Bunteresque? Falstaffian? BoJo-vian? England always gets the best. Owen Dudley Edwards on the rich history of greedy liars in English political and cultural life – Enlisting the critique of George Orwell, PG Wodehouse and fellow Irishman George Bernard Shaw along the way.
The political zoologist must acknowledge certain problems of classification when scrutinising Boris Johnson. Granted, he is a phoenix arising perpetually from his own ashes [sic]. Granted also, he may seem closest to an amphibian evolving from primeval slime, thus calling the worth of evolution into question. His several epiphanies may seem to invite or to incite very different responses. His latest, for instance, made him a Brunhilde lying on the pyre he carelessly lit himself while surrounded by a dubiously Thamesgold Ring sung and danced for his doom by Dishi Rishi, Cressida Dick, Suzi Shaded Grey, O Govo Solo Mio, Spitty Patel, Diz Trust, NATO Starmer, the Moulting Corbien, and other characters bearing no resemblance to any living person. (A Brunhilde lying anywhere else too, of course.) And from this he has been rescued or resurrected by the Siegfried of our time (Hitler copyright pending) as who should say Puto ergo sum.
A war is not necessarily a means of political survival for Prime Ministers. The Seven Years’ War did not keep the elder Pitt in office in 1761 nor the Napoleonic wars save the younger in 1801. Lord Aberdeen fell during the Crimean War, H. H. Asquith during World War 1, Neville Chamberlain during World War 2. But Putin’s war (as it is known by everyone except Putin) has revived the fortunes of the present Prime Minister so much so that the indelicate artificial growths called Scottish Tories having declared his demise now cancel the death-certificate or contract. They should have insured against resurrection by declaring the decease Not Proven. If he passed away he has now passed back. Physically the leader of the Scottish Opposition seems to increase his regal if not his statesmanlike circumference, so that daily he expands his understudy of Henry VIII (another failed Unionist). These days it seems to be Henry VIII trying to replace Anne Boleyn’s head.
The recipient of these uncertain devotions — the once and future Tory idol — was born in the USA and hence appropriately entered the premiership final gallop during the imperiate of Donald Trump to whom he remained an authorized servile pocket edition until the Trump Presidency had passed into metaphysics. Yet however much the creature of foreign births, powers, funds, &c, there seems a domestic Englishness radiating from Boris. He has been hailed as a liar so eloquently and so repetitively that we should look at his English spiritual ancestry, from Sir John Falstaff to Billy Bunter.
Falstaff and Bunter are beloved liars, when all their fellow-characters have exhausted breadth in abuse of their mendacity. It is complicated by the self-created model Englishman who never tells a lie, although without a patron saint of veracity such as Parson Mason Weems crated in the person of the recently deceased George Washington for want of exact knowledge as to what he, the deliverer of his country, was really like. (He was in fact a first-class military leader brilliantly deceiving his British opponents, supremely aware that lying is the first essential to a general.) The House of Commons lives perpetually in a fiction that none of its members tell lies and none may be charged with lying, presumably meaning that it must be lying (and therefore unutterable) to accuse others of such impossible actions. Winston Churchill appropriately mocked the superstition by rebaptising a lie as a terminological inexactitude. Prime Minister Boris bore a petulant expression in response to Parliamentary accusations of his mendacity and mythology, while labelling his lying a rose by any other name: he of all people knew how many of his critics had moved their own vowels and bowels with endless lies to the Commons. Granted, Vladimir Putin’s refusal to call his war a war is lying on a grand scale, but it is blood-brother to Prime Minister Sir Anthony Eden’s classification of his Suez war 66 years ago, ‘we are not at war, we are at armed conflict’.
