Stop Bloody Bossing Me About
by Quentin Letts. Constable. £16.99
I surmise that the kind of person who picks up this book of satirical sketches will already be in sympathy with its title; they include those people around the world – but especially in the UK where I live – who have cordially disliked the encroachments made on our ancient freedoms by governments, with the excuse that the pandemic has made them necessary.
The masks, hand-sanitising, distancing and rigid curtailment of numbers at weddings and funerals during this past year have whetted the author’s appetite for ridicule, already well developed in his career as a political sketch writer and journalist for The Times.
In his introduction, Quentin Letts quotes the art historian Kenneth Clark in his famous television series, Civilisation: “Civilisation is actually quite fragile. It can be destroyed. What are its enemies? Fear – fear of war, fear of invasion, fear of plague or famine, that make it simply not worthwhile constructing things…” Indeed.
This “fear” has been deployed on all these counts in 2020-2021: many people, suggestive to government broadcasts and the mass media, have feared an invasion of a foreign virus, feared a swift and terrifying death and (at the start) feared running out of essential goods. As Letts shows in his opening chapter, “Fear Factor”, official bossiness has been given enormous impetus by recent circumstances, leading to social disapproval of any seemingly independent behaviour and a rush to judgement of those who, perhaps for good reasons, are not seen to be toeing the official line.
But Letts’s attack on the official mind is wider and goes back earlier than the pandemic. In a series of short chapters, often followed by a box of extra information and its accompanying authorial derision, he laughs at and lambasts the way our society has slowly become ever more conformist, risk-averse and denunciatory of those who dare to challenge the latest “woke” campaign.
His serious intent, to ridicule the pompous beadledom that constantly hectors and harries ordinary citizens, is disguised under a jaunty tone and jokey style.
Reading him one has the occasional impression that he has written off the cuff and scribbled down his ideas on the back of a restaurant bill. But there is also genuine exasperation. Letts, a member of the Church of England, whose wife plays the organ at Anglican services and who himself served on his local parochial church council for many years, finally quit after being ordered to attend a morning-long course on “safeguarding” (child protection) where the average age of the attendees was over seventy, and realising that he would not be allowed to enter his ancient village church for private prayer before a lengthy, complicated and unnecessary “schedule of work and cleaning” had been accomplished.
As with many cultured Anglicans, one has the impression that Letts’s faith has more to do with being part of a civilised village community, one that enjoys the cadences of Cranmer’s Bible and listening to venerable Christian hymns, than with dogma or liturgy. Indeed, I have an atheist friend who has moved to a hamlet in rural Herefordshire (the same county that Letts lives in), who is keen to help look after his own old Anglican church.
Yet such activities are part of a wide, old, one-time civilised way of living that, in Letts’s view, officialdom is determined to destroy.
The author does not hide his contempt when describing his particular hate-objects: Nicola Sturgeon, the Scottish leader, is called “a peppery wee shriveller”; John Bercow, the highly unpopular former Speaker of the House of Commons, is called a “strutting bantam” (and that is the kindest phrase of several used about him); Sir David Attenborough and the former President, Barack Obama, who once met at the White House to discuss “the future of the planet”, are dismissed as “Two immortals on Olympus pondering mankind’s destiny”.
He is similarly scathing about the young Swedish campaigner, Greta Thunberg, though his attack is more against those who have been manipulating her for their own purposes than on a clearly vulnerable young woman.
Letts’s core theme is that “Interference and oppression and executive high-handedness – in short, bossiness – is how you establish a name for yourself.”
He gives many examples of the inflated salaries that these bosses enjoy, generally at the expense of humbler personnel lower down who do the real work on very modest incomes. Generally, I agree with the targets of his mockery – but there is one chapter where I demur. Titled “Hairy Mary”, he ridicules Mrs Mary Whitehouse for her obvious flaws in the eyes of the media: her schoolmistress manner, her style of dress, her occasional condemnation of a film or show she had not seen. Letts calls her “a genuine threat to free speech.”
But Mrs Mary Whitehouse, an ordinary housewife and teacher, who founded the National Viewers and Listeners Association in 1965 as a pressure group to preserve or bring back moral standards in the media, had a genuine cause and showed great courage and persistence in fighting for it, despite the attacks she received from the press. Prompted by her Christian faith and appalled at what was happening (this was the “swinging 60s” after all), she drew attention to the erosion of standards, the acceptance of immorality and bad language, especially on television. Many ordinary people, with strong views but no voice, agreed with her.
Decades later, well-known journalists have been known to admit their grudging admiration for her – even as they deplore the moral anarchy that we now live in. Whitehouse’s battle was a lost cause, even at the time she was fighting it. There are no commonly accepted standards anymore. Everything has become relative.
Laugh as Letts might at the ineffable stupidity of official jargon or the ridiculous rules that hem us in and as we readers laugh alongside him, western civilisation – as the art historian Kenneth Clark understood it, through the artworks he so eloquently described– has been proved to have been too fragile to survive.