I, Maybot; by John Crace

I didn’t buy this book; someone gave it to me. Not particularly because they thought I’d enjoy it all that much, but just because… well, it was there, and I’d probably get a chuckle out of it, so why not?

That’s probably an appropriate way to think about the book, as it turns out.

I, Maybot is my first sustained encounter in quite a while with that venerable if obscure genre, the parliamentary sketch (an artform practiced continually since the 18th century). Normally, the genre is delivered in small morsels in the more highbrow national newspapers: a witty, topical dissection of the absurdities of political events. And when you put it like that, I always wonder why I don’t actually read them (even on those occasions when I happen to have a newspaper to hand). After all, I am, in a minor way, a political junkie – I have a degree in the damn subject, for heaven’s sake! – and while the days when my attention was religiously affixed to Newsnight for an hour each evening even on slow days are long past, I’m still a fairly regular follower of affairs. As for satire, and the highbrow tradition of British comedy, that’s an even more essential part of my being. I was pretty much raised on that stuff. And the intersection of biting comedy with topical affairs? Dude, my childhood was endless re-watches of Have I Got News for You, Drop the Dead Donkey and Yes (Prime) Minister – I’d happily sit watching old VHS tapes of HIGNFY sardonically dissecting the minutiae of political events from five years before. Political sketches ought to be my daily pick-me-up.

But they’re not, and I, Maybot is, unfortunately, a good demonstration of why. The political sketch, you see, is political comedy not written by a comedian, nor in most cases by a politician, but by a journalist. There is no actual requirement for them to have more than the most rudimentary sense of humour, and it’s not really requisite for them to have much understanding of political affairs either, so long as they can name the major players. In this case, the author, John Crace, is otherwise notable for his two books on the recent history of Tottenham Hotspurs F.C., and his volume on late-1980s Pakistani reverse swing pace bowling – an estimable work no doubt, but perhaps not an obvious harbinger of a career in political satire.

Essentially, the format of a Crace sketch is that he repeats what a politician did, while making some snarky comments and calling people names. Usually, he calls some some version of ‘dim’, ‘dumb’, or ‘dull’.* To make things more interesting, he also invents things that didn’t happen, and mixes them in with the real things when the real things aren’t sufficiently interesting.

I find this problematic. Much of the humour of absurdity, after all, is the fact that the absurd thing happened, or that the absurd thing was said; when you’re not sure whether the writer’s just making it up, it diminishes the fun considerably. Much of this could be avoided if the author were able to convey the levels of reality more accurately, either through defter writing, or through more disciplined writing – keeping direct quotes accurate, for instance, while allowing indirect quotes to contain exaggerations. Crace doesn’t really do this – the rule just seems to be, so far as I can tell, that he tells us what happened if it was funny enough, and if it wasn’t then he just makes something funnier up and says it happened.

*traditionally, the parliamentary sketch was allegorical. It was illegal to report on the actual events of Parliament, so the sketch developed as a way to convey news while avoiding prosecution. Sketch writers would refer to politicians in code, through caricatures, and would often translate events and debates into symbolic, hyperbolic form. It’s a tradition carried on in, for example, the style of Private Eye, a publication faithful to both the conventions and spirit of traditional satire. In parliamentary sketches themselves, however, the end of legal prohibitions have made the writer’s job much easier: they can now mix reality and fiction as freely as they choose. And where sketch writers would once have crafted cunning caricatures to identify politicians to their readers without naming them, Crace just names them, and then goes on to call them “Dim” throughout the sketch. Calling May “Maybot” is actually as imaginative as he gets (other than the slightly clever “Lurch” for Hammond, which needless to say isn’t Crace’s own, but is actually a nickname for the man in Westminster).

Which might be more defensible if his writing were… you know, actually funny. This is NOT Yes Minister. It is NOT Drop the Dead Donkey. Only at its best moments does it even rise to the level of Angus Deayton rising an eyebrow while repeating something sarcastically. Crace gets in a few good lines, of course – how could he not, given the length and the material? – but by and large he flounders around with little grasp of what he’s meant to be doing, in a comedic sense. When in doubt, he relies on repetitive playground insults. Everyone is very stupid, and dishonest. Which, obviously, in this case, is completely true – but isn’t exactly surgical-quality wit.