While we’re at it, Eden may well be Bojo’s leading rival for the Worst Prime Minister since the Duke of Buckingham (see Carlyle’s Historical Sketches on why the Duke of Buckingham was a Prime Minister, as gay a joke as he ever made). In any case the criterion is misleading whether for Best or Worst: Churchill has been reasonably if inaccurately called the greatest Prime Minister (in fact if anyone was, it was Attlee, and for the Welfare State rather than Sir Keir Starmer’s ominous subordination of that achievement to his acceptance of NATO); but Churchill’s last premiership was a tragic descent into senility prolonged by his doctors as psychotherapy. Unhistorical meanderings by empty commentators make bad guesses on what history will say of this, or that, on which the answer was given once for all in Shaw’s American Revolution play The Devil’s Disciple when Major Swindon, being told of the impending British defeat at Saratoga asks what will history say, to which General Burgoyne answers ‘History, sir, will tell lies as usual’. Bojo may well be the beneficiary of some of those lies trumpeted by ambitious academics at an appropriate time in the future, if any.
Shaw (Saturday Review, 16 May 1896) ferociously reviewing Beerbohm Tree’s production of King Henry IV Part One, began by declaring that in the play itself Prince Hal’s popularity ‘is like that of a prizefighter; nobody feels for him as for Romeo or Hamlet. Hotspur, too, though he is stimulating as ginger cordial is stimulating, is hardly better than his horse; and King Bolingbroke, preoccupied with his crown exactly as a miser is preoccupied with his money, is equally useless as a refuge for our affections, which are thus thrown back undivided on Falstaff, the most human person in the play, but none the less a besotted and disgusting old wretch’. We may distribute the other parts where they have most to tell of our present political worthies, now bereft of Dishi (who has priced himself out of the market) so perhaps Ms Trust for Prince Hal (whom Shaw said ‘makes it clear he will turn on [Falstaff] later on, and that his self-indulgent good fellowship with [him] is consciously and deliberately treacherous’), O Govo for Hotspur, and Stammerer for Henry IV. Bojo appears — and may even be — more human than any of them, however besotted and disgusting a wretch.
Shaw’s fantasy (for the programme of his The Dark Lady of the Sonnets, 24 November 1910) ‘A Dressing Room Secret’ imagines a bust of Shakespeare mourning ‘Well, if youll believe me, I had hardly got well into the play when a wretched super whom I intended for a cowardly footpad just to come on in a couple of scenes to rob some merchant and then be robbed himself by the Prince and Poins — a creature of absolutely no importance — suddenly turned into a magnificent reincarnation of Silenus, a monumental comic part. He killed Poins [Mr David Cameron?]; he killed the whole plan of the play. I revelled in him; wallowed in him; made a delightful little circle of disreputable people for him to move and shine in.’ But Shaw made Shakespeare’s bust remember ‘One evening’ on a walk through Eastcheap ‘I passed a fat old man, half drunk, leering on a woman who ought to have been young but wasnt. The next moment my conscience was saying in my ear “William: is this funny?”’ And so ‘I went home and spoilt the end of the play. I didnt do it well. I couldnt do it right. But I had to make that old man perish miserably; and I had to hang his wretched parasites or throw them into the gutter and the hospital.’
The reader may be left to pursue Falstaff through Shakespeare for further understanding of Bojo and his survival with sporadic loss and gain in English popularity, a possible epitaph in the last line Shakespeare wrote for Falstaff (The Merry Wives of Windsor, V.v.243): ‘When night-dogs run, all sorts of deer are chased.’
