Clowns have been with us through history. They turn up in Greek drama as sklêro-paiktês – childlike figures.
During the Roman festival of Saturnalia, a clown-king was chosen and all commerce was suspended in favour of a wild cavort. (“Fxxk business.”)
In Norse mythology, the archetype is the figure of Loki – silver-tongued trickster and shape-shifter who turns himself into horse, seal, fly, and fish. (Note the echo of the reference by a close ally of Joe Biden to Johnson as a “shape-shifting creep”.)
In the Italian commedia dell’arte, there is the character of Pierrot. There is Badin in France, Bobo in Spain, Hanswurst in Germany. And here in Britain: Shakespeare’s many famous fools.
We need our clever fools, of course. Too much solemnity is sickly. We need the carnival. We need reminders of our absurdity. The culture should be subverted. The sacred should be disparaged.
Institutions should be derided when they become sclerotic. We live in an age of posturing and zealotry and never needed our satirists and our clowns more.
But the transgressor is licensed precisely because they are not in power. The satirist ridicules the government – fairly, unfairly – and we smile because (ordinarily) they are not in charge of the hospitals, the schools, our livelihoods or the borders.
We laugh and clap at the circus, the theatre and the cinema because we can go home at the end of the evening, confident that the performers are not in charge of the reality in which we must live.
Previously, of course, this was Johnson’s relationship to power. He was the clown-journalist tilting idly at straight bananas, Tony Blair, political correctness gone mad. When he was made mayor of London, he was in effect elevated to quasi-official court jester.
There he was stranded on the zipwire (the buffoon parodies the circus trapeze act) but real power still remained elsewhere.
Even during the referendum campaign, David Cameron and George Osborne were the government … whereas Johnson was continuing to perform the role of fool – holding up a kipper here, draped in sausages there, arriving in town squares with his red circus bus and a farrago of misdirection and fallacy.
He was stoutly devoid of any real idea or concern for what might replace the structures he disparaged.
His humour, his glee, his energy, his campaigning brilliance – it delighted and sparkled because he was free of responsibility, free to be himself, free to throw the biggest custard pies yet dreamed of in the UK.
Vanishingly few people had any serious idea of what was involved in leaving the EU; and resoundingly not Johnson.
But those who simply wanted to leave because their gut instinct told them it was right to do so would have failed and failed miserably without him.
These men and women – the likes of Iain Duncan Smith, David Davis, Steve Baker, Nigel Farage, Mark Francois, John Redwood, Gisela Stuart, Kate Hoey et al – were never more than a dim congregation of rude mechanicals.
And what they required to win was someone who instinctively understood how to conduct a form of protracted public masque.
Someone who could distract, charm, rouse and delight with mischief and inversion and a thousand airy nothings. (The clown was ever the perfect ambassador of meaninglessness.)
But even Puck sends the audience home with an apology and the reassurance that all we have witnessed was but a dream.
We, however, have made our clown a real-world king. And from that moment on, we became a country in which there was only the mock heroic – a “world beating” country that would “strain every sinew” and give “cast-iron guarantees” while bungling its plans and breaking its promises.
A country “ready to take off its Clark Kent spectacles” and act “as the supercharged champion” of X, Y, Z. A country on stilts – pretending that we had a test and trace system that was head and shoulders above the rest of the world.
A country performing U-turns on the teetering unicycle of Johnsonian buffoonery – A-levels, school meals, foreign health workers and more.
A country of tumbling catastrophes. Trampolining absurdities. Go to work. Don’t go to work. A country proroguing parliament illegally here, trying to break international law there. Paying its citizens to “eat out to help out” in the midst of a lethal pandemic.
A country testing its eyesight in lockdown by driving to distant castles with infant and spouse during a travel ban.
A country whose leadership stitched up the NHS in the morning and then clapped for them at night.
A country opening schools for a single day, threatening to sue schools, shutting schools. A country on holiday during its own emergency meetings. A country locking down too late; opening up too early.
A country sending its elderly to die in care homes. A country unwilling to feed its own children. A country spaffing £37bn up the wall one moment and refusing to pay its own nurses a decent salary the next.
A country doing pretend magic tricks with the existence of its own borders – no, there won’t be a border in the sea; oh yes there will; oh no there won’t; it’s behind you …. A country of gimmicks and slapstick and hollow, honking horns.
This is Eastcheap Britain and Falstaff is in charge. It is in the two Henry IV plays that Shakespeare most clearly illuminates the gulf between his great, theatre-filling clown, Falstaff, and the young Prince Hal who will go on to become the archetype of the king – Henry V.
At the mock-court of Falstaff’s tavern, we are invited to laugh and drink more ale, pinch barmaid’s bottoms, dance with dead cats and put bedpans on our heads while Falstaff entertains us with stories of his bravery and heroism that we all know are flagrant lies.
Says Prince Hal to the portly purveyor of falsehoods: “These lies are like their father that begets them, gross as a mountain, open, palpable.” Meanwhile, the realm falls apart.
Since we have no Hal and have crowned the clown instead, the play we are now watching in the UK asks an ever more pressing question: can Falstaff become Henry V and lead his country with true seriousness and purpose?
Or is the vaccine-cloaked transformation now being enacted merely superficial – a shifting of the scenery?
The lies themselves are the problem. The kingly archetype embodies at least the ambition of sincerity, meaning and good purpose at the heart of the state.
Whereas deceit continues to be the default setting on Johnson’s hard drive.
