The nation that made fun of itself


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To the silk looms and chamber pots of Dennis Severs’ House in Spitalfields. Severs was born in California and his frustrations with the 20th-century drove him to transform a London address to a portal to 18th and 19th centuries. A fictitious Huguenot family, drummed out of Catholic France, are heard but not seen as you tour their “home” in all its period detail. One room is dedicated to Queen Victoria portraits, union flags, and the patriotism for refugees.

These are layers of unsmiling reverence: the Huguenots’ for British freedom, Severs’ for the British past. These outsiders take the country’s security more seriously than it does.

As we see, it is not that difficult. This is not the legacy that Britain will live down for many years. Boris JohnsonIn December 2019, the victory was a landslide. (The alternative was even worse.) It was the rise and dominance of this obvious polecat in the past three decades. If this were luck, we could continue. In fact, it was the natural outcome of the humour that is the nation’s favourite thing about itself. A democracy laughs its way out of crisis. Unbeknownst to him, he once agreed to assist what he believed would be the assault of a journalist. He was then allowed to banter with his way to the top. It happened on panel shows. It was also published. Politics is always downstream of culture, and British culture’s biggest liability is its nihilistic unseriousness.

A comic nation isn’t necessarily a bad thing. A tragicomic one, however, is. Martin Amis said that embracing frivolity was Britain’s way of dealing with post-imperial decline. If we can’t run the world — we decided, unconsciously — let’s treat it as a joke. The resentment towards the American usurpers grew into mockery at their absurdity. This is a more subtle way to cope than cultural protectionionism (France) or territorial revanche (Russia). But it isn’t harmless. The oversupply in stand-up comedians is one cost. To be meta, Amis is another, and he might have been a deeper writer and less of a caricaturist if he had grown up elsewhere.

These aren’t just aesthetic losses. There’s also a civic loss. Under the guise of humor, you can bring some horrible ideas into the public space. I recall the social pressure to pipe down with ethical qualms about Johnson — to not to be such a prig. It was not fiercest among libertines as it was among domesticated bourgeois, for whom Johnson represented vicarious thrills.

Look, I’ve lived in Washington. I know the pain of earnestness. Humour, as Chaplin understood, is the enemy of the dictator. A moustache-twirling goon dressed in epaulettes would not be accepted by an electorate that has a sense for the absurd. Humour is a way to get along with others. Different kindsOf national ruin. Mediterranean per capita income with northern European weather is Britain’s plausible future. It has several authors, but one of them is the laughing cavalier: Johnson, Nigel Farage, each pub joker who waved aside the economics of Brexit as a nerd’s concern. Humour can be used to avoid difficult topics. The tragedy is that humour allows you to avoid difficult topics.

Although you are far too colorblind not to have noticed, the plot against Johnson was in some ways a Desi thing. Rishi Sunak’s parents are from India via east Africa. Sajid Javid’s are from Pakistan. Suella Braverman (the first candidate to be declared as a leader) is another one with roots in Pakistan. The sample size suggests that there is only coincidence. I don’t suggest that only an outsider can give a country its solemn due.

I can only accept the immigrant family’s attitudes. The unironic reverence for a new country. The congruence of Britain and respectability. Paranoid paranoia. (I still have to be careful at work because I don’t want to be mistaken for a sponger. These things are more frustrating for the natives, who seem to be less confused and disappointed.

I don’t know how it was for the Huguenots of 18 Folgate Street, or for Sunak, but for some immigrants the one shock in adapting to this otherwise user-friendly country is the premium on irreverence, the dread of seriousness. It is beautiful. It is also a dangerous habit.

Email Janan at

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