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Boris Johnson is no clown Playing the fool requires art and intelligence

He is a King in disguise (Future Publishing/Future Publishing via Getty Images)

He is a King in disguise (Future Publishing/Future Publishing via Getty Images)


March 30, 2022   5 mins

There is a secret pact between the aristocrat and the anarchist. The anarchist dislikes rules, while the aristocrat can afford to ignore them. Kicking over the traces is proof of his authority, not of his criminality. Those who set the rules reserve the right to flout them. The English love a lord, but they also have a weakness for a rogue, and when the two rolled together, as with Boris Johnson, the combination is hard to beat.

Johnson may not actually have much blue blood in his veins, but he is certainly a toff. Shakespeare’s Falstaff is both the greatest clown in English literature and a knight of the realm. Lord Byron was nobleman, rebel, daredevil, libertine and criminal (he had an incestuous affair with his sister), all of which made him more popular in his day than Billy Connolly is in ours. And though people detest the arrogant kind of patrician, they are ready to give their vote to the kind of high-class eccentric who shambles around with a parrot on his shoulder, even if he lives in Downing Street.

Dukes and Viscounts are powerful in one sense but marginal in another. As marginal figures, they have an affinity with the crook and the nonconformist. The landowner has a soft spot for the poacher, but not much sympathy for the petit-bourgeois gamekeeper. Some aristocrats see life as a game, playing it with one ironic eye on its arbitrary nature. In this, they are like the medieval Fool, who sees that all social roles are reversible, including his own.

The Fool is wiser than the king because he knows he is playing a part, whereas the king takes himself for real. The Fool thus speaks a subversive kind of truth, for which, as in King Lear, he risks being beaten up by his employers. Fools know that they aren’t up to much and so are more canny than their masters, who aren’t up to much but don’t know it. Playing the fool is a matter of playing the fool, making a performance of one’s folly which requires art and intelligence. The wisdom of foolery shows up the foolishness of the wise.

The strength of the clown, then, lies in his weakness. Because he is one of the lowliest forms of social life, he can’t fall any further and thus assumes a strange invulnerability. It is dangerous for ruling classes if the common people have nothing to lose. Fools and clowns are “all-licensed”, as one of Lear’s daughters complains of his jester, but this doesn’t matter much because they have no real power beyond mockery and wordplay. They are free in proportion to their impotence.

The trouble begins when the jester, like Johnson, is really a king in disguise, falling over his feet as a useful ploy for landing in Downing Street. Shakespeare understands that maintaining a pact with failure and frailty is the only basis for genuine power, which is different from arsing around in order to charm the electorate. The jester plays with the truth in a way which reveals some acute insights, whereas Johnson simply lies through his teeth.

Breaking the rules isn’t always to be censured. Great artists do it all the time. Even if you are a Schoenberg or a Beckett, however, you have to grasp the conventions well enough to sense when you should throw them away. Sometimes it’s the conventions themselves which will tell you this, or allow you to intimate it. You may need a textbook to learn Malay, but you are fluent in the language only when you can put the book aside. You incorporate the rules rather than ignore them, just as you don’t need to make an agonising act of choice every time the little green man, frozen eternally in the act of stepping forward, turns suddenly to red. Doing things without thinking about them is part of social existence. It shouldn’t be confused with not thinking about them because you don’t give a damn.

How do clowns become kings? The clown’s problem is how not to be a cynic. If he pushes his mockery too far he can end up deflating not this or that value, but value as such. All that remains to be believed in is his own ego. Shakespeare’s Iago, who has a touch of the jester about him, is ruthlessly self-interested, just like our dear leader. Like a whimsical monarch, the only reality that exists for the cynic is his own appetites. These can be gratified all the more easily if human life is a game, since if things are insubstantial you can manipulate them better. This applies especially to women. The cynic may not be a rake, but almost all rakes are cynics, convinced that women exist purely for their own pleasure. It isn’t accidental that Boris Johnson is a philanderer.

