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Fintan O’Toole on Brexit satire: It would be funny if it wasn’t so serious

Books by @BorderIrish and Led By Donkeys are among the best satires of the Brexit era

In Chris Cook’s often jaw-dropping account of the Brexit negotiations, Defeated by Brexit, there is a moment when a Whitehall official is telling him about the rather frantic search for credible “alternative arrangements” – the elusive technological miracle that would save the Border from having any physical infrastructure even if there were different trading regimes on both sides.

“One official, referring to a private sector idea, asked me: ‘Has someone told you about facial recognition for pigs?’” Here, of course, is the problem of Brexit and satire in a nutshell. Is this a joke or a serious proposal? How could we possibly tell? And what would it matter anyway? It is a distinction without a difference.

Karl Marx famously claimed that everything in history happens twice – the first time as tragedy, the second as farce. But in the history of Brexit, the two states are not sequential. They are simultaneous. The whole thing is rooted in the camp, knowingly over-the-top stories that British journalists (led by Boris Johnson) have spent decades fabricating in Brussels – the EU making hairy-chested English fishermen wear girly hairnets, banning donkey rides on beaches, and demanding that shrimp being transported across long distances be given breaks and showers. The Brexit genre has always been closer to Monty Python than to straight news.

The old trick of the hyper-exaggeration of political reality does not work when political reality has become a theatre of the absurd

And the one thing that can be said for Tory politicians who have been at the heart of it is that they save us the bother of mockery. They are self-satirising: David Cameron humming a merry little tune to himself as he walked away from the podium after announcing his resignation; Jacob Rees-Mogg lounging on the bench in the House of Commons; Mark Francois tearing up an open letter about probable job losses from the head of Airbus while bloviating about D-Day; Karen Bradley happily confessing, as secretary of state for Northern Ireland, that she did not know that unionists do not vote for nationalists and vice versa; Theresa May croaking through her speech while the letters on the slogan behind her fall off; “Boris being Boris”. You could make it up – but no one would believe you.


So what's the poor satirist to do? Is satire, in this festival of self-parody, redundant? Surprisingly not. But it does require new approaches – the old trick of the hyper-exaggeration of political reality does not work when political reality has become a theatre of the absurd. Two of the funniest books to come out of the whole saga, Led by Donkeys: How Four Friends with a Ladder Took on Brexit (Atlantic Books, 144pp, £10) and I Am the Border, So I Am (HarperCollins, 256pp, £9.99), work because their authors find their own ways to interrupt the performance.

Ben Stewart, James Sadri, Olly Knowles and Will Rose – four English friends in their late 30s and 40s with backgrounds in environmental and human rights activism – hit on the simplest idea of all: if the politicians are providing the material, all you have to do is to amplify it. Satire is usually about blowing things up figuratively, exaggerating a reality so that its absurdity becomes visible. The four mates, calling themselves Led by Donkeys (after the German quip in the first World War that the British troops were lions led by donkeys), saw that the thing to do was to blow things up literally – to take the actual words of the Brexiteers and paste them up on billboards.

The genius of the idea is that it is essentially a visualisation of a common activity: shouting at the telly. “When Michael Gove appears on the news to justify the compromises Theresa May is making in the face of a united European Union negotiating position, one of us might shout at the interviewer, ‘Just ask him if we still hold all the f*cking cards!’ And when Jacob Rees-Mogg or Nigel Farage warns that a People’s Vote would represent an unconscionable affront to democracy, we wonder when someone – anyone – is going to throw back at them their historic support for a second referendum. We wonder why disgraced former Defence Secretary Liam Fox is allowed to get through the first 30 seconds of any interview without being asked to account for his claim that a trade deal with the EU should be the easiest in human history. And we’re utterly perplexed that hard Brexiteer Owen Paterson is never challenged on his previous assertion that ‘only a madman’ would leave the Single Market.”

The Led by Donkeys project – entertainingly recounted in their rambunctious book – is conceptually simple, but the Border is damned complicated and it took a more complex idea to give it a satiric presence. It is a notion that is entirely shaped around the possibilities of Twitter: give the Border its own handle and its own voice. The @borderirish account has accumulated 105,000 followers by creating a persona for a whole terrain – as its profile has it “I am the border between Ireland and Northern Ireland. I’m seamless & frictionless already, thanks.” It is a voice not so much in the wilderness as from the wilderness on the extreme fringes of the Brexiteer’s imaginative universe, where people have the bad grace to want to get on with their lives and history is a living thing.

The key to this anonymous effort is its tone: broadly Flann O’Brien filtered through Kevin McAleer. It could with justice be shrill and angry but it would not work if it was. It is instead comical, whimsical, melancholic, absurd. The Border is a weather-beaten seen-it-all stoical country person, just trying to get on with its job, which is to do as little as possible and remain utterly ambiguous so that one side “can pretend I’m not there and the other can pretend I am, and both can think they’re right.”

The Border talks to Jim, a “mild-mannered kind of Leaver” who blames the Border for messing things up and to Jean who has an ice-cream shop on the southern side and knows about history, to Jean’s wee dog, and to Rupert who is a Brexit negotiator (a sort of a version of Olly Robbins) and tries to convince the Border of the joys of Facilitated Customs Arrangements. But, as the Border sighs, “I’m like the Times simple crossword puzzle, easily solved every day by people who can’t be bothered trying the cryptic one.”

The Border’s book is smart enough to expand on the Twitter formula, just not too much. There are drawings and short yarns and mocked-up diaries and letters. But the core of the book is a reorganised and more structured version of the online entries, forming a very funny, humane and politically astute chronicle of a tragicomic episode. At the end, the Border admits that it all feels like “when your favourite vase is falling from the table and you’re watching it as it gets closer to the floor.” If it is somehow caught before it smashes, history may record that this brilliant act of ventriloquism did in some small way help to break the fall.

Fintan O’Toole is an Irish Times columnist