The necessity of satire

Over the last decade or so I have regularly asked myself what forms of resistance are appropriate in the face of populist/authoritarian/power grabbing regimes. Ultimately they have to be removed at the ballot box so some of us doggedly carry on organising and campaigning in spite of outdated electoral systems and huge amounts of money being fed into elections and pre-election PR machines. In the UK we can throw in a very lopsided set of national newspapers and the future for our politically diminished country does not look bright.

I keep coming back to satire. When I was in the former Czechoslovakia a year after the Prague Spring of 1967, our hosts were distributing clandestine leaflets criticising the puppet government reimposed by the Soviet Union. Quite a bit of this “samizdat” material was satirical and cartoons had a significant part to play. Democracy was not established until decades later but the satire and accompanying laughter provided hope in dark days.

Liberal Democrats know a bit about alternative media and are used to pushing it through letterboxes, but we have not yet found ourselves in samizdat territory as such. Nevertheless we may need to ramp up the satire dimension in the next few years.

For many of us of a certain age “That Was The Week That Was” on BBC TV was formative. It ran for two years in 1962 and 1963 and was pulled because of the forthcoming 1964 election. Cutting your political teeth on the speeches of Jo Grimond and the jokes, sketches and songs of the talented TW3 gang contributed to a sound upbringing.

In more recent decades I have enjoyed Private Eye dropping through the letterbox on alternate Wednesdays. It is rather different in style to the Methodist Recorder which comes on Thursday (in which I check my absence from the obituary column) but both publications do a good line in cartoons. The Eye inevitably dips its toes into bad taste occasionally but that is a small price to pay for a fortnightly breath of fresh air, which cheers me up, makes me laugh and strengthens my arm in the struggle against the forces of darkness.

Throughout the pandemic there has been a wonderful serious page contributed by “MD” who offers a sober medical view of what Government and the health authorities have done – and the consequences. Ian Hislop has not paid me to say so, but in the absence of a public enquiry, any edition of Private Eye is worth buying for that alone.

In early September I hope to celebrate another year of staying alive. I was born on exactly the same day as Freddie Mercury and later in the autumn there may be some recognition of the thirtieth anniversary of his death on 24th November. It is also the birthday of Carlo Coloddi. Who he? He created the arch-liar Pinocchio. And the man who died on that day created “The Great Pretender.” As we contemplate those who wield chaotic power over us, if that’s not a cue for satire, I don’t know what is.

* Geoff Reid is a retired Methodist minister and represented Eccleshill on Bradford City Council for twelve years

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  • Steve Trevethan 26th Jul '21 - 1:42pm

    Thank you for a really relevant article!
    If you have not read it, you might find Howard Zinn’s book « You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train » both informative and an encouraging account of keeping on keeping on in dark times and the importance of « planting seeds » which eventually grow.

  • Barry Lofty 26th Jul '21 - 2:33pm

    I too look forward to my fortnightly , cheer me up,I am not alone in the world, editions of Private Eye. It is amazing the amount of corruption and cronyism that seems to exist in this country, but that seems to be taken as the norm these days

  • Mark Smulian 26th Jul '21 - 4:38pm

    The party once harboured a troupe of satirists – of whom I was one – who performed at conference most years 1984-96 and then in a second innings for most of 2002-08. Search on for ‘Liberal Revue’.

  • How does one stirise Johnson?…After all, in life, he’s already a scruffy, overweight, caricacture of a ‘real’ PM and that seems to why he’s PM..

  • Paul Barker 26th Jul '21 - 6:21pm

    Can I remind everyone that Private Eye has a long history of very Right-Wing, very Nasty Politics plus Misogyny, Homophobia & Racism. It has also promited damaging Conspiracy Theories such as “MMR Vaccines cause Autism”. Wondered where the Anti-Vaxx movement came from ?

    There is a real problem with Satire in that it can lead us to think that everything is Shit & everyone is corrupt. That Road ends with Farage or Trump.

  • I’m afraid I can’t agree with Mr Barker. Willie Rushton, one of the founders of Private Eye and That was the week that was, worked at Liberal Party HQ at the same time I did back in the early sixties, as did Christopher Booker ……. and the late Paul Foot was certainly not right wing. I also remember Ian Hislop taking Priti Patel apart on the question of capital punishment in more recent times.

  • Robin Grayson 27th Jul '21 - 8:34am

    I met a traveller from an antique land,
    Who said — “Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
    Stand in the desert. . . . Near them, on the sand,
    Half sunk a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
    And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
    Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
    Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
    The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;
    And on the pedestal, these words appear:
    My name is Boris, King of Kings;
    Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!
    Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
    Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
    The lone and level sands stretch far away.”

  • In the time I have been reading Private Eye I cannot say I have found it right wing, a bit irreverent at times maybe, but that’s what it is all about. It has led the way on a number of injustices, the Horizon post office miscarriage of justice scandal for one.

  • Well done Robin Grayson– a nice response to Geoff Reid’s plea and call to pens. Perhaps we should all pull together and take every opportunity of referring to the current PM as Borymandias. Many who vaguely remember the poem from O level English may turn back to it and realise what it’s all about. Would one of those ‘legs of stone’ be the slowly excavating High Speed rail line?

  • Perhaps, in view of The Johnson ‘initiative’ on “fluorescent-jacketed chain gangs”, a satirist might make play on the use of Boris Johnson’s second hand stock of ‘hi-vis’ jackets ‘going cheap!

  • David Rogers 29th Jul '21 - 10:16am

    As my parents had no TV at the time of TW3, I didn’t imbibe it at the time, but have seen some clips over the years. Geoff Reid reminds us of the necessity of satire, and also the contributions cartoons can make, as well as some more serious articles. Whilst he (and other commentators) have used Private Eye as an example of this approach, it put me in mind immediately of the New European. This weekly newspaper, now five years old, contains all those things, and as well as coverage of current political issues in the UK and Europe there are features on arts, culture, music, great lives – even football. I recommend it highly.

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