Consider the plight of the satirist. I know you’ve got your own plight, and there are only so many plights that you can consider at any one time, and that the plight of the satirist might even seem to you to be one of the easier plights. A satirist, you imagine, is having a pretty heavy week if they do more than pop up on The News Quiz to say that every MP in the DUP looks like a committee member of a bowling club who’s just seen a visitor enter the bar wearing jeans. And now that you put it like that, yes, you’re right, it’s not much of a plight at all, really.
The plight of the satirist, such as it is, is a compulsion to look at the grimmest, most important thing they can think of, and then for reasons that probably wouldn’t survive a really good therapist, try to make it funny. To try to address the iniquities of their society, the satirist must manufacture some hope that what they’re doing might make a difference, then type it all up and send it off somewhere before they remember that it never does. Looking back over the events of this year is a bit like holding a doll for a therapist and pointing to where the bad man hurt you. Among the lowlights were:
1 Theresa May dancing on stage at the Conservative Party conference (choreographer Ray Harryhausen), looking like an uncloaked Dementor on a hen weekend.
2 A group of deranged kippers burning a cardboard effigy of Grenfell tower. They were later quizzed by police, and Kensington and Chelsea council, who asked them to quote for some public housing projects.
3 A senate grilling of Mark Zuckerberg, who gave the general impression of a Batman villain whose backstory is being given puberty-delaying drugs by a paedophile, and who seemed visibly relieved to be questioned on privacy concerns rather than Facebook’s monopoly power.
4 The continuing media fascination with Jacob Rees-Mogg, a man who has all the authenticity of a character at a murder-mystery weekend.
5 Philip Hammond delivering a budget speech so dry it was sponsored by Vagisil, making watching for 75 minutes feel like a gateway drug for necrophilia.
6 The hilarious emergence of the phrase “rules-based international order”, which I like to imagine pronounced with the jaded, lisping irony of Gore Vidal, drunk on his deathbed.
7 The Palestinian right-of-return marches that demonstrated the old Israeli proverb, you can’t make an omelette without shooting protesters. Trump said the US was “fully committed to facilitating a lasting peace agreement”. The lasting peace that will come about once Israel has shot all the Palestinians.
Beyond that, the year broke down into four seemingly unending and increasingly apocalyptic chapters.
The Brexit endgame
Domestically, the year was dominated by the Conservative party successfully externalising its bitter divisions on trade. They have never, in their whole history, not been fighting about trade: trade laws are to the Tory party what ownership of the Queen Vic is to EastEnders.
Theresa May was always only a placeholder prime minister, something that would appear to make about as much sense as using a slice of Victoria sponge as a bookmark. At the time of going to press, she had survived a vote of no confidence from Tory MPs, and there was the general impression that European leaders had agreed to end freedom of movement just to stop her from visiting them. Throughout the year, Boris Johnson has maintained that dishevelled, confused look of the people at the end of a disaster movie being ferried to the ambulances. He resigned as foreign secretary in July, barking “Chequers is dead” as if he were in an Agatha Christie novel and had just discovered the body of the butler at the bottom of the stairs. Johnson has promised a bonfire of EU regulations, a teetering one, without fencing and namby-pamby safety glasses, so that we can wipe the drifting cinders from our newly liberated eyes screaming, “Fuck you, Brussels! Maybe I want to be blind!” I look forward to a UK without EU red tape, and vegans weeping in supermarkets that resemble a cross between a botanical freak show and a fruit-and-veg hospice.
I say, let’s forget the worries of Brexit for a week or two, and just enjoy our last Christmas with running water. Brexit has many downsides, but I think it will be nice for the Irish to watch a British famine. Personally I look forward to a new age where the London Christmas lights won’t be turned on by vacuous celebrities, but by someone found guilty of “talking foreign” and sentenced to complete the circuit. A time where we no longer guess the fluctuations of the market, but our high priests stare into polished heads, newly bald from radiation sickness, and interpret the patterns cast by the light of flickering sewer-fat candles.
Paradoxically, I think Brexit will actually lead to less nationalism: economic collapse meaning that borders lose all their current toxicity, as they’re constantly redrawn in a never-ending struggle between regional warlords, antibiotic-resistant microbes and organ-harvesting cyborgs. Our children will have less inclination to dwell on skin colour as they’ll be preoccupied with appeasing the whims of some pitiless, scab-encrusted Cyclops waving a horse’s hoof nailed to a broomstick, roaring for fresh meat as he plays his three-note national anthem on a ribcage xylophone.
