I’d like to think – because I’m arrogant – that I ask myself the big questions: can we ever see a form of religious faith that doesn’t descend into dogmatisms and division? Can the left ever build itself beyond a message of hope which is so easily thwarted? Could we ever truly live in a post gender society? Why do I keep playing Dark Souls when I’m clearly not very good at it? But the question that occupies my mind more recently is “how do you understand Frankie Boyle?”
Frankie Boyle is quite rapidly becoming one of my favourite commentators. I read The Guardian regularly (because Socialist Workers is written by rape apologists and The Independent is Buzzfeed for people who use dial up) and I’ve tended to despair at the comments – where it’s Polly Tonybee groaning about how disunited Labour is and it’s all Corbyn’s fault (SDP, Polly, ring a bell?) or Andrew Rawnsley writing a staggering amount without actually saying anything, it doesn’t really give me much enjoyment. But then occasionally, along comes a commentator who writes with nuance, wit, and insight. John Harris is one – I’d recommend his series of short films on the US Elections, and his well written indictment on the left’s tendency to brand Trump supporters as bigots – and Gary Younge is excellent – his latest piece on the EU referendum really hits the nail on the head. But the columnist I’ve most enjoyed reading is Frankie Boyle, and that’s not a sentiment I’d have expressed a few years back. And I’m struggling to understand why.
Perhaps it’s language. As a former literature student, I have a thing for people who are great orators and skilled in their language – perhaps this explains my fascination with Christopher Hitchens, who I secretly wish had been told he was wrong about Iraq by an exceedingly funny woman. Boyle has a wonderful manner of weaving together the kind of world weary, cynical leftism which is my bread and butter, and it makes for marvellous reading. Take this little gem from his latest Comment is Free piece, on the EU referendum:
The Leave movement looks like a group of villains cornered by Batman in a hall of mirrors. Who better to head up a campaign against unelected people ruling over us than Lord Lawson? Nigel Farage, a sort of end of level boss for Freudian psychoanalysis, has a face that only a mother could abandon to the boarding school system. And I’m always a bit wrongfooted by Michael Gove, possibly because I half expect to see him in a Hammer horror film, his tiny wooden hands tightening mercilessly round his owner’s throat as he cries, “Gichael! Gichael! Stockik Gichael!!”. Boris Johnson, looking like a Harry Potter spell that’s brought all the hair in Dumbledore’s plughole to life, said he would debate with Cameron, “Anytime, anyplace, anywhere”. How about everyday for the next four weeks in Aleppo?
There some excellent sarcastic writing here, and Boyle’s phraseology does stick in my mind – the wonderful appropriateness of visualising Nigel Farage as “a sort of end of level boss for Freudian psychoanalysis” or Boris Johnson as “a Harry Potter spell that’s brought all the hair in Dumbledore’s plughole to life.” But what I like about that particular quote is the end line – a grim, but firm reminder that while politicians bicker violently over the EU, across the world, horrors are faced by the people of Syria, who are so often used as a scapegoat for bigoted, xenophobic political stances, advocated by the very same politicians. It’s great stuff. Funny, dark, and astutely critical.
Usually, when I write about appreciating an author’s style, I then have to go into what I call the T.S. Eliot clarification: a great writer as he is, Eliot harboured anti-semitic views, and aligned himself with a highly regressive and nationalistic form of Christianity, and one cannot read his work without appreciating the moral reprehensibility of this, especially someone like me who is a card carrying socialist (the card says “SHARE ALL THE THINGS” for reference) , and who has acquired that card through what I feel is a moral, political framework. Boyle, seemingly, makes a good moral and political case in his writing – take his critique of the absurdity of Trident here, or his excellent piece written in the aftermath of the Paris attacks, which you can read here. There are periodic moments of an intense, heartfelt humanism, as well, especially in the conclusion of his article on the EU, which I quoted above:
People are drowning in the Mediterranean while we have a navy that could save them. We can press our government to act, and I refuse to be told that’s fanciful by people who think it would be easier to reform the EU. And we can act ourselves. People already are. Donating money, driving to Calais with supplies, trying to create political pressure, and let’s join them, each in our own little way, in a sort of Dunkirk of the spirit. We should do this because these are desperate human beings who need our help. As an added bonus, remember that whatever you do, no matter how small, will appal both sides of this intellectually enfeebled and poisonous campaign, and that the most radical message we can send them is that we still feel love.
It’s this humanism, this sense of compassion for other people, which I find hard to process. I have no doubt that Boyle means every word of that final paragraph, but I struggle to reconcile its feeling with the same man who made a name for himself with doing exactly the kind of comedy that I, as a comic, can’t stand.
A few examples. In 2010, Boyle had a routine that involved mocking the movements, clothes and voices of people with Downs Syndrome. More famously, Boyle made jokes about the disabled son of Peter Andre and Katie Price, a joke so infamous it’s now become synonymous with his name. There are plenty of other examples of Boyle making jokes like this, to the extent that his work, along with that of Jimmy Carr, can be cited as examples of comedy which “punches down”, comedy which tends to mock people who are situated in disadvantaged sections of society due to factors beyond their control such as disability, gender identity, or the like. I’ve written about my thoughts on this kind of comedy elsewhere.
I should hasten to say that my point here is not to say that being a leftist means you are a moral person (just google “SWP Comrade Delta” if you want an example of how leftist can be totally immoral). What I am saying is I find it hard to reconcile the Boyle who mocks disabled children with the Boyle who calls for love and compassion for refugees. And before we go there, the “it’s just a joke” defence doesn’t really work here (or many other places, for that matter) and I think Stewart Lee managed to demonstrate that admirably here (worth watching the whole clip). I suppose what I’m trying to say is that Boyle gives me cognitive dissonance – I struggle to understand how he can build his comedy career on cruelty, and his journalistic one on humanity. Has he changed? Is there some measure of cynicism here? Am I just, perhaps, looking at this the wrong way?