Britain is one of those rare nations in which not being serious is thought to be a virtue. Seriousness is for shopkeepers, not for rogues and roués. The middle classes have character, whereas the upper classes are seen as characters. The Roundhead is grim-lipped and high-minded, while the Cavalier makes light of things in order to show his superiority to them. This is the kind of sangfroid which helped to build the Empire, and in the form of a certain slapdash amateurism helped to lose it as well. Giving the debonair Lord Mountbatten a colony to rule over or a battleship to command was like giving a machine gun to a gorilla. The word ’amateurism’ means doing things because you love to, not because you have to. Check-out assistants have to turn in for work each morning, but gentleman farmers occasionally heave calves into land rovers because they rather fancy the idea of mucking in.

As the oldest capitalist nation in the world, Britain has long been a breeding ground for individualism. Each individual is a quirky deviation from the norm, in which case there isn’t really a norm in at all. Everybody, like Dickens’s grotesque figures, is a law unto themselves, which means that the law doesn’t exist and society is essentially anarchic. The irony is that the very disdain for convention which endeared Boris Johnson to voters who were tired of plastic politicians is what threatens to bring him down.

There are two other social groups which have traditionally played the Fool. The first is the long tradition of Irishmen who were jesters to the English court. One thinks of the 18th century writer Oliver Goldsmith, who hailed from the Irish midlands and seemed to exist in London simply for the amusement of Samuel Johnson and his circle. The Dubliner Edmund Burke, one of the finest orators the House of Commons has ever witnessed, was said by some English MPs to smell of whisky and potatoes. His scorching rhetoric, which once caused some gentlewomen in the public gallery of the Commons to faint away, could easily be dismissed as blather and blarney.

Some decades ago, the resident Irish jester to the English nation was the bibulous playwright Brendan Behan, who graduated from the IRA via Borstal to the London TV studios. He once described himself as a drinker with a writing problem. Television producers would wait until late in the evening, when Behan was bound to be drunk, and then haul him on their show to be interviewed. Not long ago, the Northern Irish poet Tom Paulin inherited this dubious honour, loudly berating all and sundry on late night television. He did so, however, in a thick Belfast accent which signalled that he wasn’t really one of us, and so was not to be taken too seriously. You could savour his idiosyncrasies while overlooking his opinions. As Olivia remarks in Twelfth Night, there’s no harm in a licensed Fool.

The other traditional group of clowns is old-style Oxbridge dons. Seriousness for them, too, is a vulgar affair fit mainly for traffic wardens. Only nerds talk shop. A medical colleague of mine who spent much of his time plucking bits of helmet from the brains of dying motorcyclists would saunter into college dinner and recount a few amusing anecdotes about golf. I was also acquainted with one of the world’s experts on black holes, who was as silent on the subject of astronomy as if he was a bouncer in a night club. As a young don still wet behind the ears, I once asked a senior colleague how many children he had.

This was an unforgivable move, since it made it almost impossible for him not to give a factual reply, and facts were for oiks. He did, however, sidle out of it superbly. “Oh, thousands and thousands,” he sighed. This is the background from which Boris Johnson emerged. No wonder he can’t tell the truth.


Terry Eagleton is a critic, literary theorist, and UnHerd columnist.


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Prashant Kotak
PK
Prashant Kotak
2 years ago

Meanwhile, in another parallel universe:

UnHerd Editor: So where’s that essay you promised?

Author: I’ve done it and sent it to you…, check your email.

UnHerd Editor: All I’ve got is an email with an invoice for ten thou, and a subject line that says “I don’t like Johnson”. Can you send it over again please?

Author: It’s a new kind of article. I’ve decided to dispense with all the waffle and the twaddle, and cut to the chase. Easier on the readers, and a lot less bother for me to write. Can you send over the money right away? I’ve got a couple of bills to pay. That daily extra helping of port at the high table isn’t cheap.

UnHerd Editor: You expect me to pay ten thou for a one line essay?

Author: Think of it as the Haiku form of the UnHerd article. It’s all about fools, jesters, cynics, and clever people who treat the world as their oyster, all encapsulated in four little words. And it practices what it preaches.

