When allegations arose some years ago that former prime minister David Cameron had behaved obscenely with a pig’s head during a Bullingdon Club event while at the University of Oxford, he distanced himself from the controversial group, saying:
These were the years after the ITV adaptation of Brideshead Revisited, when quite a few of us were carried away by the fantasy of an Evelyn Waugh-like Oxford existence.
Cameron has denied the accusation and appears to have successfully moved on from that specific scandal. But that “Oxford existence” fantasy lingers in the air now that Boris Johnson, Cameron’s fellow Bullingdon alumnus, is in charge.
Waugh’s novels come to mind almost daily under the current administration, particularly in the fallout from Partygate. Johnson’s pandemic Downing Street sounds very much like the kind of place a character from Waugh’s universe would spend time – where, just like Brideshead’s Charles Ryder, one is “constantly seen drunk in the middle of the afternoon,” holding forth on obscure Classical references amid inordinately expensive room furnishings.
With every passing day, listening to Johnson talk about the Partygate scandal – and, more to the point, listening to him avoid talking about it – feels more and more like reading a Waugh novel. All the narrative hallmarks of high-Tory literature are in evidence in today’s Westminster.
Waugh was part of the interwar “Bright Young Things” – a literary social set including Nancy Mitford and several of the Churchills. The charm of the Bright Young Things’ literary language comes from its whimsical ephemerality. It sparkles with wit but doesn’t necessarily convey anything serious. Take this, from Nancy Mitford: “I have only ever read one book in my life, and that is White Fang. It’s so frightfully good I’ve never bothered to read another.” The six Mitford sisters created and conversed in their own language, “Boudledidge”. Rather than defer to modernist or realist literary conventions, Mitford refused, as Waugh once wrote, “to recognise a distinction between girlish chatter and literary language”.
In his early novels, Decline and Fall and Vile Bodies, Waugh draws inspiration from this world. Traces of the Bright Young Things are everywhere, from Waugh’s semi-fantastical characters to depictions of the hedonistic excess of the roaring 20s. Waugh’s characters inhabit a “world of superlatives,” to quote Mitford’s novel, The Pursuit of Love.
Waugh’s most famous novel, Brideshead Revisited, charts the relationship between Sebastian Flyte and Charles Ryder from the moment the pair meet at Oxford in the 1920s until the second world war. Sebastian occupies the space in the Venn diagram where the day-to-day existence of the British upper class overlaps with surrealism. He has the much-satirised attachment to his nanny and to a teddy bear called Aloysius, which accompanies him to university and which Sebastian treats as a person.
Much of Sebastian’s eccentricity is conveyed in his language. At one point, Anthony Blanche, another character in the novel and a fellow Oxford student, asks Charles:
Tell me candidly, have you ever heard Sebastian say anything you have remembered for five minutes? […] when dear Sebastian speaks it is like a little sphere of soapsud drifting off the end of an old clay pipe, anywhere, full of rainbow light for a second and then – phut! vanished, with nothing left at all.
It is difficult not to compare this to Johnson, whose style of public speaking is identical to the “bluster and zest” and “soapsuds” of Waugh’s characters. While Anthony affects a stammer to appear posher and more interesting, Johnson recently made car noises in a bizarre speech, before going on a tangent about Peppa Pig, whom he described as a “Picasso-like hairdryer”. He was, at the time, supposed to be delivering a serious address to the nation’s business leaders.
While, in Brideshead, characters use insults like “cretinous porcine sons”, Johnson once called the London Assembly “great supine protoplasmic invertebrate jellies”. He uses supposedly comical Etonian slang – “spaffing” – to describe the serious matter of money spent investigating child abuse.
Decline and Fall
Both Waugh’s fiction and Johnson’s premiership are underpinned by semi-fantastical narratives where the reader/observer can never quite believe what is being said – whether it’s on the page or in parliament.
In Brideshead, when asked how much of what Anthony says can be trusted, Sebastian replies: “I shouldn’t think a word. That’s his great charm.” Similarly, we should ask how we can trust a prime minister for whom political language is manifestly unserious. While, depending on your point of view, Johnson’s whimsical language may be amusing or ostentatious, it is also slippery and intentional.
When we expect nothing but comedically exaggerated rhetoric from Johnson, the line between artistic licence and downright lying is eroded.
This was clear during the Brexit debate – from alleging that the quintessential British breakfast-stuff, kippers, was under threat due to EU regulations to arguing that the EU wanted to ban bendy bananas, Johnson used whimsy and humour to serve his political goal. Now, by asking the public to accept that he does not know the difference between a party and a “work event” Johnson once again makes the obvious seem insubstantial.
But Johnson’s semantic sleight of hand and ability to make us doubt the obvious – when is a party not a party? – is faltering. When asked by the BBC whether he will resign if it is found that he broke the law, Johnson said: “As soon as I have something meaningful to say about this … I will make sure I do it.”
If Partygate has taught us anything, it is that the British public has had enough of Johnson’s Waugh-esque ramblings. The question is whether he is even capable of uttering “something meaningful”.