We seem to have lost what used to be England’s resilient sense of fun. A grand event in political theatre is unfolding and being slowly filled with hot air.
A giant blimp representing US President Honey Monster aka Donald Trump as a baby in nappies was launched this morning in the air above London. A rival blimp representing London Mayor Sadiq Khan as a baby in nappies has reached its funding goal and has applied for a pass to soar above the capital also – pesky though it is that Britons must ask permission to have a laugh these days. Having granted a permit for the Trump balloon, it’s not clear at the time of writing if Mr Khan (who has refused permission for a pro-Trump march in London) will allow the matching baby balloon mocking his own rather more petite physique.
But what a festival it would be! Will the rival bouncing babies bump their tummy bulges in the skies above Westminster? Will some enterprising free citizen shoot one or both of them down with a long bow or air rifle? Will Londoners turn out to cheer the battle of the bulbous blimps?!
This is a new kind of political caricature, and we are in the vanguard as usual. There has long been a bit of a wit gap between Continental and English political cartooning. Notice how mockery of the Bourbon royals in the decade leading up to the pointless riot at the Bastille prison (started of all people by the Marquis de Sade) took the witless form of year after year of acidic lithographs of Marie Antoinette having sex with various animals. A humourless strain of spite that would mark the hate-driven left once seating in the 1789 assembly created the term “the left”. It’s still recognisable as the left-wing theme tune today in its unhinged impotence, scatological rage, and childish nastiness.
Antoinette, of course, not only didn’t say “Let them eat cake” (or if she did say that, meant “Make more expensive bread available to the poor at the state-mandated cheap-bread price”), but she was also quite a likeable person with earnest intentions and solid credentials as a moderate reformer. But the left never let truth get in the way of their venom, so depictions of sex with animals it was.
English humour, even after the sad death of Punch magazine, still doesn’t quite have the tin ear of French cartooning and “satire”, and a pair of inflateable bouncing babies taking to the skies retains some charm & whimsy native to these islands. Without for a moment excusing the mask-wearing scum who murdered several editors and cartoonists at the Paris-based Charlie Hebdo magazine in January 2015 in the name of Islam, some observers did gingerly note at the time that Hebdo’s stuff is often not actually very funny. That heroic French magazine still tends rather towards the Antoinette-romping-in-the-farmyard strain of joke.
This is not to say that humour north of the Channel never veers towards the vicious, and the further back in the 18th century the more aggressive caricaturing there is to see. Behold the mystery, for example, of Jonathan Swift being regarded as comic. He secretly took himself seriously, was much more of a Continental-style savage wit with more savage / less wit, and had a weakness for the tell-tale lavatory humour so typical of jesting across the water. Even some children roll their eyes at the plodding joke of a war starting on Gulliver’s travels between people who open their breakfast egg at the Big End versus the Little End. Very much the sort of bitter laugh satirists on the European mainland praise as profound and powerful – what British cartoonists used to mock as tanks driving round daffodils.
So can we really imagine a city anywhere else in Europe hosting such a hearty yet heartfelt joust between lighter-than-air cartoons? Amsterdam just possibly, but Berlin? Paris? Nowhere else would demonstrators get police permission for anything so imaginative or potentially undiplomatic. The element of Britishness that at certain moments doesn’t really care, is what business seminars these days call the “secret sauce” of our multinational kingdom. A disapproving remark in Dorothy Nicholson’s history of London that “there was a tendency to regard the Battle of Britain while it was being fought” as “the world’s transcendent sporting event” gives a hint of this. Behind the stirring Blitz rhetoric, picture jeering crowds putting bets on which plane from which side would get shot down first: also stirring but not quite the spirit we hear of.
Some Far Eastern countries have fighting kites, and we have to hope we’ll see some aerial political drama acted out this way, blimp to blimp, during the visit. It’s because London is the kind of place to do this, that the half-Scottish Trump is the way he is. He’s a bruiser, a type of politician we forgot existed, and his ego blimp might also get bruised, but this same spirit is also why he’s our best hope right now.
If some kind of balloon-bumping bounce-off between Sleek Sadiq and Dirigible Donald can take place, it will be the event of the decade. The inflateable Sadiq might be squeaky, even slippery, but my money’s on the pumped-up Trump: boisterous, bumptious, bombastic – just better overall.
Mark Griffith is a financial trader whose weblog at http://www.otherlanguages.org follows news on AI, computer security, politics, economics, and other subjects. He is writing a book about whether AI will change how people live.