The corpse of an old friend is about to be thrown into the waves. You never met that friend. Nobody ever did. He never knew you existed. But for a few weeks he mattered to you, because one day you felt something, and felt it enough to give him a name: Boaty McBoatface.
It won’t be a totally unceremonious funeral. There will be a certain lifeless maritime dignity to it, as the cadaver is sent on its way by a well-dressed dignitary smashing a champagne bottle into the steely backside of his remains. Whichever weak-chinned skeleton they pick for the ceremony will declare “I name this ship Tory McSourface” in the reedy, nasal way of someone who isn’t used to projecting their voice in a strong coastal breeze. They’ll try to make up for it when they add “may God bless her and all who sail in her”, but the deeper voice they try to affect doesn’t really convince anyone, and so they’ll clap and cheer to smother the awkwardness.
This little coup is all about the pride of a nation
“Still,” they’ll tell each other cheerfully as you numbly watch the stolen carrion cleave through the waves to begin its Important Research Expedition, “at least we dodged the branding nightmare of that ghastly joke name those bloody people suggested!” Their laughter is more bitter than the saltiest spray across the bow, but they feel temporarily calmed because at least they are laughing, because they got away with their theft, and you, you infantile peasant, your silly little joke doesn’t get to sully the history books of this proud island nation.
Because that’s what this little coup is all about, isn’t it? The pride of a nation. Just who are the British? We are sailors! We are audacious! But most importantly, we are sober and rational. Our dignity is famed the world over, with its stiff upper lip and mystique of icy sarcasm. The British may laugh and the British may weep, but it must be done so in silence, behind a handkerchief, because our national character is a global brand, and every brand contains value.
But the British are also thieves. Almost everything we guard so jealously in this pathetic shell of a crumbled empire has been filched from some other poor bastard. From India we strongarmed the finest jewels and claimed that they were a gift, and dared to call our mild and sweetened interpretation of curry a ‘national dish’. From Africa we stole entire people, and had the great philosophers of our liberalism somehow reason that they deserve their enslavement. From America we stole a beloved continent and filled it with the gouty, snot-nosed rejects of our homeland so that they could make their own empire of vapid despair once we were too shagged out to keep it up ourselves. The strong credit rating which afforded us the debt to fund our beloved National Health Service was the result of four centuries of flat out thievery, solidified in bank notes.
Carrying out a funeral for the military officer who never even existed? What utility does that serve? Only nationalism
Meanwhile from our own battered and bruised working class we steal corpses. Boaty McBoatface is far from the first you’ve had torn away from you because the nation claimed to need it. Our police officers were caught stealing the birth certificates of long-dead children and giving their names to undercover cops, who would infiltrate activist groups for years at a time and even have children with them before suddenly vanishing, their identity discarded once they’d gathered the information they need. The borrowed names had enough impact on real lives to literally make new people, who were also cast aside as so much rubbish when the state was done violating their mum.
And the most celebrated work of military espionage in our history is Operation Mincemeat. During the Second World War the Royal Navy lifted from a hospital bed in London the body of a homeless Welshman, Glyndwr Michael, who had ingested rat poison two days earlier, either from committing suicide in despair at his isolation and poverty or, as one theory posits, from picking up breadcrumbs that had been laced with poison to kill vermin. The Navy needed a dead body to float gently toward the coast of Spain, dressed as the invented Major William Martin and carrying fake top secret documents that suggested the Allies planned to invade Greece and Sardinia, when in fact they were headed for Sicily. The plan worked, the fake documents were picked up and believed, and the Germans moved their forces out of the targeted area.
Michael’s death is remembered well because it saved thousands of lives, but also because when they dropped his body into the Atlantic about a mile off the coast of Huelva, they performed a full military funeral – for Major William Martin. The British loved pinching Glyndwr Michael’s bloated remains so much they even made a film about it, celebrating the patriotic utility in Michael’s death that he never had in life, the useless bastard. You grew up watching your father shudder with feeling in front of the telly as Michael’s remains were shoved off a boat and prayers were mumbled, except really you knew, deep down, that the feelings were reserved mostly for Major William Martin, who never even existed.
