On fantasy island

Johann Hari reviews "Littlejohn's Britain".

Littlejohn's Britain
Richard Littlejohn
Hutchinson, 320pp, £12.99

Let's be open-minded. Let's be ready to laugh. According to the press release accompanying this cut-and-pasting of Richard Littlejohn's recent rants in the Sun and Daily Mail, he is a descendant of James Gillray, Daniel Defoe and the great English satirists, "the real, talented deal".

People who have only ever heard him on the radio, where his satire consists of witticisms such as calling for gay rights activists to be killed with flame-throwers (which drew a rare reprimand from the Radio Authority, now part of Ofcom), may be perplexed by this description.

But I carefully sewed up my sides, opened the book, and found Littlejohn's first gag. He told a pre-power Tony Blair, when asked for political advice, that he should "take on Liverpool". He should "put tanks on the East Lancs Road, submarines in the River Mersey and then surround the place with barbed wire. Then you send in the bombers and turn the place into a car park. When the dust settles, you invite the Hong Kong Chinese to take over. Job done."

Cherie Blair - a Liverpudlian - found this tedious and walked off, thus giving birth to Littlejohn's barrage of "satire" against her. He dubbed her "the Wicked Witch" with "saddlebag hips", "legs like Popeye's trousers" and "fat ankles".

I tried. I tried really hard to find the satire. I pored over every page. There are, after all, far right-wingers who are capable of being funny: Ann Coulter; Kelvin MacKenzie; even Jean-Marie Le Pen can raise a chuckle as he calls for monstrosities. But as you browse through this random collection, the stale air is almost choking. Littlejohn is dependent on the same catchphrases he created 20 years ago ("You couldn't make it up!" "Mind how you go!").

Here's a typical example of his comedy. He imagines Kimberly Quinn - David Blunkett's former lover - singing: "I haven't slept all night/I haven't slept all night/I don't know what to do./ I know I'm looking rough,/That's cos I'm up the duff./The baby's father's you." His observations about politicians (for example, saying that Gordon Brown has a "kiddie-fiddler grin") aren't satire; they are primary school playground abuse.

There is, however, a core to Littlejohn's humour, to which he returns on almost every page: homosexuality. He obsessively talks about cottaging, lubricants, 69ers - every tiny detail of gay sex is smeared across the pages. He quotes long exchanges from Gaydar involving the MP Chris Bryant ("I could do with a good f***"), and says Peter Mandelson lives on "the Rue Des Jeunes Hommes" (because gays like young boys - geddit?). I think about gay sex much less than Richard Littlejohn - and I am gay.

Every problem circles back to sodomy in his mind, as he panics: "Soon we'll have gay men going door to door, like Jehovah's Witnesses, trying to convince us to convert." This isn't bigotry. It's a psychiatric disorder. Yet he claims that "the fascist left" are "smearing" him as a bigot. His technique is to make an unambiguously bigoted statement, and then say it has "nothing to do" with bigotry. For instance, he says that in Britain, under "the Blair Terror", "Entire neighbourhoods have been ethnically cleansed - and it's the English who are getting out of town." Then he says - without missing a beat - "But as I keep stressing, this is not about race." I see . . . it's "ethnic cleansing", but it's "not about race". Perhaps somebody should send Littlejohn a dictionary.

If Littlejohn's work has little value as satire, how does it stand up as political commentary? Its main flaw is that he has a worrying tendency to get his facts wrong. To give just one example (I could fill an entire issue of the NS with them), he declares that asylum-seekers get cash benefits "starting at £180 a week". In reality, when the article containing this claim was written, in 2000, asylum-seekers received cash benefits of nothing as they were all given in vouchers. Today they receive £43, less than a quarter of the sum Littlejohn invented.

His arguments crumble even before the sentences end. He claims that two million people leave Britain every year because they are appalled by "mass immigration". So people are so appalled at being forced to live among foreigners that they are . . . going to live among foreigners.

Littlejohn's Britain doesn't exist. Literally. He spends much of the year writing from a gated mansion in Florida, and admitted in a recent column that, when he is in Britain, he rarely leaves the house. He is describing a country he sees only through the pages of the right-wing press and his self-reinforcing mailbag. The cumulative effect of poring through more than 300 pages of this isn't to make the reader feel angry, or indignant, or offended. It is to feel pity for a sad, lonely little man, howling at a world that exists only in his own pornographic imagination. You couldn't make it up? Richard Littlejohn does - every time he writes.

This article first appeared in the 21 May 2007 issue of the New Statesman, New Leader, New Danger