UnHerd Editor: Genius! I’ll wire over the money to your bitcoin account right away.

Author: Thanks. I’m gonna call the graun next, see if they will buy it too…

János Klein
JK
János Klein
2 years ago
Reply to  Prashant Kotak

Please don’t mention the Graun again..

Prashant Kotak
PK
Prashant Kotak
2 years ago
Reply to  János Klein

Perish the thought.

Ian Stewart
IS
Ian Stewart
2 years ago
Reply to  Prashant Kotak

I just don’t understand why people think Johnson appearing to be a clown and manipulating the facts in his favour makes him less effective than dogmatic politicians who hide their inadequacies and manipulate the facts in favour of a dogmatic ideology.
I really like having a PM who doesn’t mind appearing foolish and who doesn’t follow a dogmatic ideology.

Christopher Barclay
CB
Christopher Barclay
2 years ago
Reply to  Ian Stewart

Which PM since Thatcher or possibly Major has followed a dogmatic ideology? Unless that ideology is ‘give the bankers what they want’. In which case Johnson is just as dogmatic.

John Riordan
JR
John Riordan
2 years ago

Doubtless you were also on the side of the chorus of those condemning Johnson for his “f*** business” remark during the Brexit controversy.

Judy Johnson
JJ
Judy Johnson
2 years ago
Reply to  Ian Stewart

I am not sure he has any choice about appearing foolish. One of our radio commentators commented that he thought it inappropriate for Boris to compare himself with someone who parted the Red Sea when he cannot even part his hair.
I think he is clever rather than intelligent.

John Riordan
JR
John Riordan
2 years ago
Reply to  Prashant Kotak

Superb 🙂

Dr Anne Kelley
DK
Dr Anne Kelley
1 year ago
Reply to  Prashant Kotak

Brilliant!

ARNAUD ALMARIC
AA
ARNAUD ALMARIC
2 years ago

Boris maybe a bit of an autistic, buffoonish geek, but what else would one expect from an Etonian King’s Scholar (KS) and Balliol man?
However he has rendered one inestimable service to this country, for which it will be eternally grateful, by executing Brexit.
Against the vilest possible opposition from nearly every organ of the Establishment he has truly earned the Victor’s Triumph.

Now led him honour another promise and cease with immediate effect, the vexatious legal proceedings currently being conducted against former British Army Northern Ireland Veterans.
One octogenarian former Regimental Sergeant Major*has already died of Covid, having been needlessly dragged from Plymouth to Belfast, much to the disgrace Northern Ireland Judiciary.

(* As a former Life Guard, the rank is actually Regimental Corporal Major.)

Last edited 2 years ago by ARNAUD ALMARIC
Jon Hawksley
JH
Jon Hawksley
2 years ago
Reply to  ARNAUD ALMARIC

Historically an ability to think something through, on that Johnson does not compare favourably to others.

ARNAUD ALMARIC
AA
ARNAUD ALMARIC
2 years ago
Reply to  Jon Hawksley

One mustn’t mock the afflicted, but you are correct.

Clarence Clemons
CC
Clarence Clemons
1 year ago
Reply to  Jon Hawksley

or indeed his dog

Tony Conrad
TC
Tony Conrad
2 years ago
Reply to  ARNAUD ALMARIC

I think that is terrible. Is that how they repay their soldiers who risk their lives trying to do the right thing? Disgraceful.

ARNAUD ALMARIC
AA
ARNAUD ALMARIC
2 years ago
Reply to  Tony Conrad

It gets even worse as the current Minister of Defence is a former officer of the Scots Guards, and still nothing is done!
Come back Cromwell, all is forgiven!

Brendan O'Leary
BO
Brendan O'Leary
2 years ago
Reply to  ARNAUD ALMARIC

Oh no it isn’t!

Colin Elliott
CE
Colin Elliott
2 years ago
Reply to  ARNAUD ALMARIC

Ministers are constrained by the PM, and the PM by what he believes to be most likely to stay in office, so media hysteria tends to damage just and foresighted government.