Ringwraiths and Dementors are not simply dreariness embodied, they are the agents of a structure of villainy that is oppressively boring
That thousands of lives were saved is helpful for this mythology because it helps feed our deference to that great British value, utility. But in truth we only pretend utility; the mysticism of Glyndwr Michael’s erasure is far more ancient and disturbing. Using some otherwise unwanted flesh in that way was necessary if macabre, but carrying out a funeral for the military officer who never even existed? What utility does that serve? Only nationalism. Glyndwr didn’t die for his country, he died from depression. The country just nicked his rotting flesh after the fact and felt the need to desecrate him further by having a nice cry over the poignant fiction of his ‘sacrifice’. Boaty didn’t die because scientists can’t do their job on a ship called Boaty McBoatface, he died merely because some stuck-up tosser said they can’t, which is not the same thing at all.
Cultures speak and are felt though the fictions that they create, and so the most horrifying ghouls of our mythology reoccur in our storytelling. Tolkien’s Ringwraiths didn’t just hunt hobbits and stab people, they were primarily deceivers, offering meaningless power and riches to tempt the weak into serving the forces of darkness. Strikingly similar were Rowling’s awfully functional Dementors, which don’t just suck all the hope out of someone and make them hallucinate their greatest fear, they are also government employees whose job is to enforce good behavior in Azkaban Prison. And the Ringwraiths were satirized by Terry Pratchett in the form of the Auditors, literally spectral bureaucrats of the Universe, ‘as Old as Time’, who arrange the assassination of the Discworld’s version of Santa because they despise the dreams of children. In each fictional world, these vile fantasy creatures are not simply dreariness embodied, they are specifically the agents of a structure of villainy that is oppressively boring.
It is no coincidence that all these demons are the product of British authors.
All our stories scream to us the miserable truth that the British are taught to hate children
I don’t mean to say that we’re especially imaginative. We’re not, otherwise our fantasy monsters wouldn’t all look the same. The disgust that we pour into these creatures is in each case the simulacrum of a long-held and unresolved loathing for our rulers. They don’t just organize the world in a way that harms people, they do so in a way that demands you grab your inner child by the hair and beat it into perpetual, miserable silence. Britain’s neurotic upper class have been shoving Matilda into the chokey for centuries.
And that’s why they killed Boaty McBoatface. They hate fun, really hate it, especially when that fun leaves them feeling embarrassed, and especially when that embarrassment is because the joke in question is perceived to be childish. All our stories scream to us the miserable truth that the British are taught to hate children, because our global reputation depends on us being seen as stern. Even the way people defended poor Boaty was dreary and ashamed: look at how the Guardian’s Stuart Heritage could only manage Voltaire’s defence, saying that you had the right to name your short-lived friend Boaty McBoatface but that it was “a bad idea, voted for by idiots”. The paranoid view of our learned self-hatred is that it’s simply not British to be an idiot.
But you are not an idiot, and Boaty is not the product of idiocy, and Britishness is more complicated than just being a terminally repressed authoritarian. We have these valves, eruptions of emotion that can’t not exist, and our little bouts of genuine feeling are the enemy of our quasi-medieval masters. It recurs in our storytelling all the time, in our popular culture. If the Tories are Dementors, then Boaty was a Patronus. If they are Ringwraiths, then Boaty was Samwise Gamgee. If Boaty McBoatface is the creation of idiots, then Britishness must mean being an idiot, because we have been telling this joke for a long, long time.
A culture copies itself as it morphs, refers to itself as it twists and distorts, endlessly in motion
Alright, so the joke itself isn’t inherently funny, but no joke inherently is. No arrangement of words means anything by itself. Something becomes meaningful because it is collectively considered to have a relation to something else, and humor is a subversion of collective meaning. That’s why Boaty McBoatface is now being honored in silly jokes elsewhere, with a serious BBC news anchor signing off with ‘Newsy McNewsnight’, and someone naming a racing steed ‘Horsey McHorseface’ – because a culture copies itself as it morphs, refers to itself as it twists and distorts, endlessly in motion, both the birthplace and the graveyard of its eternal mutations.
Look closely at this tedious defence of the government’s decision by some business-evangelizing wanker called Chris Hirst, who emphasized that the new research vessel will “cast off with the Union Jack flying, and with our global reputation for excellence to protect.” He doesn’t just try to evoke sensible behavior or nationalist sentiment, he justifies ignoring the vote on the grounds that “we expect and frequently need our leaders to make decisions – often, unpalatable ones – unapologetically and with confidence. We expect and need those decisions to be made unilaterally and without going to a committee. That’s what we pay them for. It’s what we elect them for.”
