me) to the outer limits of his inarticulacy, painstakingly logical arguments against Brexit having broken down into mere swears.
And I didn’t “quip” the line either. One thing you will never see me doing is quipping. My work is too laborious and self-aware to ever include a comic device as light-hearted as a “quip”, and if I see one, I usually have it surgically removed from my script, or at least quarantined between ironic inverted commas (“Oh yeah, I can do jokes”). [Here’s a rare, and sadly very funny, example—SJ] And obviously, the bit was not in any way intended to “persuade the 17.4m who voted to leave the European Union—the largest vote for anything in the history of this country—they were wrong”, so it is stupid to criticise it for failing to achieve something it never set out to do. That’s like saying that Fawlty towers, for example, was written to encourage hoteliers to control their tempers; or that the very funny playground joke that ends with the line “Lemon entry, my dear Watson” was written to encourage Sherlock Holmes to keep suitable anal-sex lubricants close to hand for his congress with Watson, rather than relying on whatever out-of-date fruit preserves he could find in his larder.
Maybe I came onto Parson’s radar of late because I talked about Brexit, which he and his employer the Sun support, or because I am now one of those “cultural figures” that informed commentators like him are supposed to know about (“God! Haven’t you heard of Stewart Lee, Tony? I can’t believe it!”), who get praised in the London Review of Books, and get called the greatest living stand-ups in TheTimes, irrespective of their perceived market penetration or popularity. For Parson I am a “woke… enlightened… professionally sensitive… BBC-approved comedian who can be guaranteed to dress to the left”, which is hardly news, as it’s essentially what I describe myself as on stage, having done lazy Parson’s work for him.
Nonetheless, it’s odd to be called out as evidence of “the rancid tip of a cesspit that is the modern male attitude to women” in a magazine whose website has a “Hottest Woman of the Week” feature. It’s such an odd phrase, “the rancid tip of a cesspit”, that I had to go online and google pictures of cesspits to make sure I had understood what one was.
In my newspaper columns, I deliberately try to mangle my metaphors, writing in character as a man with imposter syndrome who is out of his depth in a posh newspaper and is trying to overcompensate with complex language that is beyond him. But Parson’s incoherence, as brilliantly parodied each month in Viz, is effortless. A cesspit is, literally, a pit full of cess. It can’t have a tip as it is not a conical solid. The only way a cesspit could have a tip is if it were somehow upended and its contents swiftly hardened in some kind of large-scale commercial drying unit, and the remaining cylinder or cuboid (depending on the shape of the pit that had moulded the cess within it) then sharpened at one end, perhaps using an enormous pencil sharpener rotated by shire horses on some kind of mill harness, or by Parson himself, until it formed the rancid tip Parson described. The only way a cesspit could have a natural tip would be if the body of the cesspit itself were conical, which perhaps they were “in the little corner of Essex where Parson grew up.
In fact, there is an Essex folk-song, collected by the archivist Shirley Collins inthe ’50s from the old traveller singer Gonad Bushell, that goes:
I’m a Billericay gypsy, Billericay is my home,
My house it is a caravan, my cesspit is a cone,
And if I want to see the cess become a rancid tip,
I tip the cesspit upside down, then dry and sharpen it!
And the curlew is a-calling in the morning.
[This is worthy of Stella Gibbons—e.g. Cold Comfort Farm, or her brilliant Britten pastiche—SJ]
Parson may have a point about the c-word (cunt), though I don’t really think my Brexit bit is hugely relevant to his discussion, and seems to be cranked in as part of some kind of twisted vengeance. Out of academic curiosity, I wondered what the dictionary definition of the c-word (cunt) was, and to my surprise, when I turned to it, there was just a massive picture of Tony Parson’s face. And it had all arrows pointing towards it as well.
Imagine writing the sort of space-filling shit Parson does, day after day. At least my columns are supposed to be stupid.
Back at the routine, Lee moves on ineluctably to the Brexiteers’ fatuous topos of bendy bananas (demolished e.g. here; also a theme of his columns, such as here and here, the latter included in March of the lemmings):
People did vote to leave Europe for all different sorts of—they did, don’t snigger away down there—they voted for all, you know, not everyone that voted to leave Europe wanted to see Britain immediately descend into being an unaccountable single-party state, exploiting people’s worst prejudices to maintain power indefinitely. Some people just wanted bendy bananas, didn’t they? “Oh no, I only wanted bendy bananas, and now there’s this chaotic inferno of hate.” “Oh well, never mind, at least the bananas are all bendy again, aren’t they?” Like they always fucking were.