Nicky Samengo-Turner
NS
Nicky Samengo-Turner
1 year ago
Reply to  ARNAUD ALMARIC

By all accounts a useless one

John Wilkes
JW
John Wilkes
2 years ago
Reply to  ARNAUD ALMARIC

The mistake Boris made regarding Covid rules was being bullied into hard and fast laws by public health extremists. If he had stuck to his instinctive response of ‘just use a bit of common sense’ as Sweden did we would all have been better off.
By any way of looking at it, having a glass of wine in the garden after work with people who you have been working with indoors all day (perfectly legally, of course), can cause absolutely no additional risk to anyone. Common sense.
However, extreme rules prevent people from doing common sense things as they are now illegal. I broke the law frequently myself, running for over an hour, then walking the dog later on. Both broke the law but common sense would suggest that they were fine.
All people who used their common sense (generally liberal minded folks) will have no issue with Boris. Those who demanded clarity and an inability to apply common sense (unions, socialists, EU lovers?) will nitpick and finger point until the end of time.

Clarence Clemons
CC
Clarence Clemons
1 year ago
Reply to  ARNAUD ALMARIC

Brexit is not done and buff has no idea what to do about it.

You make the mistake of thinking something he says will be followed through on. He says whatever the moment requires for the least possible hassle, and the least possible thinking. And he does it time and time again.

Ian Barton
IB
Ian Barton
2 years ago

“people detest the arrogant kind of patrician, they are ready to give their vote to the kind of high-class eccentric who shambles around with a parrot on his shoulder, even if he lives in Downing Street”
A nice summary of why Johnson is so much more acceptable to people than David Cameron ever was.
They both had similarly privileged backgrounds – but while Johnson has a flawed but widely accepted personality – Cameron was rightly disliked for the smug arrogance that he routinely exhibited during his awful sneering appearances in the House of Commons.
One of the least likeable Prime Ministers in recent history, whose inevitable demise has generated much “schadenfreude”.

Last edited 2 years ago by Ian Barton
Nicky Samengo-Turner
NS
Nicky Samengo-Turner
2 years ago
Reply to  Ian Barton

Cameron was not a KS at Eton, unlike Boris… big difference…

Nicky Samengo-Turner
NS
Nicky Samengo-Turner
2 years ago

Tugs, Oppidans….

ARNAUD ALMARIC
AA
ARNAUD ALMARIC
2 years ago

And Brasenose isn’t Balliol.

Ian McKinney
IM
Ian McKinney
2 years ago
Reply to  ARNAUD ALMARIC

How very dare you. If anything BNC has a much longer tradition of Johnsons rather than Camerons. It’s DC who is the abberation.

Colin Elliott
CE
Colin Elliott
2 years ago
Reply to  ARNAUD ALMARIC

And PPE isn’t Classics.

R S Foster
RF
R S Foster
2 years ago

…my own take on the PM derives from a wise observation by the German General Kurt Von Hammerstein-Equord…and the wisdom of the British People.
The General said that officers were either clever or stupid…and either idle or diligent. He held that stupid/idle officers were fit for routine work…clever/diligent officers should be on the staff…and clever/idle officers should be in command…because they would act very quickly, and very often make the right call to get themselves and their Army out of trouble.
He added that stupid/diligent officers needed to be put in the posts of greatest danger…because the sooner they were killed, the better.
The British People were wise enough to see that the PM is clever and idle, and thus put him in charge…and that his opponent in the last general election was stupid and diligent, and therefore needed to be removed from the levers of power as soon as possible.
I’d say the jury of the people is still out on his likely opponent in the next election who might be like his predecessor, stupid and diligent…or might be a suitable staff officer, clever and diligent…but clearly isn’t clever and idle, and therefore unsuited to the highest levels of command…like being PM

Last edited 2 years ago by R S Foster
John Wilkes
JW
John Wilkes
2 years ago
Reply to  R S Foster

Wise words Tip.

