As though he were a Mogul or Ottoman potentate, the Prime Minister kept a menagerie of Jamodars, Moorish and Oriental officials he had elevated to high degree. To him that cried: “Fie! Thou lovest not the poor Baboo or Negroe!”, Mr Johnson would say, “Behold my splendid Jamodars, and eat thy words!” The most ornamental of these was Kwarteng, a strapping Moor, that had been tamed by Provost Anderson at Eton College, and spake Latin and Greek. Next came Zahawi of Baghdad, that knew Chymick and was formerly kept in Lord Archer’s retinue. The Mob marveled at Sunak, an Oriental Croesus who, though wreathed in smiles, and possessing coffers o’erflowing with the treasures of Ind, pluck’t pence from the poor man’s purse at his Master’s bidding. Next came Javid, feared by the sick and halt, for he would force them to pay for Physick, formerly gratis, and have them throw themselves on the mercy of their kinsmen. Most feared of all was Patel, a Kali to her devoted, for like that terrifick Hindoo Deity, she fashion’d pretty necklaces from the Skulls of her adversaries. This menagerie of Jamodars formed a bastion for the cunning Prime Minister, for he knew that in a final reckoning, if the Mob were to storm Durbar Court in Whitehall, it would likely practise retribution upon his Dusky Jamodars, not upon him. Such as were not cut down by Saxon yeoman with stones and staves would face a faction of their own kind, beturbaned Dervishes and Thuggees, armed with scimitars and garrottes, learnèd in the infliction of a thousand-and-one agonising methods of despatch. Meanwhile the Principal Miscreant might slip away disguis’d, to cower in the precincts of White’s club, while fire and destruction reigned in the thoroughfares without.
Dominic Cummings made a good impression while giving his damning testimony on how Johnson and his team mishandled the pandemic. One wonders what he’ll do next. He must be cursing himself for having hitched himself to this disgraceful assembly of chancers and incompetents. Cummings has always struck me as a kind of academic manqué – indeed his stint at Downing Street was somewhat like a high-minded young schoolmaster being appointed deputy head of some nightmare minor public school. He arrives genuinely thinking he can make a difference, but soon finds himself out on his ear, while the self-congratulatory common room goes about its seedy life as usual. One could see Cummings being quite effective – and fulfilled – in an Oxbridge scenario, say a tenure at some delightfully spooky spy-nursery establishment like St Antony’s, Oxford. That way he could continue to wield some influence in the corridors of power but simultaneously write something worthwhile about Dostoevsky, or Bismarck. I started off not liking him at all, but now I wish him well. He’s done our country a great service – perhaps not quite in the way he might have wished, but a great service nonetheless.
I never really saw the point of Brexit, hard as I tried. Our position in Europe was, for me, a classic case of having one’s cake and eating it. Despite the greatly exaggerated bureaucratic and legislative tyrannies of Brussels, we always maintained a more than sufficient measure of national identity. We have the Queen, the Changing of the Guard, Lord Lieutenants in every county, our own coinage, cheddar cheese, vindaloo curry, Simon Cowell, Banksy, the Kennel Club, the Church of England and William Shakespeare. And if these blessings ever seemed insufficient, we had an exotic continental mistress in the person of Europe, always there with a ready embrace – and a comparatively low-maintenance one at that, if we consider the benefits and uplift she conferred. Whether you were a holidaying ruffian, hell-bent on beer-fueled pillage on the Costa Blanca, or a limp-wristed Hampstead liberal, randy for the rococo delights of Vierzehnheiligen, ‘Welcome!’ was always writ large on the doormat of Europe. However, 17.4 million Britons – a formidable think-tank of foreign affairs specialists, historians and economists – voted us out of the EU. The people were of one mind (if that). So here we are, with Boris at the helm – and here he is (a few years ago now) delivering a bravura recitation, in the original Greek, of the opening passage of The Iliad:
It was an excellent dramatic performance as well as being an impressive feat of memory, though Johnson had forgotten line 8, Τίς τ’ ἄρ σφωε θεῶν ἔριδι ξυνέηκε μάχεσθαι – who of the gods brought these two together to fight? It is a line he may well have momentarily recalled during his contest with Jeremy Corbyn, thanking the gods for having sent him such a pushover of an opponent. It is easy to see how Johnson won the hearts and minds of the people. The unimpeachable Corbyn, despite his many virtues, came across as the kind of dusty, vaguely Marxist lecturer one might expect to find on one of Britain’s more lacklustre campuses. Johnson, the affable and polished Old Etonian, appeared in triumphant contrast. His to-hell-with-it patrician persona was as appealing to the masses as it was to the gaggle of upstarts and wannabes who populate the Conservative Party. Charm and humour – his strongest suits and Corbyn’s weakest – go a long way in Britain. And now, Brexit done and dusted, he has to deal with Covid-19. I should think that when he was ill with the virus, he might well have called to mind a few of the lines he recited on ABC that happy day in 2013. This is Alexander Pope’s translation:
Declare, O Muse! in what ill-fated hour
Sprung the fierce strife, from what offended power
Latona’s son a dire contagion spread,
And heap’d the camp with mountains of the dead.
It will be interesting to see what happens next. Given Johnson’s classical background, his enemies might be tempted to consider hubris as the possible cause of his eventual downfall, if or when it happens – the overweaning pride and ambition that leads to the hero’s destruction in Greek tragedy. On balance, looking at Covid-19, I think his inbuilt banana skin will prove not to be hubris, but more likely akidía (general carelessness) or aphulaxia (carelessness in the sense of failure to be on guard or watchful, a concept that crops up in Xenophon and other earnest authorities, when they address matters of governance and responsibility). Johnson is not a character out of Greek tragedy. If anything, one could more readily imagine him in an Aristophanic comic setting. For me, his genial public appearances always call to mind the late and tipsy arrival of Alcibiades in Plato’s Symposium, livening up what had become a rather over-intense intellectual dinner party. And the Prime Minister will certainly recall the fate of Alcibiades, whose carelessness at the battle of Notium cost him his career.