The counterpart to Shaw on Falstaff is George Orwell on Billy Bunter. In both instances the creative critic appeared hostile to the creator of the fat person, only to prove incapable of concealing his disgusted admiration. Orwell’s essay ‘Boys’ Weeklies’ (Horizon, March 1940) was described by his target Frank Richards (aka Charles Hamilton) as reading ‘into my very innocent fiction a fell scheme for drugging the minds of the youthful proletariat into dull acquiescence in a system of which Mr Orwell does not approve: and of which, in consequence, he cannot imagine anyone else approving, except from interested motives. Anyone who disagrees with Mr Orwell is necessarily either an antiquated ass or an exploiter on the make! [Horizon, May 1940]’. Orwell as critic was frequently the supreme Puritan, attempting to disapprove of work for which his affection irresistibly shone forth, and he subsequently came out as an advocate of further Greyfriars School stories, which the Amalgamated Press had cut short in May 1940, its proprietor demanding all the paper at his disposal for the maintenance of the Daily Telegraph. Orwell was evidently charmed by Richards’s hilarious reply and may have been moved by the passion of his answer to the charge of snobbery against his stories in the Magnet and the Gem:
I am very pleased to be an author, and I think I would rather be an author than a nobleman; but I am not fool enough to think that an author is of such national importance as a farmer or a farm labourer. Workmen can, and often do, get on quite well without authors; but no author could continue to exist without the workmen. They are not only the backbone of the nation: they are the nation: all other classes being merely trimmings.
Orwell’s respect for what he was denouncing became evident early: ‘the Magnet … possesses a really first-class character in the fat boy, Billy Bunter’. And, a few paragraphs later: ‘Bunter, though in his origin he probably owed something to the fat boy in Pickwick, is a real creation. His tight trousers against which boots and canes are constantly thudding, his astuteness in search of food, his postal order which never turns up, have made him famous wherever the Union Jack waves.’ Orwell rightly remarked ‘that there is probably no character in the Gem and Magnet whom some or other reader does not identify with, except the out-and-out comics, Coker, Billy Bunter, Fisher T. Fish (the money-grubbing American boy) and, of course, the masters.’ Coker is a stupid, generous, courageous bully, senior to Bunter and his classmates, likeable in spite of himself, Fish a nasty usurer, obsessively chauvinist. Unlike the boys with whom we identify they probably originated in real-life adults, Coker from an elder brother of the author, Fish (originally likeable) perhaps warped by a spoiled adult love of the author for an American. Bunter’s origins are much more numerous: he filled out, we might say. Arthur Marshall, who didn’t like the character or the stories, recognised Bunter’s vocabulary as being much more adult than that of his fellows, likening it to that of a self-important fraud in a pub snug boasting to the local ‘Miss Loosely’. Orwell left himself open to Richards’s mockery in ascribing easily refutable literary origins to the stories in general and Bunter in particular, but Richards would probably acknowledge debt to Falstaff.
Richards did manage to revive Greyfriars after World War 2 and while the resultant books may have suffered from permanent focus on Bunter, they well deserved study from the post-war generation. Jacob Rees-Mogg frequently seems the result of careful self-grooming modelled from a minor Greyfriars snob, in frequent need of six of the best. The plots of the books, like those running for 30 years in the Magnet, might be repetitive in some intricacies but produced variants of effective individuality. The third book, Billy Bunter’s Barring-Out (1948), began with Bunter fixing a booby-trap (mostly liquified soot) to avenge a well-deserved kick from Bob Cherry; their form-master Mr Quelch is swamped by it, blames it on Cherry and has him sentenced to expulsion; Bunter, while concealing his own guilt, persuades the form to rebel in Cherry’s cause and barricade themselves in their day-room whence they repel porter, masters, prefects, Coker, &c. In the end Bunter gets an audience with Quelch and the headmaster by a promise to reveal the real culprit, and in so doing wins their promise that they will protect him against vengeance from someone they think is a bullying fellow-schoolboy but is in fact the two masters themselves. The contrivance is so eerily reminiscent of Bojo that one feels the Richards estate should sue him for breach of copyright. Brexit was achieved by convincing English voters that their miseries had come from the European Union although largely invented by Bojo himself and (for the time being) his friends. For that matter Falstaff’s inventions and disguises provide impressive anticipations: posturing paternally while pretending kingship, passing off threadbare geriatrics as heroic recruits, winning credit for killings by others, cavorting in Windsor Park disguised as a demon ghost.