It is at times like those that we will remember the work of Dominic Raab, who resigned in November, having decided that he could not endorse a deal that he himself had negotiated. Raab didn’t want to be Brexit secretary, but he didn’t have the negotiating skills to decline the job. When Raab took over, I was heartened by the thought that negotiations were being handled by someone with the air of an embattled leisure centre manager, who could be outmanoeuvred by a statue of Stephen Hawking. Surely better withdrawal terms have been negotiated during prison sex. Much of the Brexit discourse has revolved around people who seem inbred telling us that diversity is bad, but there don’t seem to be any easy solutions. In a way, I envy the touching optimism of people who feel that another referendum might clear up all this bad feeling once and for all.
The Labour party somehow managed to achieve a Brexit position more incoherent than a government of opportunists at war with itself. There is definitely something odd about Labour supporting free movement for goods and not, well, labour. Meanwhile, May tried to attack Jeremy Corbyn’s handling of antisemitism while in the middle of the Windrush scandal, which was like Pol Pot complaining about gender balance in the films of Martin Scorsese. Corbyn has mastered a lot of things, but strangely not saying shit just to get elected. Mate, say some shit just to get elected: it’s really your only job right now. This needs to go to the top of your to-do list, not somewhere down below “fix the spare room door”.
And yet, he has undoubtedly been travestied by a press who must somehow contrive to terrify Middle England with a man who looks as if he celebrates New Year’s Eve by edging the lawn. Corbyn was attacked in August after the Daily Mail printed pictures of him laying a wreath for some Palestinian martyrs. Corbyn argued that, just because he was near the graves of terrorists, didn’t mean he was honouring terrorists. Personally, I’m surprised our politicians find the time to lay so many wreaths when not one of them has poured liquor on the ground for Tupac.
Perhaps some idea of how Britain intends to deal with the post-Brexit world is encapsulated in the Dickensian figure of the secretary of state for international trade, Dr Liam Fox, a man for whom Another Day, Another Dollar means the proposed minimum wage in our trade agreement with the US. You might wonder how a former doctor can cheerfully promote arms sales. Luckily, Liam’s brain has plenty of experience hosting seemingly irreconcilable contradictions: such as believing we should all stand on our own two feet, while claiming expenses of three pence for a 100-metre car journey in 2012. Liam Fox manages to be a grotesque moral nihilist and yet, somehow, not even the worst Dr Fox. Like me, he was raised on an Irish Catholic council estate in Scotland. It’s these sliding-doors moments where I have to thank alcoholism for denying me the focus to become a genocidal sociopath.
Yet perhaps the clearest signpost to post-Brexit Britain this year lay in Boris Johnson, and later Prince Andrew, advocating the procurement of a new Royal Yacht. Andrew said that, for British exports, it would be a tool in the bag – despite having never used a tool, or carried a bag. There is no doubt that having Prince Andrew on such a boat could boost Britain’s reputation, provided it never docks.
Of course it’s hardly the first ship the royals have had: that burned up entering the atmosphere after their journey here from their home planet, Azeroth 9. But how do you respond to the monarchy asking for a £100m boat? The history of European royalty suggests they’re going to be well ahead of any suggestion to “go fuck themselves”. On balance, I say stick with the royal train: we can always add an international dimension just by extending the tracks into the sea.
A Saudi Arabian horror show
The murder of Jamal Khashoggi by Saudi Arabia is another very difficult subject to find the lighter side of, unless someone in the Ecuadorean embassy has clipped the story out and stuck it to the fridge. The 15 Saudi suspects have been banned from entering the UK, which is a shame as the people this hurts the most are the box office staff at Salisbury Cathedral. Turkey wants the murderers tried there, possibly because sticking journalist killers into a Turkish jail will really tidy up the lifers’ wing.
You can imagine that this is all quite surreal for the Saudis; they behead people in public, and starve the children of Yemen. The idea that they would be lambasted for killing a fully grown man in private with no witnesses must seem ridiculous; it would be as if I had got into trouble for saying someone looked like a spoon.