J Bryant
JB
J Bryant
2 years ago

Ha ha. Such a fun and clever essay. From this side of the Atlantic, I always wondered if Johnson was clever and cunning behind his clown routine. He’s clever in some ways, being able to recite random facts about ancient Greece and Rome at will, but in the real world he doesn’t seem to get much done let alone advance a conservative agenda. All that brain power seems directed at devising the next jolly wheeze.

Michael K
MK
Michael K
2 years ago
Reply to  J Bryant

And that is all one has to do, nowadays.

Gill Holway
GH
Gill Holway
2 years ago
Reply to  J Bryant

Johnson has a world plan attached to his ‘English Prime-Minister’ plan. I hope we all survive to see if he makes it.

Ian Stewart
IS
Ian Stewart
2 years ago
Reply to  J Bryant

He’s made Brexit happen formally, he’s managed a Covid response and he’s led the way on supporting Ukraine in a major European war. Three major events in 2 years on a scale that no PM has had to deal with since WW2. Even if the management of these hasn’t been to everyone’s preference, he’s still got it done.
So your description of ‘doesn’t seem to get much done’ is complete nonsense. Take the blinkers off your dislike of him.

Last edited 2 years ago by Ian Stewart
Martin L
ML
Martin L
2 years ago
Reply to  Ian Stewart

He made Brexit happen? He reached an agreement he has consistently lied about and sought to renegotiate. He managed Covid? His Government’s decisions led to thousands dying unnecessarily in care homes, billions wasted on ‘contracts’ for his mates and a track and trace system that did neither. True, the vaccination programme rolled out well – all due to the professionalism of NHS staff. Ukraine? He is so keen on those refugees, hey? ‘Take your blinkers off your uncritical worship of him’

Andrew Fisher
AF
Andrew Fisher
2 years ago
Reply to  Martin L

I’m not a particular supporter of Boris Johnson, but it could have been so much worse with that Leftist anti-western terrorist-loving extremist, Jeremy Corbyn. Or indeed those people determined at all costs to reverse the decision of a democratic referendum.

Can you actually be serious about the vaccines? The vaccine roll out had diddly squat to do with the NHS, but private sector competence. You perhaps mean the NHS had enough people competent enough to push a needle in people’s arms?! Well, thank goodness for small mercies!

Last edited 2 years ago by Andrew Fisher
Martin L
ML
Martin L
2 years ago
Reply to  Andrew Fisher

Thanks for giving the best laugh of the day so far! Kudos for ignoring nearly all of the issues I referred to.

Ian Stewart
IS
Ian Stewart
2 years ago
Reply to  Martin L
  1. You’d have preferred May’s Brexit deal then? Brexit in name only, which would have allowed Labour to put us back in the EU with the euro.
  2. 85th worst country in the world for COVID deaths (Economist) – that’s pretty good.
  3. He’s helping Ukraine where it matters – on sanctions and arms, instead of playing into Putin’s hands on focussing on refugees.

I think he’s flawed, but he gets stuff done. You’re just using a lack of balance in interpreting facts with perspective to reinforce your prejudiced echo chamber walls.

Martin L
ML
Martin L
2 years ago
Reply to  Ian Stewart

If by flawed you mean he is a compulsive liar who regularly misleads Parliament and serially cheats on his partners, then I would agree with you, though his list of flaws does not end there.

Marcia McGrail
MM
Marcia McGrail
2 years ago
Reply to  J Bryant

..any accessible brain power is more likely directed at lifting the next available skirt.

Christopher Barclay
CB
Christopher Barclay
2 years ago
Reply to  Marcia McGrail

You don’t believe that Boris and Carrie are 4ever?

AC Harper
AH
AC Harper
2 years ago

There are plenty of people who dislike Boris Johnson because of his failings – and there are plenty of people who like Boris Johnson because of his failings.
In the one case the failings are unacceptable, in the other the failings are the acceptable cost of restoring humanity to one of our leaders after a series of grey managers.
After all Heroes used to be revered for their bravery – but you wouldn’t want your children to marry one because of their off-quest behaviour.

Ian Stewart
IS
Ian Stewart
2 years ago
Reply to  AC Harper

Bingo! I’m the latter because I don’t want dogmatic leaders.