Why does Bojo suggest fat prototypes, since his girth unlike his gesture is not yet phenomenal, not even Henrician however uncertain his wives and paternities? The Shape of Things to come, perhaps. Fatness is not necessary for his chosen walk in life. Shaw — a teetotaller — said you could not help enjoying the sottishness of Falstaff if only Falstaff were played by a great comedian. The largeness of the English idol’s lying is aided by the symbolism of the weighty matters he claims to confront, dominate, or resolve regardless of whether he has actually done any such thing: Bojo lies to the Queen nor loses the common touch (in technicolor graffiti on a bus). Wodehouse raised the question of professional necessity for lying in opening his Meet Mr Muilliner with ‘The Truth About George’ (Strand magazine, July 1926):
Two men were sitting in the bar-parlour of the Angler’s Rest as I entered it; and one of them, I gathered from his low, excited voice and wide gestures, was selling the other a story. I could hear nothing but an occasional ‘Biggest I ever saw in my life!’ and ‘Fully as large as that!’ but in such a place it was not difficult to imagine the rest; and when the second man, catching my eye, winked at me with a sort of humorous misery, I smiled sympathetically back at him.
The action had the effect of establishing a bond between us; and when the story-teller finished his tale and left, he came to my table as if answering a formal invitation.
‘Dreadful liars some men are’, he said genially.
‘Fishermen’, I suggested, ‘are traditionally careless of the truth.’
‘He wasn’t a fisherman’, said my companion. ‘That was my local doctor. He was telling me about his latest case of dropsy. Besides’ — he tapped me earnestly on the knee — ‘you must not fall into the popular error about fishermen. Tradition has maligned them. I am a fisherman myself, and I have never told a lie in my life.’
He then tells the narrator the first of three dozen unbelievable comedies about his galaxy of imaginary relatives, the subsequent stories being published over the next dozen years. Bojo, who has written on Wodehouse, has given new personal turns to incredible family stories. Wodehouse’s fisherman motif was homage to Jerome K. Jerome’s Three Men in a Boat (1889) where conversation in a pub turns on a large preserved fish in a glass case whose capture is claimed by a succession of visitors between their entrances and exits, ending with the landlord’s heroic account of his victory over it in his infancy, after which the case is altered by being brought crashing to the floor where the fish proves to be made of plaster of Paris. An early Wodehouse (Psmith in the City (1910)) features a Tory politician in election campaign telling the story as his own discovery with which to expose the lies of the present Liberal government. The use of other men’s lies has a fishy smell about it, as may be seen by the inferior performances of Bojo’s ministers: all too frequently they answer exposures by accusing their critics of wishing to denigrate the glories of England, an exorcism Bojo alone can ejaculate with the speed and multiplicity of an octopus, nay, of a decapod. He pays the penalty of his genius by inheriting Bunter’s inability to tell a plain, unvarnished lie, such as excusing his absence by simultaneous pleas of being summoned to the headmaster and having gone home to a funeral. (‘You pays your money and you takes your choice’, explains Bob Cherry.) Bojo can also claim largeness of virtuosic varieties, such as haunting several episodes of ‘The Invisible Man of Downing Street’ being followed by ‘Son of Napoleon explodes the Monster of Moscow’. It is surely time he was entered for the Man Booker Prize.
Yet in one respect he is more truthful than his critics. He broke the law and was fined for it when he attended parties in 10 Downing St contrary to regulations covering the Lockdown against Covid 19. Sir Keir Starmer and others have claimed no Prime Minister ever broke the law, but they vociferated in defiance of the facts. Bojo is not the first Prime Minister to break the law while in office. The 60-year-old Duke of Wellington as Prime Minister fought a duel on Battersea Fields on 23 March 1829 against George William Finch-Hatton 10th Earl of Winchilsea (1791-1858) who accused him of dishonour in enacting admission of Roman Catholics to the House of Commons having previously opposed it. Both men fired into the air, the Duke doing so only after he was satisfied that Winchilsea had. No official action was taken by the relevant authorities. George IV said that in such circumstances he would have done the same. The notion that lords of human kind are above the law is not new.
