The nation that laughed itself stupid


To the silk looms and chamber pots of Dennis Severs’ House in Spitalfields. Severs was a Californian whose gripes with the 20th century drove him to turn a London address into a portal to the 18th and 19th. A fictitious Huguenot family, drummed out of Catholic France, are heard but not seen as you tour their “home” in all its period detail. One room is given over to Queen Victoria portraits and union flags: to the patriotism of refugees.

These are layers of unsmiling reverence: the Huguenots’ for British freedom, Severs’ for the British past. These are outsiders who take the country more seriously than it takes itself.

But then, as we are seeing, how hard is that? What Britain will be living down for years is not that Boris Johnson won a landslide in December 2019. (By then, the alternative was worse.) It was the rise of such an obvious polecat over the previous three decades. Had this been luck, we could move on. In fact, it was the natural outcome of the humour that is the nation’s favorite thing about itself. A democracy giggled its way into crisis. A man who once agreed to abet what he thought was going to be the assault of a journalist was allowed to banter his way to the top. It happened on panel shows. It happened in print. Politics is always downstream of culture, and British culture’s biggest liability is its nihilistic unseriousness.

A comic nation is not such a bad thing. A tragicomic one is. Martin Amis said that embracing frivolity was Britain’s way of dealing with post-imperial decline. If we can’t run the world — we decided, unconsciously — let’s treat it as a joke. And so resentment of the American usurpers became mockery of their humourlessness. As coping tactics go, this is subtler than territorial revanche (Russia) or cultural protectionism (France). But it isn’t harmless. One cost is the oversupply of stand-up comedians. Another, to be meta for a moment, is Amis himself, who might have been a deeper writer, less of a caricaturist, had he grown up elsewhere.

These are simple aesthetic losses. But there is also a civic one. You can smuggle some terrible ideas into the public square under the cover of jollity. I recall the social pressure to pipe down with ethical qualms about Johnson — to not to be such a prig. It was fiercest not among libertines but among the kind of domesticated bourgeois for whom he represented vicarious thrills.

Look, I have lived in Washington: I understand the drag of earnestness. And humour, as Chaplin knew, is the scourge of the tyrant. No electorate with a sense of the absurd would obey a mustache-twirling goon in epaulettes. But humour can land you with a different kind of national ruin. Mediterranean per capita income with northern European weather is Britain’s plausible future. It has several authors, but one of them is the laughing cavalier: Johnson, Nigel Farage, each pub joker who waved aside the economics of Brexit as a nerd’s concern. The beauty of humour is that it allows one to avoid difficult subjects. The tragedy of humour is that it allows one to avoid difficult subjects.

You are too colourblind to have noticed, of course, but the putsch against Johnson was to some extent a Desi thing. Rishi Sunak’s parents are from India via east Africa. Sajid Javid’s are from Pakistan. Suella Braverman, the first declared leadership candidate, is another with roots in the subcontinent. Given the sample size, there is nothing going on here but coincidence. I don’t suggest that only an outsider can give a country its solemn due.

Still, I am on passing terms with the attitudes that infuse a certain kind of immigrant household. The unironic reverence for the new country. The equation of Britain with respectability. The paranoid fastidiousness. (I still under-expense at work, not I be thought a sponger.) The confusion and disappointment as the natives turn out to be more sardonic about these things.

I don’t know how it was for the Huguenots of 18 Folgate Street, or for Sunak, but for some immigrants the one shock in adapting to this otherwise user-friendly country is the premium on irreverence, the dread of seriousness. It is charming. But so are lots of dangerous habits.

Email Janan at [email protected]

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