A fortnight ago, back in the days when Rupert Murdoch still had an empire, I found myself in Ireland (Trim, Co Meath, to be precise – once home to Jonathan Swift) where, appropriately enough, they were holding their annual satire festival. Contradiction in terms, you may think, as satire should be counter-cultural, challenging.
But this is Ireland, and the Irish have a respect and affection for their writers and thinkers, from Sheridan and Swift through to Wilde, Joyce and Beckett, right up to Louis Walsh and Jedward.
In Irish newspapers and on the radio, there’s a more literary style, a more elegant and witty use of language, something which Beckett ultimately felt got in the way, which is why he switched to French. But it was Beckett whose character Nell in Endgame said: “Nothing is funnier than unhappiness,” and amid the unhappiness that is Ireland’s dire economic state, the weekend’s speakers were reaching for comedy as a weapon.
I’ve wondered in these pages before how effective satire can be today (Tom Lehrer gave up when Henry Kissinger won the Nobel Peace Prize. Now the old rogue is on Sepp Blatter’s council to restore the integrity of Fifa. Top that for irony). Frequently now for satirical, or at least topical, comedians it’s a question not of scaling things up to make them ludicrous, but scaling things down to make them credible – as the hacking scandal shows. Ask them what the Big Issue is in Ireland, and they’ll tell you – €2. Boom, boom.
But seriously, folks, the Big Issues, for Ireland, as for Greece, Portugal and even the UK, are at once very simple and very complicated. A combination of grotesque greed and incompetence has left economies decimated and debt-ridden. But quite how that happened is complicated, and made more so by the fact that the rich and powerful own the language. From Lehmans to laymen, we all now speak in terms of “credit crunch”, “double-dip”, “quantitative easing”, and “leveraging”: sophisticated euphemisms which (deliberately) disguise a simpler truth: This Is Crazy, and we all know it can’t go on like this.
My point is this. While satire thrives on grotesques, on black-and-white, today’s issues are technical, managerial ones. In the UK, the difference between government and opposition can be summed up thus: for the coalition, George Osborne says we can’t have growth without cutting the deficit; for the opposition, Ed Balls says we can’t cut the deficit without having growth. And that’s it. For the rest, it’s just window-dressing and grandstanding. So, in attempting to appear bold and decisive, the Tory-led coalition proudly announce sweeping reforms before admitting they haven’t consulted anyone beforehand and conceding it might have been better if they had.
In trying to find a satirical image for David Cameron and Nick Clegg, I’ve decided they’re two public schoolboys fighting over a duvet. The defeat over the alternative voting system left Clegg naked. So what does he do? Reaches over to Cameron’s side and grabs the NHS, dragging it back to his side and wrapping himself in it to rekindle his liberal credentials. This, in turn, leaves Cameron exposed, so he grabs Law and Order and drags it over to his side of the bed, leaving not just Clegg but, strangely enough, his own Ken Clarke butt-naked. (Hold that thought). In the absence of ideology, we’re witnessing the two leaders in an exercise in covering their joint nakedness.
Meanwhile, Ed Miliband looks increasingly mad and robotic. Even the name sounds vaguely technical. There are still large parts of the country that can’t get Miliband. Some of them have only just heard of Vince Cable.
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Being recognised in the street is a fascinating test of celebrity and self-esteem. I hasten to add this doesn’t happen to me that often – largely because my limited claim to fame rests on looking and sounding like other people (although, having said that, I did sit patiently in BBC reception in the early 1990s dressed in uniform and made up as Saddam Hussein, and no one batted an eyelid).
But children have a special way of bringing you down to earth. At the Melrose Book Festival last month, a young school party spotted me and called my name. Pleasantly surprised to be recognised by the younger generation, I asked if it was because they’d seen Mock the Week or some similar programme. “No,” they said. “You’re Ava’s daddy. We know her from pony camp.” Damn. Disguising my disappointment, I signed some autographs for them. “Could you put ‘To Lorna’? said one; ‘To Zoe’? said another. Then a boy said “Could ye jest sign yer name, please?”
“Ah!” I said. “That means you can put it on Ebay!” “Em, no,” he said, very earnestly. “Ah’ll have tae wait a year or two before ah put it on Ebay.” “Why’s that?” I enquired. “Well,” he explained, “if you wait until the person’s famous, it’s worth a lot more.” Sic transit gloria mundi.
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The last time I met Rebekah Brooks (at a dinner in Oxfordshire – I just hacked my own phone to check), she was going home to cook sausages for a local hunt the following day.
The next time a flaming red-haired mammal is cornered by a pack of hounds, it’ll be in front of the House of Commons media committee, and hopefully this time her husband will provide the sausages. Tally ho!