Otherwise, Bojo denying refuge to refugees while insisting he admits them parades before a troubled world as the image of England But is this the only England on offer? Two years ago Mr David Lammy wrote Tribes whose thoughtful, dignified public spirit, extensive research, and general fairness of mind make it one of the finest books produced by a current MP. He is a deeply patriotic English-born son of Guyanese parents, beginning by using DNA to chase ancestors as far afield as the Tuareg of Niger, although in a charming turn of self-mockery he later questions the value of his quest. (It is valuable: his reflections on his discoveries of the local realities whence his ancestors came are cool, reasoned, compassionate, convincingly original.) He is all too aware of hostile denials of his Englishness and while justly critical of English racialisms proves a little too English in his anxiety to qualify as English. Having been born into London poverty, partly emancipated by winning a scholarship to the King’s Cathedral School, Peterborough, and later to Harvard Law school followed by two years as an American lawyer, he is wiser than most of us, but while proving that England should be thankful for him, he takes out excessive insurance by defining England in terms lofty enough to be purloined by Bojo. He avoids Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland for direct analysis, but is invaluable in discerning Anglo-Saxon attitudes which to his regret include voting for Brexit. He is exceptionally comprehending and compassionate in recording intellectual and cultural origins of beliefs and actions he deplores, and he teaches his readers inspirationally. For instance, he suspects the grant of devolution to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland induced English belief of being done down in the power-stakes, and he may be quite right however wrong the believers. He sounds a tad over-patriotic in hinting at English near-monopoly of Creativity, Openness, and Fair Play, but these are obviously watchwords of his own. He is representative of Englishness at its best, but is also typical in blurring the frontiers of creativity to English advantage. In his hands the usual use of ‘British’ for ‘Scottish’, when declaring a success, is taken a stage further. The Scottish Enlightenment, it turns out, was English. ‘Rejecting custom and tradition in favour of a more creative outlook, the Enlightenment has its roots in the English Civil Wars.’ (‘Wars’ rather than ‘War’ is as near as he can get to the Wars having been Scottish and Irish before and after they were English.) Naturally he wants his England to see and to be seen as multi-ethnic, rejecting the traditional self-image as white, Teutonic and Protestant. He instinctively follows the traditional English assumption that history in ‘Our island’ was the history of England. ‘Our kings were so powerful that one was even able to break away from the Roman Catholic church in its heyday.’ This presumably alludes to Henry VIII and not to Mary Queen of Scots in whose reign that break was also made. Heyday apparently includes the Sack of Rome shortly before Henry VIII made the break, apart from which the sentence could as easily refer to Denmark and Sweden. It is a little reminiscent of the report to the Irish Embassy in London when John Major had become Prime Minister: ‘the good news is, he says we shouldn’t be bound by history. The bad news is, he doesn’t know any history.’ Yet Mr Lammy’s book has a far better multi-cultural understanding of history since its author’s birth than most of us could claim. His subtitle is accurate enough — ‘A Search for Belonging in a Divided Society’ — and we can learn much from it however limited the Society to England and an English Empire. For instance, the work of Professors George Shepperson, Duncan Rice, Sir Thomas Devine, the Revd Dr Iain Whyte and others have shown Scotland how much its own wealth was made thanks to slavery, just as Mr Lammy demands the study of English history requires. His perceptions of English historical virtue and vice are so shrewd and humane as to make his avoidance of the rest of the archipelago a tragic self-inflicted wound, while increasing his Englishness. His pursuit of the truth is consistent with his ideal of Englishness, although its fervour is exceptional for most politicians.
Whatever Mr Lammy’s limits, it may be doubted whether a better Prime Minister of England could be found.