Nor is there a great deal of insight. The book is sold, for example, on the idea of the “Maybot” – the notion that Theresa May is sort of robotic – but Crace arrives at this almost by accident. He calls everybody else a “bot” of some sort as well, and it takes him a long time to zero in on this interpretation of May specifically. Indeed, it’s almost not until the very end that it overtakes the equally witty “Kim Jong May” and “Supreme Leader” as his default attack. It’s worth pointing out also that while he may have popularised the term in the broadsheets, Twitter was calling her a malfunctioning robot long before he came to the party.

This failure to find a working caricature of May and make it stick is part of a more general lack of focus and narrative in the book. This is a collection of Crace’s sketches over the course of the year, strung together sequentially, with added interstitial material – the interstitial stuff, incidentally, is sometimes longer than the sketches it links together, and serves chiefly as a way for Crace now to cheat, providing a hindsight-informed frame that diverts attention from how little idea Crace then had of what was happening or what was going to happen. But because half the book is just written in the heat of the moment, and because in that moment the author lacked any particular foresight (or indeed insight) the result is a stream of events upon which he has been unable to impose any compelling narrative. Indeed, the strongest attempt at a narrative here comes in the subtitle: The Rise and Fall; suggesting that this is the story of the rise and fall of Theresa May. But of course it isn’t. It begins with the Referendum, so only the final step of May’s rise squeaks in, in condensed form (many events are badly served here by the medium of the weekly episode, which makes many dramatic sequences into dead summaries after the fact); and it ends with the formation of the new government after the election, which means that it does not cover her entire fall – partly because, of course, she has not fallen. She’s still the Prime Minister! I guess “The Last Phase of Her Rise and A Sort of Partial Decline In Credibility” wasn’t as catchy. The greatest weakness of the book, however, is the lack of reflection – because each sketch is up-to-the-minute and forward-looking, there’s very little looking back at the absurd events that occur, which means the reader is deprived of that most essential part of a narrative: payoff. Or, more specifically, gloating.

In place of narrative, Crace substitutes cynicism – or tries to. It’s unappealing, and it undermines his points. Because yes, various ludicrous and terrible things happened in the course of that year – but because Crace sets his dial to the same cynical level throughout, no matter what the topic, there’s a strong sense of the boy crying wolf about both his outrage and his satire. To excite responses to the worst things, you need to have some sense of proportion about the bits in between – but when, say, the dementia tax debacle, or the naming and shaming of the judiciary as “enemies of the people”** is treated in the same tone as a random David Davis committee briefing, it’s hard to remember to get riled up. In particular, while even-handedness is to be applauded, Crace seems less ‘fair’ than ‘torn’, his professional obligation to satirise the Government at odds with his personal vitriol toward Labour and Corbyn. We’re left with constant criticism of “dumb” and “stupid” and “dim” ideas floated by both parties, but no sense whatsoever of what Crace might consider to NOT be dim – other than Remain and, in one rather tonally jarring passage, opposition to Islamic terrorism.***

**I’m not in general a huge fan of JK Rowling, but she did get in an excellent response to the tabloid hatemongering: when the worst a tabloid can say about you, she noted, is that you’re an “openly gay ex-Olympic fencer” top judge, you’ve basically won at life. [I’m only surprised, given the Mail’s history, that they didn’t point out that he was Jewish, too. However, it’s a slightly inaccurate headline: Sir Terence was invited to the Olympics, but declined to attend, in order to protest the USSR’s invasion of Afghanistan. He is, however, openly gay, and indeed Britain’s first openly gay appeals judge; he’s now the secondmost-senior judge in the country.]

***we can all agree that terrorism is bad, murdered children are a bad thing, and we should all not be in favour of that. But inserting some pious flag-waving and Prime-Minister-praising in the interstitial material between sketches that show no signs of caring about the attacks reads less like passion and more like retrospective arse-covering.

And yet sadly, we don’t even get a payoff in the form of real, acidic, spitting vitriol. Crace resolutely turns the volume up to 5 throughout: his attacks are blunt, generic, and inoffensive. This isn’t The Thick of It either.

So, you might be thinking: what’s the point? If it’s not vicious, or witty, or insightful, and fails to construct a compelling narrative… why does this book even exist!? Why would anybody read it?

