Boris Johnson will have us laughing all the way to the food bank | Will Self

The relationship between politics and comedy is deeply unfunny

Beppe Grillo

Hello, Ill be standing in for David Mitchell this week, and Stewart Lee next. Id like to apologise for this in advance: regular readers of this column have become used to scintillating satire from these two, delivered via crisp, witty prose. What do I have to offer in return? Nothing but grim jeremiads about the dreadful state were in and pretentious, jargon-laden analyses about how we got here. True, I too was once a well-known light entertainer on national television, but in recent years Ive fallen victim to the worst character trait of the ageing farceur: a desire to be taken seriously an inclination that has, quite rightly, coincided with my gently smelly slide down into Stygian obscurity.

Bobbing about down here, Ive begun to suspect that my status in our septic, MRSA-ridden isle exists in an inverse correlation to that of Her Highnesss current first minister. Its a truth universally acknowledged that, in search of his destiny as world king, Boris Johnson turned to television to build his base, and in particular to the satirical news show Have I Got News for You. Throughout a number of barnstorming appearances, Johnson cemented his reputation as a charming and self-deprecating Old Etonian, whose tousled blond mop nonetheless surmounted a mind like a steel trap. Even at the time, commentators remarked on how bizarre it was that serving politicians were prepared to go on the show and risk being eviscerated by their fellow panellists however, by perfecting his routine (in Marxist terms, his praxis), Johnson enacted the dialectical relation between politics and comedy that has since typified our era.

Yes, think of Johnson not as man but a sort of personified synthesis: one between the high-minded politics of old and the cachinnating prejudices of the new bigots. And, of course, hes not alone in this true, comedy was only a sideline for Johnson, but for Italys Beppe Grillo, and now Ukraines Volodymyr Zelenskiy, one-liners have become party ones. Then theres Marjan arec, in Slovenia, and Jimmy Morales, in Guatemala, both former comedians who abandoned their shtick in favour of the slapstick of governance. Just how good any of these characters were as comics is debatable I suppose you had to be there and then, rather than here and now, since none of them has been doing terribly well at the notoriously unfunny business of making life-and-death decisions concerning your fellow human beings.

In the long dark night of my soul, when Ive failed to surf that wave of illegal melatonin into even the lightest of slumbers, disturbing visions throng my mind: I imagine a summit convened by that prime-time joker-in-chief Donald the Donald Trump. Around the polished oval stage in the Oval Office, sit Messrs Johnson, Zelenskiy et al, all rocking and rolling with laughter as they carve the worlds audience up between them. But if superannuated comedians are our new rulers, perhaps weve only ourselves to blame? Did we not laugh too readily at their feeble quips, thereby propelling them into office? At this years Edinburgh fringe, the funniest joke award went to this one, by the hilariously named comedian Olaf Falafel: I keep randomly shouting out broccoli and cauliflower I think I may have florets.

Frankly, if Id been on hand to heckle when Falafel threw up this little ball of wit, Id have shouted Fuck you, you fucking shitting wanking fuck, youre about as funny as fucking fuck-all what makes people with Tourettes ripe for your alleged humour? Are there other disabled folk youd like to have a go at while youre up there? Thereby exhibiting the rank hypocrisy of those of us who arent so much woke as utterly insomniac. But even setting the prejudice to one side, Falafels joke is a pretty tired bit of punning. Nietzsche quipped that Wit is the epitaph of an emotion but, even as epitaphs go, puns are a grave old business.

I do hope Messrs Mitchell and Lee will be using their downtime to re-up on their material so you can look forward to plenty of hearty chuckles in the autumn, when broccoli and cauliflower become too expensive even for Observer readers. But my suspicion is that they may, in fact, be moonlighting as premiers themselves, while you have to put up with my second-division repartee.

The comedian Volodymyr Zelenskiy, right, who was elected president of Ukraine in May. Photograph: Evgeniy Maloletka/AP

This rather raises the question: what might life be like in a country helmed by a genuinely funny comedian, rather than a farceur who dreams of being taken seriously? In Leedonia, I imagine our Fhrer arriving in his trademark circus car, accompanied by a posse of heavily armed clowns. Speeches would take the form of tightly scripted hour-long rants fusing the surreal, the paranoid and the scatological with such elan (and dog-whistle virtue-signalling) that the poor citizenry would be left undone, having been chafed unmercifully by the rubbing of their urine-soaked clothing against their heaving bellies. What matter that they be empty of food, if theyre filled with guffaws?

As for David Mitchell, with his bearded and bookish mien, its not hard to picture him as some sort of nerd-in-chief, earnestly urging his encyclopaedic knowledge on his people. Perhaps, like the one-time dictator of Turkmenistan, Saparmurat Niyazov, Mitchell will write an interminably long book aimed at the spiritual guidance of the people. Theres a huge mechanical statue of the Ruhnama as its called in Ashgabat, the capital, and, at 8pm every day, this opens mechanically and a passage is read through loudspeakers. But whereas Niyazov mixed together the Quran, Sufi poetry and his own wild cosmic speculations, Mitchells tome will consist of page after page of unbelievable truths, and the mechanical voice reading them out will be nasal and laconic.

I do hope something like this is actually going on right now and that, in a fortnights time, revitalised, Mitchells and Lees satiric armies will invade Britain and put paid to its new farceur-among-equals with volleys of perfectly aimed pasquinades. Because, lets face it, the alternative isnt funny at all.

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RAF and a damaged dam

Media playback is unsupported on your device
Media captionAn RAF Chinook is dropping 400 tonnes of aggregate to shore up the dam and divert water

Emergency crews are racing to save a damaged reservoir, as “terrified” residents fear their Derbyshire town could be flooded.

