Friday, 11 December 2015

I Come Not To Praise Boris, But To Bury Him

A while ago I read a children's novel from the height of Empire called Behind the Mountains by Wray Hunt, a Victorian/Edwardian novelist who turned out yards of this stuff: imperialist, patriotic tales of derring-do by upstanding young white chaps. In this novel, the setting is the borderlands between Afghanistan and India (as was) and our heroes are two English teenagers whose aeroplane has been downed because the gentle but unreliable Hindu servant has forgotten to fuel it properly, marooning them amongst the 'hook-nosed savage' Muslim Afghans. The rest of the plot is as you'd expect: our heroes outthink and outfight their racial inferiors in a range of adventures and win through in the end. Huzzah for White Chaps and the Empire on which the sun never sets (this was 1930).

Having read it as an historical curiosity which captured perfectly the imperialist mindset at its most bumptious, I set it aside and thought of it again very rarely. And then in the course of my research into politicians' creative writing, I read Boris Johnson's 2004 comic thriller about suicide bombers, Seventy-Two Virgins. The tone and much of the language is very much that of Behind the Mountains, and I strongly suspect that it's the kind of stuff on which Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson was raised. You can spot the Muslims (and therefore the bad guys, and gal) by their 'hook noses' and 'dark brown eyes', phrases which recur throughout the book. They are both evil and stupid, while their personalities are formed of the simplest stuff, despite Country Life describing Johnson as 'brilliant at characterisation'. What motivates jihad? It is never their 'official' cause, be that Palestine or Islam. It is…'something to do with sex, or at least with self-esteem'.

It's an interesting novel at least. It features as one of the heroes a bumbling young bicycling Tory MP called Roger Barlow who exists in a state of marital conflict who worries that the tabloids are about to expose him. Some terrorists, one of whom is radicalised in Wolverhampton as the consequence of his illegitimacy (conceived by a Jewish kerb-crawler looking for 'a bit of black' and a prostitute), his adoption by awful petty-bourgeois yam-yams (Boris spent a short time working on Wolverhampton's Express and Star newspaper and fondly imagines he knows the place and its dialect) and general inadequacy, take the US President hostage in Westminster Hall as he addresses the assembled great and good.  

There are farcical elements, but it's largely a manoeuvre designed to promote the argument that people who believe very strongly in anything are brittle and dangerous, whereas bumbling anti-ideological Toryism of the kind Roger espouses is far more humane than either what he calls 'Islamofascism' or even American Neoconservatism. For most of the novel the Americans are viewed as trigger-happy blowhards in need of softening by common-sense Brits, though the hereditary and elected ruling classes are presented as etiolated, tired and inadequate: they need a bit of Yank Resolve to stiffen them up. However, by the end the reader is encouraged to choose sides in a stark fashion. Faced with the prospect of Terrorist Victory, even the French Ambassador makes a stirring speech in which he explains that despite the US being an Empire, it's not evil and the French embrace of McDonald's demonstrates that underneath we know they're the good guys. It's a bit like the end of Team America: World Police without the ideological complexity (not entirely SFW by the way).

Along the way Johnson has predictable pops at the usual suspects: Nigerians are oversexed traffic wardens of royal origins whose relatives make their money from online scams; builders are all illegal immigrants, journalists are shifty, the BBC is cynical, lefty and massively overstaffed, while parliamentary democracy is an exhausted talking shop. The police are lazy and thick, while the paramedic service is obsessed with 'elf and safety' to save anyone. The voters are awful whining provincials with terrible taste, while all protestors are unwashed hate-filled arseholes without an ounce of true principle in them. Multiculturalism is damned as a failure, while mass higher education is a 'Stalinist' exercise populated entirely by smarmy male tweed-and-cord-wearing intellectual snobs (OK, guilty as charged) and the Welsh language is a 'weird creole' (one of the hilarious aspects is that one of the bombers attends Llangollen University under a false identity and becomes known as Jones the Bomb). The lesson I think we can draw from all this is that Boris always kicks downwards. His mission is to make the powerful comprehensible to right-thinking people, while laughing at the brown, the regional, the bourgeois, the principled and the disenfranchised.

Is it well-written? Unfolding the action over four hours is fairly effective, though there are some pointless interventions including a scene of Henry VIII playing real tennis in Westminster Hall, but on the whole it's not much cop. He drops in the occasional literary reference such as a line of Marvell's poetry, but he's not capable of characterisation despite occasional efforts: Roger's glamorous neocon American assistant refers to 'hunnish practices' and invokes Molesworth which seem rather too English public-school for her. There's also a sub-plot which is explicitly stolen from PG Wodehouse's The Code of the Woosters: the secret of Roger's tabloid shame is not that he's betrayed his wife (the novel is a Boris fantasy, remember) but that he has invested in a lingerie shop called Eulalie's which it transpires is a front for a brothel. Compare this with the Wodehouse novel in which the fascist leader of the Blackshorts Roderick Spode is cut down to size by Wooster threatening to reveal that he is the co-owner of a lingerie emporium called…Eulalie's!

It's a deliberate reference rather than plagiarism, but it's indicative of Johnson's primary obsession. While there's plenty of discussion about liberalism versus ideological rigidity and the exhaustion of the political classes, what Seventy Two Virgins comes down to is a tale of masculine crisis. The terrorist's hatred of the West is sexual fear and inadequacy: "chippy, pathetic, pretentious, envious Islamic nutcase…vote for America". Roger tells them. The British are barely or not at all heterosexual, which is why they're so useless. The Americans are over-sexed and it leads to their single-minded pursuit of violent solutions to everything. Tellingly, when Roger Barlow survives the hostage scenario he promises that he will reform his life and become a better man. What this means is slightly underwhelming. He will resist win his Oedipal battle with his toddler son. He will see off the 'vicious wheedling' ethnic journalist woman. He will 'clean up the puddles on the bathroom floor…make stuff to eat…and perhaps…roll up [his] sleeves and wear some gay pinafore'. What a sacrifice! There are, it seems, no positive decisions he can make: his perfect man is one who picks up his own towels.

For a novel which promotes itself as transgressive - a comedy about suicide bombers in which the President of the USA is taken hostage in Parliament – Seventy Two Virgins is quite a failure. There are two many points at which Boris pulls back. Nobody swears beyond 'bloody', for instance, and women are absolutely not allowed to commit acts of violence, even to save the day. Despite his gibes about useless politicians, Boris won't even allow himself the joy of demolishing Parliament: instead he arranges it so that the suicide bomber explodes in the toilets, 5kg of high explosive 'Jackson Pollocking' his 'blood and brains' over the Gents' but doing 'remarkably little damage'. 

In the end, Seventy Two Virgins is little more than the sniggering of a little boy who is still thrilled by 'down there', despite the occasional glimpse of a political idea. He feels that 'muddling through' is better than being a fanatic, but that when the chips are down, American might should be trusted and respected. But it's basically about willies. However, in a week during which Boris Johnson is widely praised for countering Donald Trump's rubbish about Muslims, his novel suggests that our own oddly-coiffured joke politician has some disturbing impulses in that direction of his own.

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