It’s a good question. My inner critic can’t stop asking it. And yet, in some ways thankfully and in others frustratingly, the author is bailed out here by the sheer absurdity of reality.

The fact is, you see, that Crace is talking about a period of utter lunacy: the catastrope of the Referendum; the farce of the respective party leadership elections; the idiocies and bare-faced lies of May’s struggle to articulate any plan or message on Brexit; and then the worst political campaign in at least the last 140 years of British history. The events literally mock themselves.

This is, let’s remember, an election campaign when:

  • the Prime Minister absolutely promised not to call an early election because it would not be in the national interest, and then called an early election a couple of weeks later;
  • the ruling party produced a manifesto specifically promising to be cruel to starving children and people with dementia. Yes, they thought slashing pensions, ending free school meals for the poor and imposing a new tax on dementia would be a vote-winning offer;
  • the party then had to immediately promise not to implement its manifesto within days of the manifesto having been published, when they realised how unpopular it was, with the result that they basically went into the election with no actual policies (“the first time in modern history that a party’s actually broken a manifesto promise before the election”, as an interviewer said);
  • the party refused to campaign in marginal seats until the very end, instead campaigning only in secure opposition seats that they had no way of ever capturing;
  • the party made the entire campaign about their Leader, commanding all other party politicians to go into hiding when not specifically ordered to appear. Seriously, at one stage the TV companies were literally chasing Tories around the countryside because they’d been instructed to avoid being seen by cameras;
  • this despite the fact that the Leader had zero charisma and an inability to deal with any unexpected surprises or events;
  • the Leader campaigned only in sealed environments, and only in front of small numbers of vetted committed supporters and a couple of vetted cameras. LOTS of photoshoots of her standing alone in empty industrial sheds with literally a dozen party workers around her and nobody else. All politicians of course like ‘safe’ photoshoots. But everyone mixes them up with the odd speech to a large crowd, or shaking hands in the street, or talking to schoolchildren or public sector workers; but May? Just empty sheds and party officials. Because the North Korean leadership style conveys humanity so well…
  • the Leader actually refused to attend the TV debate, sending a deputy instead, to debate the leaders of the other parties, because she was too scared of being asked unvetted questions. When asked what qualities a good leader had, the other parties all duly began by mentioning that having the courage to face the public was a prerequisite…
  • because it was The 2017 Campaign, so unique in its awfulness, the Leader specifically conveyed her humanity at the TV debate by forcing a deputy whose father had just died to take the flack instead of her;
  • at no point did the party have any actual campaign strategy beyond chanting “strong and stable” ten times in every interview;
  • the Leader was completely unable to answer any question from anyone. All politicians evade, but May’s interviews were perhaps the worst I’ve ever seen in that regard. Consider, for instance, <a href=“https://blogs.spectator.co.uk/2017/05/andrew-neil-interviews-theresa-may-full-transcript/”>this interview</a>, where she completely failed to answer a single question. Highlights include being asked if it was possible she might raise National Insurance contributions and answering “Fundamental to that of course is getting the Brexit deal right and getting those negotiations right and having both a strong hand in those negotiations but also the strength of leadership in those negotiations”, and being asked “On those two big issues you failed to meet your promises – why would we trust the Tories on anything else?” and answering “well, as I say, the election will be about trust.” That’s not just one terrible interview – it was like that for multiple interviews every day. One day, someone asked her “Is the reason you’re doing so badly that whenever people ask you about policy, all we get are clichés and platitudes?” and she, no kidding here, answered “Well first of all, Michael, what we have published is a manifesto that addresses the big challenges that this country faces, not just over the next five years, but beyond. And we have set out, clearly, some of the hard choices that need to be made and how we will address those challenges.” A six week campaign and she barely answered any question. The Sunday Times gave her some easy, personal questions. Does she prefer Chinese or Indian food? “I don’t buy takeaways.” OK, what does she prefer to drink – wine or whisky? “Depends on the circumstances.” Right, OK, how about TV – Sherlock and Midsummer Murders are two very different detective shows, but both popular: which does she personally prefer? “I have watched both.” Not even “I liked both”, which would be dangerously close to an answer, albeit an unsatisfying one. No, just “I’ve watched both.” It makes that time when Gordon Brown felt forced to lie about his favourite types of biscuits look straightforward;
  • oh, I tell a lie, she did give one answer, and it wasn’t even to a question she was asked. The Prime Minister made clear that in life she felt there were “boy jobs and girl jobs” and it was important not to mix them;
  • she also gave a 100% honest and open answer to the worst thing she had ever done in her life: she once, as a child, ran through a field. Yes, that’s what she was really thinking. That’s an answer a human would give. You see why this book is called “I, Maybot” now?
  • so anyway, as a result of all the above, the Prime Minister voluntary called an early election when she was leading the polls by more than a twenty point margin, and six weeks later she managed to lose her majority. I’d ask how that was mathematically possible, except that I saw the campaign and it all makes sense.
  • she then lied to the Queen about having formed a coalition, and announced a package of new proposals for the coming year that could feature nothing more exciting than proposals to explore regulation in the space tourism industry…
  • she then bribed a party of anti-abortion, anti-gay-rights fundamentalists with £1.5 billion (that she had just said she didn’t have) in order to maintain her own power.