Colin Elliott
CE
Colin Elliott
2 years ago
Reply to  AC Harper

And one could also say that there are plenty of people who dislike Boris Johnsons because of his successes.

János Klein
JK
János Klein
2 years ago

Absolutely brilliant! – “Britain is one of those nations where lack of seriousness is thought to be a virtue.”

János Klein
JK
János Klein
2 years ago
Reply to  János Klein

It kind of reminds me of “How to be an Alien” by Mikes..

ARNAUD ALMARIC
AA
ARNAUD ALMARIC
2 years ago
Reply to  János Klein

Ah, the spirit of Porterhouse lives on! Hurrah!

Zorro Tomorrow
JK
Zorro Tomorrow
2 years ago

The Chinese have cursed us with “interesting times”. For that we need an interesting PM. Not a robotic fence sitter, some squawking harridan or very ‘umble goody two shoes. Leave him be, England is interesting again.

Colin Elliott
CE
Colin Elliott
2 years ago
Reply to  Zorro Tomorrow

Whenever I start regretting that Boris is our PM, I think of Corbyn, Starmer, Macron, Trump, Biden, Putin, Xi, …………

Peter LR
PL
Peter LR
2 years ago

“Cynicism masquerades as wisdom, but it is the farthest thing from it. Because cynics don’t learn anything. Because cynicism is a self-imposed blindness, a rejection of the world because we are afraid it will hurt us or disappoint us.”
Stephen Colbert

Michael K
MK
Michael K
2 years ago

The strength of the clown, then, lies in his weakness. Because he is one of the lowliest forms of social life, he can’t fall any further and thus assumes a strange invulnerability.

Good point, actually. Reminds me of how Trump could afford to declare war on the mainstream media. The one thing he didn’t see coming was the big tech censorship shortly before the elections, but that has nothing to do with him as a person.

Jonathan Nash
JN
Jonathan Nash
2 years ago

I think Terry Eagleton should get out more. He seems to think that Downton Abbey is a documentary.

ARNAUD ALMARIC
AA
ARNAUD ALMARIC
2 years ago
Reply to  Jonathan Nash

It’s hard to walk when you have Marx and a Fenian on your back.

Malcolm Webb
MW
Malcolm Webb
2 years ago

What an incredibly self assured load of nonsense. Citing Shakespeare, Dickens et alios does not validate petty vindictiveness. I am no standard bearer for Boris Johnson but this petty spitefulness from a “once wet behind the ears don” leads me to think that Mr Johnson has something about him that makes Mr Eagleton jealous. Whatever, thank goodness we live in a country where people are free to openly display their personal dislike of our political leaders in this manner and without fear of detention or worse. Contrast Russia etc.

Iris C
IC
Iris C
2 years ago

What the Prime Minister has is charisma and a likeable personality which is why the opposition parties want him to resign.

Last edited 2 years ago by Iris C
ARNAUD ALMARIC
AA
ARNAUD ALMARIC
2 years ago

What a bitter diatribe written with all the venom that could only come from one steeped in Marxism, Catholicism, and Porterhouse.
“Dives in Omnia”, indeed.

Tony Conrad
TC
Tony Conrad
2 years ago
Reply to  ARNAUD ALMARIC

Yeah. Truth seems to be a disposable commodity. Who wants to be ruled by a clown? I quite liked him being humble and vulnerable enough to be paraded on a wire but I still demand truth where it matters. Liars shouldn’t have power in my book. People want to know what’s what.

Ian Stewart
IS
Ian Stewart
2 years ago
Reply to  Tony Conrad

All politicians lie except for ideologues, so that means you don’t want anyone in power except some kind of religious nirvana preaching hypothetical heaven. Communism maybe?

Lee Clarke
LC
Lee Clarke
2 years ago
Reply to  Ian Stewart

Oliver Cromwell again?

John Riordan
JR
John Riordan
2 years ago
Reply to  Tony Conrad

“…I still demand truth where it matters.”

