The Dandy of Sixty, who bows with a grace,
And has taste in wigs, collars, cuirasses and lace;
Who, to tricksters, and fools, leaves the State and its treasure,
And, when Britain’s in tears, sails about at his pleasure:
William Hone knew a thing or two about satire — his 1819 pamphlet The Political House that Jack Built railed against the British government for its corruption and ineffectiveness, four months after British cavalry charged at 60,000 people in St Peter’s Field in Manchester.
In contrast, David Hare’s new satirical poem almost makes you long for the days of the Peterloo Massacre, when brutal governments inspired good social commentary. Agony Uncle is four minutes of Hare “castigating” Boris Johnson as a “straw-haired man” who “gets high on repeating gratuitous advice”. Like a twenty-year-old on a student rally, Hare’s rant against Johnson’s handling of the pandemic reads more like a disparate collection of annoyances than political satire. He gets a dig in at Johnson for “fucking a businesswoman on the family sofa” and giving “private chums” NHS contracts. It is promising to begin with, with Hare telling Johnson off for stringent lockdown measures, but ends up straying into familiar Tory-hating territory with jibes about the “fawning press” and the “union flag”.
What has happened to satire? Once great social commentators and artists like Hare now seem to want to produce work that goes viral on Twitter rather than speaking to broader public sentiment. There’s nothing wrong with poking fun at the Tories (especially when there is so much material to use, with former prime ministers donning suits to Saudi Arabian campfires). But the problem is, it feels too easy — especially with someone like Johnson. Even Radio 4 presenters make fun of his hair. Satire is supposed to push the boundaries to say something unsayable. It’s supposed to bring to light what the powers-that-be don’t want you to hear. There is nothing exciting or radical in a poem about greedy politicians who sleep around and talk nonsense at the lectern.
You don’t have to love the Tories to squirm at Hare’s indulgent poem
We’re constantly told that satire is no good when it punches down — which is why Charlie Hebdo isn’t allowed to ridicule prophets, comedians can’t joke about women and no one can poke fun at Black Lives Matter. But punching up is only good when the punches land. Hare’s attack on Johnson includes criticism of his lockdown measures for being both too extreme and not swift enough, too invasive and also not all-encompassing. It’s like it was commissioned by Keir Starmer, you can’t quite work out what Hare really thinks about the government’s assault on civil liberties over the last year.
There are some similarities with our contemporary political climate and the 1819 society that Hone was sending up. When he wasn’t writing pamphlets about “the hate of the People, all tatter’ed and torn”, Hone was being summoned before the courts accused of endangering public morals for his 1817 work the Reformists’ Register. His defence of press freedom won him national support. Today, unless satirists aim their pen at ‘acceptable’ targets like right-wingers, gammons or conservative politicians, they’re likely to fall victim to the same censorship as two centuries ago.
You don’t have to love the Tories to squirm at Hare’s indulgent poem. The “Tory scum” narrative of works like Roadkill do little to further radical left-wing politics. Instead, they are more interested in virtue-signalling than making any real political change. More importantly, they do damage to something that once had some credibility. If we keep celebrating two-bit doggerel as poetical satire, we’re in danger of bleeding this art form of all its power.
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