The murder was such a calamitous fuck-up from start to finish, I like to think that it’s got David Davis’s fingerprints all over it. Considering the version of events that the Saudis were willing to push, I’d love to see the ones they rejected. “We regret to inform you that Mr Khashoggi perished while attempting to rape an outboard motor.” They killed Khashoggi with a bone saw. No wonder they need to buy arms: their own weaponry seems to be sourced from the Whoops! shelf at Homebase.
We apparently “share values” with the Saudis. After they behead someone (48 in the first four months of the year), they sometimes crucify the body in the public square for three days. Watching a horror movie in Saudi Arabia must have all the adrenaline buzz of a local council meeting. I’m guessing the most horrifying film you could screen there would be a remake of The Dukes of Hazzard where Daisy Duke drives her own car.
Our government was angry about Khashoggi and sent the Saudis a strongly worded arms invoice. Perhaps it’s unfair to expect Britain to criticise the Saudis. Can we be expected to take the moral high ground when it comes to royal families sanctioning murder? Sadly, the only long-term consequences of Khashoggi being killed will be that, in future, when a Saudi diplomat orders a pizza, the Deliveroo rider will kick it the last few feet to the front door. Despite the long-running, disgraceful and illegal war in Yemen, there is no sign from Britain of a moratorium on weapons sales. So Britain, an international arms dealer, censuring someone for using its products would be as hypocritical as that bit when Willy Wonka rolls his eyes at Augustus Gloop.
Saudi’s war in Yemen struggles to get much coverage here, despite the significant role Britain plays; sometimes it seems that only journalists getting killed will engage the British press. In the US, the worst person you can kill would be a cop; in China, a government official; and in the UK, woe betide you if you touch anyone who’s mastered Pitman shorthand.
Perhaps the saddest part of this whole business is knowing that there are so few British journalists committed enough to get murdered: you could silence most just by breaking the fingers they use to do select all, copy, paste. Nobody’s going to flay you to death just for barking offers of money through the letterboxes of recently bereaved parents, or trawling for offensive tweets with your free hand. Of course, there are a lot of good journalists. Perhaps journalist is now just too broad a term, in much the way the word actor encompasses everyone from Meryl Streep to Sooty.
There’s no point asking how UK arms dealers sleep at night after watching footage from Yemen, as they’ll reply, “Very well: in fact my erection even stops me rolling out of bed.” Yet shouldn’t we, as a society, demand better? If we can set aside the moral element here (and I don’t know that we can, but just as an exercise in trying to recognise the sheer breadth of our current futility, it might prove useful), Britain sees its interests as almost synonymous with an industry that isn’t labour intensive, or environmentally sustainable, and that seems to be riddled with corruption, because it reminds us of what it was like to be powerful.
Trump trumps himself
Of course Donald Trump trundled out in front of the cameras like a corpse on a Segway and announced: “We are with Saudi Arabia, we are staying with Saudi Arabia.” I honestly think that the Republican establishment is just coming to terms with how useful Trump is – realising that this troll-doll King Lear, who looks like something you’d pick off a baking tray after cooking pizza above it, can say the things that they themselves would like, or find useful to say, but can’t because of some vestigial attachment to decency. The Republicans’ current attitude to Trump is of turning a blind eye to your racist builder because you just need to get the conservatory finished.
Trump has not refashioned the GOP in his own image. He has achieved something more significant: he has managed to maintain a semantic distance from the Republican party despite cheerfully delivering its agenda. Meanwhile, the Democratic establishment has chosen to mirror his attachment to nepotism, entitlement and conspiracy theory – not that the conspiracy theory is necessarily invalid. Trump might, I suppose, be a Russian spy: it would certainly explain why he can’t speak English. It’s not that he’s normalising his own behaviour; it’s that, by comparison, he’s normalising that of dreadful people everywhere. Jared Kushner, a bloodless, lipless demon, a dependent clause of the Anti-Life Equation who could be thrown into any Edgar Allan Poe adaptation and trusted to improvise, looks merely emo in comparison.
The racial animus that Trump has cynically aggravated saw his supporters protesting Nike’s Colin Kaepernick advert in September. The Nike swoosh is now the sound their products make when they go on fire. One patriot filmed himself destroying his Nike clothing by cutting off the top couple of inches from his socks. Instead of destroying the clothing, he’s created an additional, free set of Nike sweatbands.