But of course the oppressive beauty of British democracy is that we’re not meant to choose our choices. The current Tory government got a parliamentary majority in last year’s election with 24% of eligible votes thanks to the stupid intricacies of our dated and undemocratic First Past the Post system. The path to becoming a parliamentary candidate in the first place is widely considered to be one of privilege, and the way a government organizes its priorities is widely considered to be determined by its biggest donors. The media treatment a political party receives will depend on which news magnates it sucks up to. That Chris thinks we actually chose any of the leaders in this multitude of processes tells us exactly where he stands in the struggle between imagination and despair.
We like to stick it to the uppity wanker who needs to be put in their place, it’s who we are
Remember how, during Miliband’s tenure, the Blairites tried to turn the Labour party into a permanent fortress for business interests by cutting out trade union funding? It was seen as a major victory, turning the Labour Party’s leadership election process into an open primary that would crush the Left of the party, until last year it backfired spectacularly when hundreds of thousands of ordinary people joined the party en masse to vote for Jeremy Corbyn. They, too, were called hijackers, wastrels, people who didn’t really care or were just trying to disrupt the process and then bugger off, even though seven months later they remain some of the most vigorous and invigorated party members Labour has enjoyed in decades. And just like Boaty’s supporters, they are roundly despised by the same powers that schemed to manipulate their electoral appetite in the first place. The Blairites still genuinely believe they have no reason to be hated, much like Professor Umbridge.
There’s a cultural personhood somewhere in all this democratic humiliation of conniving bastards, a national character that is the better half of Britishness. We like to stick it to the uppity wanker who needs to be put in their place. It’s who we are. Look at the way the British people decided in 2009 that they were tired of doing what Simon Cowell told them, and everyone en masse bought Rage Against The Machine’s Killing In The Name Of just in time to make it the official Christmas number one single, bumping Cowell’s X Factor winner into second place and earning from him a very satisfying public tantrum. The second time Britain tried this it was a more controversial: when Thatcher died, workers still seething at the communities she had smashed got together to buy Ding Dong! The Witch Is Dead, which hit number two in the charts and so had to be played on the radio – so the BBC, being never any better than a half-arsed little container of fun, played a whole five seconds of the song and then cut it short, for more or less the same sacrificial purpose as Boaty.
Music has been at the heart of our rebellion of silliness. The youthful weirdness of British rock and roll was a reaction against a stuffy older generation that was just begging for a good hard kick in the bollocks. The repression those kids were trying to understand was brought to the surface when Pink Floyd sang that “hanging on in quiet desperation is the English way”. David Bowie’s brazen playing with gender was received by a generation of teenagers who were ready to see something outrageously different to the sexless misery their parents preached. When Pete Townshend penned the bizarre tale behind The Who’s hugely successful ‘Tommy’ album, the deaf, dumb and blind kid he created was a lightning rod for a youth that were tired of being told to shut the fuck up about everything. ‘You didn’t see it’, they sang, half to a fictional child witnessing a murder, and half to a nation growing up in cities smashed to bits by Luftwaffe bombs but not allowed to talk about the resultant trauma. The later emergence of punk in this context shouldn’t need explaining.
The British Empire was a naval empire, so of course a maritime ritual would be the one they’d be most keen to protect
And that goes for our satire, too. Boaty McBoatface might have been a crap joke to start with, but he gained fame precisely because in Britain crap jokes annoy the serious. We forget it now, but Monty Python told a lot of crap jokes. What’s so funny about banging two halves of a coconut together to make the sound of horses’ hooves? What’s so funny about Biggus Dickus? You know what makes it funny, and you don’t need to explain it to anyone. Come and see the violence inherent in the system! Help, help, I’m being repressed!
Since it sat so squarely in this rich vein of having Britain’s ancient and noble institutions mocked, murder was their only solution. Murder Boaty McBoatface and tell everyone who ever loved him that they’re stupid and shouldn’t be allowed to make any decisions. Then they can simply slap another coat of paint on and push him out to sea with the deathly bright letters of its ghastly new name glinting in an annoying beam of mocking sunlight, without anyone making too much of a fuss. The British Empire was a naval empire, so of course a maritime ritual would be the one they’d be most keen to protect, because by their hideous calculation Britain is still a serious power and should continue to be ruled by serious people.
But there is the Britain too that stares out over the briny depths and knows that the Empire is dead, and is glad of that death. There’s that Britain which is finally relaxing, looking around at all its former glory going to shit and struggling to stifle a giggle. The Britain which has stopped stuffing its face with stolen wealth, desperate not to feel so empty, but which simply looks out on the grey waves that bore its evil abroad for so long, and fills its moment of peace with laughter for an innocent ship named Boaty McBoatface.
Image: Martin Mutch