Rory Stewart calls Johnson “the best liar ever to serve as prime minister” but writes that “what makes him unusual in a politician is that his dishonesty has no clear political intent”.
But Stewart does not quite see that Johnson is the purest form of clown there is – “improper by essence” – and that truth and lies are like two sides of the argument to him: equally tedious, equally interesting, equally absurd, both a distant second in their service of tricks, drama, distraction, invention, manipulation.
He will write you two columns, four, 10, 100 – pro-Marmite, anti-Marmite; pro-EU, anti-EU. And then he’ll tell you all about them. All about how he couldn’t decide.
Because not deciding is where all the drama is to be found and who cares about the arguments anyway?
No, what the trickster wants is neither your agreement nor your disagreement. (For he himself agrees and disagrees.)
What the trickster wants most of all … is for you to admire his trickery.
Heinrich Böll, the German Nobel-prize winner and author of the truly great novel The Clown, answers Stewart’s question when he says: “You go too far in order to know how far you can go.”
The difficulty for the clown is that once truth and seriousness have been merrily shattered, they cannot be put back together and served up anew.
Or, to put it another way, the buffoon who has just entertained the audience by smashing all the plates cannot now say that he proposes to use them to serve up a banquet in honour of himself becoming a wise and honest king. Everyone can see: the plates are all in pieces on the floor.
Meanwhile the realm really is still falling apart. Johnson’s predicament could not be more starkly illuminated than by the next existential challenge he faces: to do with the very nature of the union of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
The other home nations have long seen him as a pantomime king and they are certainly not going to believe in any kind of transformation of character – vaccine or no.
After all the centuries of blood and trauma, the Northern Irish are unusually united in feeling that they have been treated like stooges at his circus.
Meanwhile, Scottish nationalists need only plaster their advertising hoardings with Johnson’s picture to swell their ranks with the as-yet-undecided.
For too long, the other nations have witnessed the business of the kingdom being conducted clownishly – by bluster, mishap, side-effects, the unforeseen consequences of the last trick but one.
How, then, can Johnson now present himself as a conscientious envoy of the union?
The ironies thicken here. Johnson is a lackadaisical student of history and he has entirely misunderstood his own destiny.
(His book on Churchill is nothing so much as a plastic clown trumpet masquerading as a bugle.)
Instead of uniting his country, he now finds himself facetiously hastening its breakup. And it is the Conservative and unionist parties that have facilitated him. They licensed their comforting fool and told themselves that he could restore a glorious past.
But a leader who personifies tomfoolery and nostalgia is eloquent about sharpening decline not renaissance.
You send in the clowns when something has gone wrong and you need to distract the audience.
Too late, the Conservatives now see that the same transgressive spirit they empowered has been childishly tearing at the very fabric of the kingdom they wish to conserve.
In this paradoxical way, Johnson’s very essence summons the end of everything Conservatives most revere – everything that began with the Union of the Crowns in 1603 and the Act of Union in 1707.
And, true to his nature, Johnson invites this ending in the slapdash manner of a clown: inadvertently, by accident, as the result of a series of improvisations.
And so, at the last, we come to death. Which even the clown cannot toy with or mock. The figures are stark – 126,000 dead at the time of writing.
In terms of total numbers, the four countries above us have much greater populations – the US, Brazil, Mexico and India.
We have by far the highest death toll in Europe and the fourth highest death rate per million of the population in the world.
There is no serious discussion that does not arrive at the conclusion that the UK has lost tens of thousands of men and women whose death was not inevitable.
Not all of the losses are Johnson’s fault, but many of them are the direct result of his calls and his character.
Research by Imperial College shows that up to 26,800 deaths could have been prevented had the first lockdown come just one week earlier.
Then came the care homes disaster, the premature lifting of the first lockdown, the ignoring of Sage throughout September.
And only a clown would begin the October announcement of a second lockdown with the phrase “good evening and apologies for disturbing your Saturday evening with more news of Covid” when the nation was already stiff with the legions of dead and had been waiting all day to hear from its leader.
The run-up to Christmas was a catastrophe of mismanagement that all-too-inevitably became the January of 30,000 more people dead.
Are we supposed to forget this legacy and “move on”? That is what Johnson is now tacitly suggesting.
Like all storytellers, he knows the public remember endings, less so beginnings and seldom the middle. He did all he can, he says. He knows it’s not true, but that is what he is selling.
In dramatic terms, just as death reveals the life of the kingly archetype as noble and purposeful, so the clown is revealed as foolish and meaningless.
When Hamlet takes hold of Yorick’s skull (another popular clown) in the graveyard, he asks: “Where be your gibes now? Your gambols? Your songs? Your flashes of merriment that were wont to set the table on a roar? Not one now, to mock your own grinning?”
And there’s another moment in Hamlet that’s germane here – the scene where Shakespeare has the prince instruct the visiting actors.
Where Hamlet explicitly warns them about clowns. Warns them not to allow the clowns to distract the audience and make them laugh while important issues are being settled.
Warns them that there are certain clowns who seek to do this merely to remain in the limelight – with no regard for either the meaning of the play, nor the understanding of the audience.
“Let those that play your clowns speak no more than is set down for them,” Hamlet says.
“For there be of them that will themselves laugh, to set on some quantity of barren spectators to laugh too; though, in the meantime, some necessary question of the play be then to be considered: that’s villainous, and shows a most pitiful ambition in the fool that uses it.”
Masks change, not archetypes. The fool still holds the stage. And pitiful ambition is precisely what we are watching.