And remarkably, with her astonishingly awful response to the atrocity of the Grenfell Tower fire a week later, things just kept getting worse.

Given that context, inevitably this book is going to make you laugh, and grind your teeth in anger. And it should be given credit for that. What it does is essentially lead the reader down (recent) memory lane – “hey, remember when…”, “oh, wasn’t it funny when…”, “seriously, can you believe that…” and so on. It doesn’t do too bad a job of it – it glosses over too many good bits, and lingers on too many boring bits – but it more or less hits the highlights. In that sense, it serves a function adequately.

It is, sadly, less funny than, say, reading random twitter comments on these events would be. And he’d have done better taking the time to restructure his ‘sketches’ into a coherent narrative, adding and subtracting where necessary, rather than just throwing out a stitched-together log of his newspaper work (it’s not as though this is precious historical record that needs to be defended). But unlike random twitter comments, these pages are all available in easy chronological order in the same place, in print form, so it wins points for that.

In the end, do I regret reading the book? No. It’s very short, and its otherwise-frustrating bitesize approach and superficial style does at least make it an easy book to pick up here and there – I got through it through such schemes as ‘reading a couple of pages with breakfast’ and ‘reading an article or two while I was waiting for the washing machine to finish because it’ll be any time now and there’s no point going away and coming back’. If that’s what you’re looking for, it’s a generally adequate, mildly amusing history lesson. There’s worse things that that.


I don’t think I’m dead…

Normally, after a long hiatus I say something like “I aten’t dead!” just to remind people I haven’t abandoned the blog. But this time… wow. A quarter of the year without a single post! I’ve only read one and a half novels in that time, and I was really slow to review the one book I have read. As always I’ve had various things I’ve been working on, but not quite actually posted…

(besides, it often doesn’t seem worth posting here, since I have so few readers, and literally only one or two responders – so a lot of what I do write just ends up in forum posts instead…)

But, I do think it’s healthy to try to keep the blog running – discipline in one area helps me stay disciplined in others, I do tend to find, so I hope to work out something to put up here before too long…

I Shall Wear Midnight, by Terry Pratchett

Almost at the end of my Complete Discworld Re-Read Project

There’s an inevitable though morbid game that Pratchett fans are playing somewhere in the back of their heads, willingly or unwillingly, when they read his later novels: we can’t but wonder, “how much of the decline is due to the Alzheimer’s?”

Well, within just a page or two of I Shall Wear Midnight, the answer seemed clear to me: whatever perhaps went wrong in Making Money, and certainly went wrong in Unseen Academicals, and was arguably about to go wrong in Snuff, it wasn’t a problem with Pterry’s brain.

The tiredness of those novels, the bluntness of the wit, the familiarity – that’s not here. Here, Pterry is sharp, energised, eager to take on more complex themes. Funny. Reading this, it’s immediately clear that Pratchett, at least in 2010, could still do it when he felt inspired. Indeed, I’d tentatively suggest that, on a technical level, this is better-written than the previous three Tiffany novels, which were themselves well-written. In his ingenuity, his acuity, his observational humour, Pratchett here is as good as ever. Pratchett could still write.

My problems, unfortunately, are with what he could write…

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