So do I, which is why I don’t care that he lied about birthday cakes and whether a post-work knees up for his staff constituted an illegal gathering. I also don’t care that he may be a philanderer who must regularly dissemble about the messiness of his private life – people who keep on complaining about this sort of thing need to understand that if you keep asking questions about things that aren’t any of your damn business, you’ll both be lied to, and you deserve nothing better than to be lied to.

Last edited 2 years ago by John Riordan
Ian McKinney
IM
Ian McKinney
2 years ago
Reply to  ARNAUD ALMARIC

Yes, hear hear. Terry Eagleton makes me rethink my unherd subscription with every article.

Richard Slack
RS
Richard Slack
2 years ago

The closest figure in literature that I can think of to Johnson is Lord Are in Edward Bond’s “Restoration”. Are bumbles around in a genial fashion in a world based on a Restoration Comedy playing the house for laughs until he fails to save his loyal manservant from the gallows mainly because it is too tedious for him to be bothered and it might threaten his position a little bit.
I have probably said it before on “Unherd” but probably the most long-lasting benefit I derived from my time at Cambridge in the early 70’s was a thoroughgoing realisation of how poisonously unpleasant some (not all, I accept) the products of the top-end Public Schools could be. One constantly came into contact with them with no trace of the virtues which I had grown up with in a conservative lower middle-class household gave me (keep your word, pay your debts, treat people with respect and do acts of kindness when you can). I still remember the feeling of shock.
An explanation can be found in Richard Beard’s book “Sad Little Men” which is a study and reminiscence of his time at private school and the emotional stunting that people like Johnson clearly demonstrate. They need therapy, not the seals of Government and the keys to No 10
The mystery is, why do the British (probably more specifically the English) tolerate it? We have for some years, after all. George Orwell’s essay on Boys’ Weeklies posed the question of why stories based in public schools such as Billy Bunter sold well in magazines in working-class, poverty stricken areas. Why do we lap up “Downton Abbey and get upset at the merest hint that our great Stately Homes were built on the backs of slave labour?
There is an episode of “Fawltey Towers” where someone called Lord something-or-other rocks up and Fawltey proceeds to brown-tongue him. It turns out he is a con-man who helps himself to the contents of the safe.
I fear that the English will always give the keys of the safe to such people until finally we grow up and at nearly seventy I doubt if I shall see such a day.

René Descartes
RD
René Descartes
2 years ago

Well done Terry Eagleton – your article is both readable and comprehensible. The only problem is that where it is readable it is incomprehensible and where it is comprehensible it is unreadable. By the way, Johnson doesn’t lie through his teeth. He is far cleverer than that. Nor did he ever mislead the House of Commons, as the mind-blowingly dull Keir Starmer incessantly suggests. Johnson simply did what every intelligent person did and slithered through the vague constraints of a load of ambiguously drafted and often very silly ‘regulations’. Those who condemn him most raucously for ‘breaking the rules’ probably do so because they feel pretty stupid themselves for not having broken them.

Andrew Fisher
AF
Andrew Fisher
2 years ago

I suppose there are a few astute points in this article but let’s all recall that Terry Eagleton is a Marxist, which idiotic and genocidal ideology makes rather wants one to side with Boris Johnson. We don’t tend to allow Nazi ideologists to teach, but make amazing allowance for Communists.

If he’d had his way, many of us would be in a gulag. (And no, Trotsky, Lenin, Zinoviev etc were little better than Stalin). Clever but fatuous, including the ludicrous blaming Partition and the ensuing massacres on Mountbatten, no, nothing obvs to do with some Hindus and Muslims hating each other..

Alan Osband
AO
Alan Osband
2 years ago
Reply to  Andrew Fisher

Isn’t he a Catholic as well as a Marxist , which would account for the disdain for philanderers?
The whole article is a pretty way of framing that tedious old commonplace about Boris being a massive liar .
And is it really true that those on the bottom of the social ladder are kind of invulnerable because they can’t fall any further ? Mortality isn’t a problem for them then .