Police say the wall holding back the 300-million-gallon Toddbrook Reservoir could still fail despite about 24 hours of efforts to shore it up.

Part of the dam wall collapsed on Thursday afternoon.

The 1,500 people evacuated from Whaley Bridge amid “mortal danger” warnings will not be allowed home tonight.

But the water level has dropped by half a meter thanks to ten fire service pumps moving 4.2 million litres of water every hour – with more pumps on the way.

An RAF helicopter is also halfway through dropping 400 tonnes of aggregate on the collapsed section.

How dangerous is it?

BBC Image copyright Reuters
Image caption The clay under the slipway has been undermined

Police, the Environment Agency, and the Canal and River Trust have all said there is a “real risk” the dam could collapse.

Julie Sharman, from the Canal and Rivers Trust, said it was “a critical situation” but added the weather had improved and the water levels had reduced by 20cm.

“We aren’t putting a figure on any risk of collapse but everything that can be done is being done,” she said.

Engineers are attempting to get the reservoir’s water level down, to reduce pressure on the wall and allow repairs to begin.

Image caption The dam holds back 1.3 million tonnes of water

What does it mean for residents?

About 1,500 people left their homes after police told them to pack up their medication and pets and gather at an evacuation point.

Some stayed with relatives while others bedded down in pubs and hotels, with lots of businesses offering free rooms.

Police said residents would not be allowed back on Friday so would spend a second night away from their homes.

Image caption Bev Goodwin has put up friends and family after they left Whaley Bridge

Bev Goodwin lives in Chapel-en-le-Frith and put up her mum and dad, Joy and Steve and two friends – Susie and Angela.

Joy said: “We have nothing. No clothes, no toothbrush, nothing.

“We have been thinking about what’s in our house that we would miss – all our kids’ pictures and of our grandchildren – it’s upsetting.”

Susie said: “It’s just surreal that it’s happening in our town, it’s just bizarre.”

Mike Breslin described it as a “crazy situation”.

“They should never have built a school and a social club at the bottom of a dam. It’s madness,” he said.

Image caption Resident Mike Breslin said it was ‘madness’ to build a school at the base of the dam

Eric Baker, who has lived in the town for 30 years said: “It’s shocking really, it’s like living next to a ticking bomb. If that goes the devastation will be unimaginable.

“We saw the water coming over at a tremendous rate on Wednesday and the park was flooded but it wasn’t until Thursday the people who look after it started to look worried.

“Then it started to collapse on Thursday and it made a tremendous noise as the concrete slabs began to collapse.

“The disruption is huge, the small shops and businesses are really being hit and of course we don’t know when it will be over.”

BBC Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Public agencies and the army have been praised for their efforts

Another resident, who did not want to be named, said: “We just fled. I managed to take my nightdress and we’ve got the tortoise in the washing up bowl in the car.

“It’s quite terrifying. If the dam goes, it will take out the whole town.”

When will it be fixed?

news Image copyright LincsFireOfficer
Image caption Teams have worked through the night

Nigel Carson, who lives near the dam, said he had been told it would take two or three days to reduce the reservoir to a safe level if it does not rain.

There are no weather warnings in place for Friday, and the Met Office has said it expects much drier conditions.

BBC reporter Richard Stead described the operation to fix the dam as “a two-pronged attack”.

He said: “The Chinook is bringing aggregate on the one hand to shore up the dam, but also to divert water further up the valley away from the reservoir.

“There are also 16 high-volume pumps being used to relieve the pressure on the dam.

“Only when that is done can work start on permanent repairs and finding out what went wrong.”

Prime Minister Boris Johnson has asked the Environment Secretary Theresa Villiers to chair an emergency meeting.


Ms Villiers said she was receiving regular updates on the situation and the government’s COBR committee would make sure everything possible was being done to help.

People have shared their admiration for the emergency services on social media, with Twitter user @nmstoker naming the chinook pilots #DamUnbusters.



By David Shukman, BBC science editor

This isn’t the first time communities have faced the nightmare of a dam that could collapse.

Back in 2007 a dam near Rotherham was the cause of a major alert, and the scenario is very similar to now. Torrential rain had filled the Ulley reservoir to overflowing.

Cracks appeared in the dam itself. People downstream were told to leave. The M1 motorway was in the path of a potential burst so part of it was closed.

As with the dam at Whaley Bridge, the one at Ulley was built in the 19th Century with the same combination of clay and mud.

In the end, pumps relieved the pressure and nearly 3000 tonnes of rock strengthened the structure so the emergency passed.

But over the following three years a huge repair operation costing £3.8m was needed. And a major review of the 2007 floods was highly critical of the way many of Britain’s dams are monitored.

Whatever happens at Whaley Bridge, questions will be asked about safety and whether ageing infrastructure can cope with the heavier downpours predicted as the climate warms.


What happened?


Media playback is unsupported on your device
Media captionToddbrook Reservoir: Footage shows fast-flowing water before collapse

Part of the reservoir’s spillway broke away on Thursday.

It was damaged after large swathes of the country were battered by heavy rain and floods earlier in the week.

Police told residents in Whaley Bridge to gather at Chapel High School in neighbouring Chapel-en-le-Frith.

They were told to take pets and medication with them as it was unclear how long it would take to repair the damaged wall.


Pumps from fire services across the country have been pumping out 7,000 litres of water a minute.

Army engineers are clearing trees and bushes to get “five or six” more water pumps in on south side of reservoir.

Derbyshire Fire & Rescue Service said more than 150 firefighters from across the UK have been supporting the work at the dam and in the town.

A severe flood warning, which means a threat to life, has been issued for the River Goyt below the reservoir.

BBC Image copyright LincsFireOfficer
Image caption Sandbags are shoring up the structure

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