What does it say about our times that we’re expected to look for moral guidance to corporations like Nike, whose brand message of “Just do it” started out as a looped PA announcement in their Vietnamese trainer factory. I’ve always been wary of Nike – I think because their single tick logo is so reminiscent of the one used in my youth for Bob a Job: just a glimpse of a trainer and I’m back in short trousers, fibre-glassing that pensioner’s loft for a shiny 50 pence piece. (If you’re interested it was 10p for the insulating, 40p for wearing the shorts.)
Despite Trump’s rage, the taking-a-knee protests have continued. It’s odd, in most cultures going down on a knee is considered respectful: personally, I expect either a proposal or a medley of hits from Oklahoma. You have to hand it to the president; it shows a certain ambition to try to undermine the idea of protest in a country that was founded by, well, Protestants. Trump has tried to make this about respect for a flag I very much doubt he could draw from memory, and for military service that he studiously avoided.
Of course the NFL players are not actually protesting the flag. That would be as pointless as arguing with a sock, screaming at a table cloth, or a whole bunch of other stuff Trump probably does on a daily basis. The protest was originally about racial justice, and black people being shot dead by the police. You have to ask yourself how abusive a relationship has to be if even kneeling in silence is too provocative, how you are valued in a country where even the statement that your life matters ignites furious dissent.
There is an obvious misogyny to the Trump administration, and the president no doubt has many supporters whose idea of foreplay consists of dropping a rope ladder down a well. This was highlighted by the appointment of Brett Kavanaugh to the supreme court, despite a confirmation hearing where he unspooled like a Columbo villain, bellowing endlessly about his love of beer. Trump ordered an FBI probe during the hearing, an investigation that was concluded with the speed of an airplane edit of CSI Miami. An investigation that ranged from the FBI agent looking at himself in the mirror and noting that Judge Kavanaugh wasn’t at that moment raping him, all the way through to noting that he hadn’t raped anyone during his time on television being questioned by senators.
With Kavanaugh now on the bench, the irony for American women is that huge amounts of beer will soon become their only means of abortion. Should he be any kind of judge? There’s an argument that the very last thing you want to hand to any man accused of sex crimes is a hammer, but then again maybe we need his hands where we can see them. Still, it certainly is a very scary time for young men in America. Especially the ones aged 10 that Trump has put in cages.
A climate of fear
At least Trump, looking like a cross between Dr Frankenstein’s first attempt and a tiebreak dinner for the contestants on I’m A Celebrity, came up with the solution to politicians only ever making short-term policies: he made sure there will only be a short term. This year he appointed a former energy lobbyist as head of the environmental protection agency, and announced his intention to change regulations that prohibited new coal burning plants. My guess is that the only concession Republicans plan to make to global warming will be to change the lyrics of America The Beautiful to “…from sea to boiling sea”.
Climate catastrophe is imminent. Climate change could decimate pollinating species, leading to a world starved of fruit and vegetables. The best way to alert the world to that danger is to hold the next climate conference in Coatbridge, a town so short of fibre many residents can only shit successfully with the aid of a corkscrew. Perhaps we should try to look on the bright side. The colossal internet servers that provide the architecture for the modern world’s de-socialisation are based above the Arctic Circle. Should they burn out through lack of natural cooling, maybe people will look up from their phones and withered genitalia to once more make eye contact.
The death of the planet seems almost too big to take in, doesn’t it? The real tragedy is not that we can’t prevent it. The real tragedy, I think, lies in the fact that we can. There are a lot of things we can change through political action, some small, some large, that would add up to saving the Earth.
Consider again the plight of the children starving in Yemen. It’s a hard thing to consider. It’s OK to admit that, I think – that it’s hard to empathise: you don’t know much about it, you have your own plight, and it’s a difficult thing to think about. To consider that, in a world that has pub lunches, wristwatches, golden retrievers, the novels of Donna Tartt, the music of Kendrick Lamar, flumes and The Amazing Spider-Man, there is still a plight where you starve to death, as a child, for no reason.
I mean, there is a reason, that I suppose has somehow made itself too obvious to mention. The reason is that some people are addicted to money and power, many of them pathologically so, and we let them do what they like. In our name, and with our taxes, we let them kill who they like in the service of their bored, baroque perversity, because we don’t care enough to stop them. We cannot seem to rouse ourselves, even as they move to turn the world into a consuming flame. We are running out of time to save the children of Yemen, and ourselves – and yet we could still, in theory, be redeemed. Consider the plight of the satirist.