In the second half of the show he adapts the Brexit material into an “I don’t know if you can make massive generalisations about Americans who voted for Trump…” routine:
Not all Americans who voted for Trump wanted to see America immediately descend into being an unaccountable single-party state, exploiting people’s worst prejudices to maintain power indefinitely. Some Americans just wanted to be allowed to wear their Ku Klux Klan outfits to church, didn’t they?
And still the footnotes to the script persist. Like How I escaped my certain fate, Lee’s comments are worth reading in full.
The Haunted Pencil’s style reminds me of yet another Monty Python classic featuring John Cleese:
Son: Good evening, mother. Good evening, Mrs Niggerbaiter.
Mrs Niggerbaiter: Ooh, he’s walking already!
Mrs Shazam: Ooh yes, he’s such a clever little fellow, aren’t you? Coochy coochy coo.
Mrs Niggerbaiter: Hello, coochy coo.
Mrs Shazam: Hello, hello… [they chuck him under the chin]
Mrs Niggerbaiter: Oochy coochy [son gives tight smile]. Look at him laughing… ooh, he’s a chirpy little fellow! Can he talk? Can he talk, eh?
Son: Yes of course I can talk, I’m the Minister for Overseas Development.
Mrs Niggerbaiter: Ooh, he’s a clever little boy—he’s a clever little boy! (gets out a rattle) Do you like your rattle, eh? Do you like your little rattle? Look at his little eyes following it, eh? Look at his iggy piggy piggy little eyeballs eh… Ooh, he’s got a tubby tum-tum…
Son [interrupting]: Mother, could I have a quick cup of tea please—I have an important statement on Rhodesia in the Commons tomorrow…
* * *
By now Wee-Smug has joined the Queen and Brian Sewell on my shortlist of readers for a BBC Radio 4 serialization of Miles Davis’s autobiography (“Listen with Motherfucker”).
And here’s a fun party game to mollify your irritation with Pompous Brexit Twats. Whenever you hear them braying some fatuous remark about “taking back control of our borders / laws / own country [blah blah]”, just replace the noun with “bowels”—”we can finally look forward to taking back control of our bowels”, and so on.
Cf. Stewart Lee’s notional cabbie: “These days, you can get arrested and thrown in jail just for saying you’re English” (in my post How to be English). See also his brilliant routines in A French letter and The c-word; and several more fine critiques of xenophobic bigotry under the Lee tag.
The Twittersphere has been having great fun with The Minister for the 18th Century‘s recent directive on language, presumably inscribed with quill on parchment—the latest stage in his patronising mission to bestow his patrician values upon the plebs, or should I say hoi polloi.
Now, we all have our little linguistic peeves (here’s one of mine). It’s not that people don’t believe in stylistic guidelines; more that we don’t want them delivered by pompous fogeys—here‘s a general demolition of language pedants.
One among many of his fatuous rules—no comma after “and”—is perplexing. Since no-one appears to do this anyway, commentators have surmised that he was trying to ban the Oxford comma, which occurs before the “and”. To the wonderful examples here showing its necessity, we can now add:
In a bold gambit, Jacob Tree-Frog (aka The Haunted Pencil / Minister for the 18th Century)* has thrown his top-hat into the ring with the yet-unverified claim (delivered in impeccable Latin) that Nanny once gave him a mug of Ribena to snort at a party.
The folk at @Nyetimber have asked us to pull our Mogg film cos it featured their fizzy wine being enjoyed at Glyndebourne. They say: “We do not accept any connection between the nature of the video/Jacob Rees-Mogg and the Nyetimber brand.” Don’t blame them. Here’s a new one. 🍾 pic.twitter.com/G1EBgGNNie
While I am most averse to the current wave of vapid patriotic moralising in China, I am partial to the occasional judicious quote from Confucius—like my tribute to the Li family Daoists on their 2017 French tour.
Further to my motto for the Stammerers’ Association (“We have ways of making you talk”), Who Better Than Confucius (answers on a postcard please) to supply a maxim for the Chinese branch? James Legge’s classic translation of Analects §4.24 goes
The Master said, “The superior man wishes to be slow in his speech and earnest in his conduct.”
