By the time you are reading this column, parliament should be in recess and everyone should be enjoying a welcome break from the B-word. Brexit. Boris. Bloody-Rees-Mogg. Take your pick, as they will no doubt say at the next leadership contest. But it is possible that everything has not calmed down but has instead kicked off again. Since I filed this piece the Prime Minister may well have resigned or called a general election or decided to appoint Jeremy Corbyn as secretary of state for the department for exiting the EU. Perhaps I am exaggerating but the speed of current events recently has made it very difficult for those of us who are trying to produce topical magazines to keep pace.
Private Eye has a fortnightly cycle, which is usually an ideal period for allowing a little time to digest and analyse important events, and then come up with a few suitable jokes about turds. However, the last issue of the magazine went to press on Monday 9 July. On Sunday 8 July, at around midnight, David Davis decided to resign. This meant that quite a lot of the magazine had to be rewritten on the Monday morning, but we were grateful to the former Brexit secretary for at least giving us a few hours to catch up.
Game, set and match
In the afternoon, just as I was about to push the button and send the magazine off to the printers, Boris Johnson decided that he was going to resign as well. I received this news about the former foreign secretary from a top-level source – the teenager doing work experience in the office who saw it online and thought I might be interested. So we had to rewrite everything once again, including the highly polished turd jokes, and then just sit around hoping that nothing else would change overnight.
I was feeling a little exhausted by all this when I suddenly realised that we have now reached a point where it is not just journalists who have no idea what is happening in government. No one in government has any idea either, including Theresa May. When I saw her in the royal box at Wimbledon on the following Sunday I could not help thinking how tense and distracted she looked. She was presumably dying to check her phone to see whether she was still Prime Minister.
The past is much easier to get your head around. Rehearsals are under way at the Watermill Theatre in Newbury, Berkshire, for a new play I have co-written with Nick Newman about current events… in 1817. Perhaps a 200-year cycle is now the way forward for topical news.
The play is called Trial by Laughter and is a courtroom drama based on the true but largely forgotten story of the prosecution of the bookseller and pamphleteer William Hone for blasphemous libel. Hone was a vociferous critic of the prince regent and the government of the day, and along with his friend, the cartoonist George Cruikshank, made a great deal of excellent jokes at their expense. The authorities were determined to shut him up. The method they decided to employ was not just to get Hone for libel but to go for a charge of blasphemy as well.
Hone defended himself in court and afterwards wrote an account of the proceedings in which, rather like Oscar Wilde in his account of his own famous trial, the author comes across as remarkably brilliant and eloquent. But Hone was brave and funny and his tactic of making the jury laugh – and by extension making the thousands who came to stand outside the Guildhall laugh too – was extraordinary.
The trial was a defining moment for freedom of the press in this country. Even if it all seems a long time ago and it feels as if these battles have been won in Britain, it is still worth being grateful (and vigilant) about this legacy. And it is also worth remembering that the policy of prosecuting your critics for blasphemy when you really want to stop them criticising your politics is still being used enthusiastically by repressive governments all around the world. Not so many jokes there, sadly.
I am going even further back in history on another project and curating an exhibition at the British Museum about the evidence of dissent in their collection. It is called “I Object” (you see what I have done there?) and with some objects the news cycle between their first appearance and this reconsideration is a couple of thousand years. This works perfectly.
The oldest exhibit is an Assyrian brick defaced by the maker. All these bricks had to have the king’s name on them but one brick-maker decided that over the top of the official stamp of Nebuchadnezzar he would scrawl his own name, Zabina. He then put the brick into a wall and thought that his small act of defiance would never see the light of day. But now, thousands of years later, the wall has fallen down and the brick has ended up in the British Museum.
I find this very cheering. It is a case of “Look upon my work you not-very-mighty and take heart!” The same is true of a rude drawing on a shard of Egyptian pottery that was made by one of the craftsmen working on the tombs in the Valley of the Kings. It was thrown on to a rubbish tip, lay there for centuries and was then discovered at the same time as Tutankhamun’s tomb. (Perhaps understandably it didn’t get similar public attention.) But now it is on display for the first time and the museum’s proper curators have produced an extraordinary historical and geographical range of objects.
The exhibition ends with a yellow umbrella from the democracy protesters in Hong Kong and a pussy hat from the original women’s march against Donald Trump. Talking of which, is this object still topical enough? Is Trump still president? Has he been impeached yet? Or arrested? Or denounced himself? Or appointed Vladimir Putin to the Supreme Court? It is really difficult to keep up nowadays.
Ian Hislop is the editor of Private Eye
This article appears in the 22 Jul 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Summer special