I’ve stumbled across a long-winded but revealing chunk of lunacy, which I think shines a light on Nigel and why he’s dangerous. It’s a transcript of a speech by Jonathan Bowden, a neo-fascist oddball, ex-Tory and one-time Cultural Secretary for the BNP:
He died a couple of years ago, and thus another repugnant face of Anglo-fascist populism faded into antiquity. Bowden was a Cambridge dropout with a habit of quoting Neitzsche in his speeches to burly, dejected crowds in the back-rooms of failing pubs. He advocated a return to a kind of aristocratic ‘might is right’ morality, which it’s hard to square with the resentful, slighted tone of his fellow nationalists. He reminds me a bit of Yukio Mishima, a novelist who tried to kick off a violent coup in Tokyo in 1970, demanding the return of Samurai social codes and the reinstatement of the emperor. Only 4 people joined him, and he committed hara-kiri during a pathetic siege that lasted less than a day. These men were intelligent, but ridiculous, and therefore reassuring. There are so many miles of sky between their demands and the current state of things that it’s easy to laugh at them from a comfortable distance. But they’re not really funny.
In his speech, Bowden uses his background as an actual Punch & Judy “Professor” to make a few unlikely points about modern politics. You hear the phrase “Punch and Judy politics” spouted out so often it becomes an empty platitude, vaguely signifying the adversarial pantomime of parliamentary debates. You tune it out, like the never-ending bleeping of a broken photocopier, for the sake of your mental health. But in this context “Punch and Judy politics” takes on a different meaning, and I think it highlights a political reality that extends beyond the meeting-rooms of alienated extremists.
The character of Mr Punch came to Britain from Italy, and Bowden argues he soon became a kind of national archetype. He’s violent and amoral, quick to attack hypocrisy and anyone who threatens to curb his autonomy. He outwits priests and policemen alike, convinces the hangman to hang himself, and even kills the Devil. He’s anarchic and unkillable, and any attempt to stop him is doomed to fail. Knock him down and he pops back up again with an earthy cackle.
In this sense, Mr Punch does fit the mould of a certain type of folk hero: the trickster. He exists to subvert the law – any law – as soon as it’s imposed. Trickster figures express a human truth, which is probably why they reoccur in most mythologies. In every human being there’s something wild and ungovernable. Every morning we wake from violent and lustful dreams, and stumble into tiled bathrooms to scrub ourselves and wash away the madness. We fasten our clothes with buttons and zips, but there’s always a naked animal underneath, and it wants to get out.
Perhaps it’s not surprising that children are more attuned to this reality. Not too long ago, they were little more than screaming, greedy, hungry mouths, and they haven’t yet been wholly socialised. The slapstick violence of Mr Punch makes sense to them. The frustration of adults snatching things away from them is fresh, and they enjoy the sight of the trickster attacking the institutional figures that oppress them. Family, medicine, law – anyone who tells them what to do, for their own or the greater good – all these barriers to basic childish freedom get their comeuppance.
But it isn’t just the thrill of revenge that appeals. It’s the basic perception of life that Mr Punch dramatises. Children haven’t learnt to recognise shades of grey, and they haven’t yet been exhausted by all the confusing webs of causation that we use to make sense of the world. People seem to act on primal whims, often erupting in violence. It’s the same absurd and arbitrary picture of the world that animates Edward Lear’s nonsense limericks:
There was an Old Man of Whitehaven,
Who danced a quadrille with a raven;
But they said, ‘It’s absurd
To encourage this bird!’
So they smashed that Old Man of Whitehaven.
Moments of brutality and darkness abound in folk tales and children’s stories, often with a slapstick edge that thrills a child even while it scares them. In a sense, this perception of life is accurate and honest. We tell ourselves that everything happens for a comprehensible reason. Violence is institutionalised and normalised and becomes a kind of dimly buzzing background to our lives. We drown it out. But then there are moments of dissonance. Incriminating slips of the tongue, the times we lose our tempers or stumble on uneven paving-stones, or a cluster of weeds defiantly growing between them. These are the moments when Mr Punch interrupts the self-important droning of the doctor or policeman, and gives them a sudden crack round the head, right when they least expect it.
When Punch eventually kills the Devil, the phrase he shouts is “The Devil is dead! The Devil is dead! And now you’re free to do what you want!” The implication of this is profound: there are no ultimate obligations or rules that have any hold on you. Above and beyond the actual existence of God or the Devil, it’s the realisation that we always have the power to defy authority. Police can tell you not to break the law, but you can still do it. Doctors can tell you not to smoke cigarettes, but you can still kick back with a pint and spark one up. We might end up suffering for these choices, but we still have the power to make them. This is both a liberating and nauseating discovery. Even though we get a vicarious thrill from Punch’s antics, he is grotesque.
Bowden celebrates Punch and Judy shows for the harsh lessons they teach about human nature. Punch is pagan wildness incarnate. And I agree this wildness is part of each of us, at least potentially. The question is what you do with it. Like a regrettable number of otherwise intelligent people casting around for a purpose, Bowden found the answer in nationalism.