The distinguished Tian Qing, my favoured calligrapher-by-appointment—see here for the sign that he wrote for Li Manshan’s latrine)—has kindly written the maxim for me in lishu script. For Shan Fuyi’s scroll with the ingenious poem that Gaoluo villagers wrote for me, click here.
The 訥 there (“slow”) has also been rendered as “hesitant” (for an allusion to the dictum in the name of a fine scholar of Tang culture, click here). Of course, unlike Moses, there’s no suggestion that Confucius was himself a stammerer. In his calligraphy Tian Qing has dispensed with the “wishes” character, since as he observes wryly, I’ve already attained the “slow in speech”… But rather than advocating a speech impediment, Confucius’s bon mot may serve for the afflicted as a reminder of slowed speech, or even deliberate stammering, as therapy—perhaps with Robert Peston as model, rather than Gepopo.
There’s some data on stammering worldwide, but historically, I wonder how common it was in ancient China. Perhaps further broken down by age and sex, as Keith Richards might have called his autobiography.
There’s a related, more expansive passage in Analects §1.14:
The Master said, “He who aims to be a man of complete virtue [:] in his food does not seek to gratify his appetite, nor in his dwelling place does he seek the appliances of ease; he is earnest in what he is doing, and careful in his speech; he frequents the company of men of principle that he may be rectified—such a person may be said indeed to love to learn.”
High fives all round. Also BTW, I now wonder if Confucius’s 敏于事 (Legge’s “earnest in what he is doing”) might even be rendered as “diligent in ritual” (cf. Doing things). As to “appliances of ease” (again, I might suggest “comfort” or “security”), I’ve never been one for a microwave myself.
“Such a person may be said indeed to be a pompous misogynist“. Drawing a veil over Confucius’s views on gender (indeed, feminist critiques, and even defences, of his ouevre are in vogue, if not in Vogue: see e.g. Su Zheng, cited here), if he were with us today (cf. WWJD), if he couldn’t get a job as advisor to some dictator in a banana republic minus the bananas, he could make a fortune selling Christmas-cracker maxims. Gary Larson has a fine cartoon on Confucius at the office with some of his rejects (“Looks like we’re in for some rain”).
For a handy claim to classical erudition, see here. As ever, Laozi has the best line:
He who knows does not speak; he who speaks does not know
And for Liezi, see here. For illustrious Chinese stammerers, ancient and modern, see here.
In summer 2016 Theresa May came in for what footballers call “a bit of stick”—never so trenchantly as here (from Christie’s A book for her, also excerpted here):
I’m not entirely sure about women wearing a “This is what a feminist looks like” T-shirt. Or men, for that matter. It’s overstating the case a bit, isn’t it? It’s like wearing a T-shirt with “I am not a racist” on it. It makes me suspicious. I assume that most people’s default setting is feminist, until they do or say something that makes me think otherwise. If I went bowling with a friend, for example, and they took their coat off to reveal an “I am not a racist” T-shirt underneath, I don’t think I’d feel relieved at all. On the contrary, it would make me very on edge. I’d spend the whole night worried I was bowling with an ironic racist.
A few years ago, because Tory feminists were in the papers all the time, talking about Tory feminism, it made me think about what Tory feminism was, which fed into the standup in my show War Donkey in Edinburgh in the summer of 2012. This is how it went:
I’ve been trying to work out what a Tory feminist is, because I keep seeing photographs of female Tory MPs in the newspapers, wearing T-shirts with “This is what a feminist looks like” on them. What, like a T-shirt? How can a T-shirt look like a feminist? A T-shirt looks like a T-shirt, doesn’t it? It should say, “This is what a T-shirt with ‘This is what a feminist looks like’ written on it looks like”.
That’s what it says on the front, anyway, of the Tory feminists’ T-shirts that they’re all wearing now. And on the back it says, “Not really, I’m a Tory, you gullible dick”.
Then underneath that it says, “I axed the health in pregnancy grant. I closed Sure Start centres.’”That one’s got a smiley face next to it. “I cut child benefit and slashed tax credits. I shut down shelters for battered wives and children. I cut rape counselling and legal aid.” Winking face.
“I cut funding for CCTV cameras and street lighting, making women much more vulnerable. I closed down all 23 specialist domestic violence courts. I cut benefits for disabled children.” Sad face with sunglasses on. “I tried to amend the abortion act so that women receive one-to-one abortion counselling from the pope before they go ahead with it.” Winking face with tongue out. The back is much longer than the front, by the way. It’s a tailcoat, basically. They’re wearing tailcoats.