Last edited 2 years ago by Alan Osband
Nicky Samengo-Turner
NS
Nicky Samengo-Turner
2 years ago

As ever, a complete and lack of research led neo- wilful misunderstanding of Britain’s complex social history: the new middle classes believe that all ” aristocrats” are of the same long landowning heritage: even the briefest research into 19th and early 20th century history quite simply and clearly displays that a very large number of hereditary peerages and baronetcies were awarded to self made families who had made their money from nothing: many did go out and buy estates, which secured the post Corn Laws potential damage to a then agro economy, as it was replaced by an industrial and commercial economy, all a deft piece of Victorian vision and wisdom, which also created a god fearing over moral middle ‘ upper servant clerk” class, which was rewarded with newly designed virtue ambition of ” decency, hard work and morality” and emphatically not the accumulation of wealth. Sadly, this category of neo-Pooters now run Britain, with a crippling fear of any form of risk or lowering themselves in the eyes of their neighbours….

Richard Slack
RS
Richard Slack
2 years ago

I would settle for Pooter rather than the Bullingdon Club any day

Lee Clarke
LC
Lee Clarke
2 years ago

I’m not at all sure that Self-made anything, let alone wealth, should be viewed with disdain. Unless I have misread your meaning, of course. Self made, means I made it myself, I didn’t steal it or buy it from anyone else. Thus I created something which, usually if not uniquely, benefits others and creates more for others to share. Make enough this way and the nation is likely to reward you with some kind of honour. You are right of course, that many people seem not to differentiate these visionary creators from the land-owning gentry, who for many reasons are misunderstood too, however whether any of them should be in Number 10 is surely down to the individual character, competences and ability to communicate rather than their education or family background.

John Riordan
JR
John Riordan
2 years ago

“This applies especially to women. The cynic may not be a rake, but almost all rakes are cynics, convinced that women exist purely for their own pleasure. It isn’t accidental that Boris Johnson is a philanderer.”

There’s a lot of twaddle in this article generally, but I’ll stick to observing that on this point, the author seems to forget that the emancipation of women from socially-policed chastity was something that benefited themselves, not primarily the male rakes and roues who incidentally found it easier to get what they were looking for in this respect.

Imagining that the poor ladies have become hapless targets in this fashion, devoid of agency and choice, is itself a form of patriarchal navel-gazing.

Last edited 2 years ago by John Riordan
R S Foster
RF
R S Foster
2 years ago
Reply to  John Riordan

…one also notes that despite his obvious success in this area…and the fact that the press undoubtedly run about London with wedges of cash, on offer to the first of his various partners who will “tell all” about what an utterly loathsome sh!t he really is…none of them do…which seems to me to say rather a lot about his private character…

Dustshoe Richinrut
DR
Dustshoe Richinrut
2 years ago

Perhaps the parodied epitome of those old-style Oxford Dons was in the guise of Lord Paddington, the long-disappeared, notable Oxford athlete and scholar who, in the guise of Stan Laurel, receives another bump to his head and reclaims his old tough and eccentric self, his transformation astonishing and gladdening all around him, not least his sidekick Ollie who is made his pushed-around valet, in the Laurel and Hardy 1940 caper A Chump At Oxford.

Justin Clark
Justin Clark
2 years ago
William Shaw
William Shaw
2 years ago

It could be a lot worse… we could have a PM who is just as useless but seriously thinks he/she isn’t. Like Major, May or Cameron for example.
Or, worse still, a PM who isn’t useless but does all the wrong things… like Blair.

Last edited 2 years ago by William Shaw
Jerry Carroll
JC
Jerry Carroll
2 years ago

Mm, overthought. He waited until the last paragraph to reveal he is an academic. Not really fair warning..

Last edited 2 years ago by Jerry Carroll
neil pryke
NP
neil pryke
2 years ago

“Boris Johnson is no clown”? No, he can’t even get that right!

Nicky Samengo-Turner
NS
Nicky Samengo-Turner
1 year ago

Boris is a toff? The middle classes have character?….I somehow dont believe that you have spent much time in the company of aristocrats, and you might like to note that a 400 year old landed aristocratic family might not be the same at a 100 year old aristocratic family enobled from trade via a back hand to Lloyd George…