Last week, as the Westminster press pack frothed over Boris Johnson’s departure details and former colleagues wrung their last anecdotes dry in newspaper columns, an alternative analysis could be found on the poet and comedian Tim Key’s Instagram feed.
As soon as Sajid Javid and Rishi Sunak near-simultaneously resigned on Tuesday night (5 July) Key, who introduced his “Bohnson” creature in the first 2020 lockdown, started to write again. “The PM’s established himself as such a bloody-minded survivor that his capitulation was kind of unbelievable to watch,” he told me recently over email.
Over the next two days Key wrote five poems and published them on social media. In the first, we find Bohnson alone in the Downing Street kitchen, rudderless and hungry.
“There was no one particularly “around”.
He trundled into the larder bit where the treats were kept.
He trundled back, his mouth bursting with fudge.”
As Johnson’s cast of supporters diminished in the real world last week, so too did their counterparts in Key’s poems. Key’s 2020 writing had also included Rishi Perfect, Matt Boytwitch and the Slapettes (Chris Whitty and friends). But here, Bohnson’s final days feature only his remaining stalwarts, Moggeth and Doris N – who couldn’t possibly be our current Minister for Brexit Opportunities or Culture Secretary.
Moggeth appears as a frightening supernatural being, hanging “bat-like next to the curtains” in one poem, and “emitting a thick gel from his dark lips” in another, as he polishes Bohnson’s lectern before the farewell speech. Doris N is framed – unfairly, and as Nadine Dorries is across the media – as a gin-soaked devotee, clinging to Bohnson’s tennis shorts as he clings to office.
The poems are ostensibly short sketches. They follow a template: Bohnson usually begins hopeful and deluded, looking for his cabinet colleagues, and ends morose as he realises they have deserted him. He is often eating a huge bowl of Ricicles. Doris N is always drinking something disgusting (Bulmers on cereal, Strongbow and Amaretto through a straw). She calls him Bohn Bohn Bear. Moggeth simply lurks, secreting fluids.
Despite the unsympathetic protagonists and the grim set-up, there is genuine pathos here. Key has captured Johnson better than anyone because he’s side-stepped the usual tropes (the raffish wit, the mendacity) to reveal something of his core in absurdist imagery. Indeed, Key presents Johnson as rather sad: a cross between Winnie-the-Pooh and a child who wanted to be World King.
Key’s lockdown poems consoled many through some of the darker months of the past two years, as Kate Mossman noted last year. Our uniquely dysfunctional political class is hard to satirise, and the last few years of upheaval in the UK and the US have led some to argue that political comedy is dead, that it’s impossible to caricature figures who are already ludicrous. Key agrees. “If the guy’s hiding in a fridge [as Johnson did in 2019], there’s not much you can do other than say ‘he’s hiding in the fridge’. In scenarios like that it’s sometimes best to back away. Everyone knows it’s mad that he’s hidden in a fridge.”
Key isn’t sure whether he’ll continue to write about Bohnson once he’s wrenched from power, but as the walls closed in on the real Boris Johnson last Thursday, Key – and Doris N – were on hand:
A tear rolled down poor Bohnson’s neck.
“World…King,” but it was so quiet his words stayed in his mouth.
He guffed and managed a grin and Doris N grinned too.
The familiar pong dissipated.
Steadied by the rancorous odour coming from the oven.
A thick, goodbye cake mixed by Doris N’s arm sat in the Zanussi
And once it had congealed in the flames, they would sing.
Tim Key’s “He Used Thought as a Wife” is available through Utter & Press. Tim Key continues to post poems on Instagram.