Say, heaving Muse, what catalogue of restraints
And luckless lockdowns fell upon th’unwilling world
Accompanied by pain and stifled shouts of family grief
Till the world’s wisest company of brethren
In stately halls and candelabra’d chambers flush
At their desks with freshest data
Brought an end to that wailing noise
And comfort to those begging for release.
So begins Armando Iannucci’s mock-epic poem about the pandemic. This book deserves to be read as a companion piece – or perhaps antidote – to Hancock’s Pandemic Diaries. Iannucci has by this stage of his career earned our attention no matter what he does.
It might be noted that his satire has always touched on people in jobs when they have no real business being there. From Alan Partridge’s ludicrous claims to television stardom, to the spads who stalk the corridors of Whitehall in The Thick of It and In the Loop, he has always specialised in showing up people who have an unwarranted sense of belonging in roles to which they aren’t suited. The joke about Partridge isn’t just that he’s a bad television presenter; it’s that there’s not decent reason for him to be on television at all. Likewise, Malcom Tucker is a bully in Whitehall, but he would be a bully in a law firm too: his moral being infects everyone around him: he has no business being anywhere near the decision-making process.
One might say of Iannucci what Hazlitt said of Shakespeare: that in one sense he is no moralist, but that in another sense he is one of the greatest of moralists. He will show you the most disgusting and corrupt people out there – but by showing them to you he’ll convert that disgust to laughter and a better world. Iannucci is one of the most important civilising forces in our world today.
My sense is that Pandemonium is destined to be a minor work however. You can see from the passage quoted above that while Iannucci is a student of Milton – and throughout this poem shows himself to be familiar with Alexander Pope’s Dunciad – that mock poetry simply isn’t as effective a tool as television as a means of satire.
This is because the form itself (the poetry) is a distraction from the subject matter (the pandemic). With good television, of course, we hardly consider the medium at all, which is its strength. In Pandemonium, the matter would be helped if the lines were in an even meter but the first line beginning ‘Say, heaving Muse’ is a very ugly alexandrine leading to a tetrameter in line six with ‘At their desks with freshest data’. This last line also happens to be the strongest line in the passage, making me think that a rhyming tetrameter would have been a better choice of form. Coincidentally, this was the meter used by Pushkin in Eugene Onegin – the last poem to really pull this sort of thing off.
Having said that, over time you get used to Iannucci’s verse and there is a lot to enjoy about the book once you do. We meet a cast of characters every bit as unfit for their role in the political firmament as the cast of The Thick of It. We meet Boris Johnson as ‘Orbis Rex’ (or ‘World King’) – with the poet pointing out that Orbis also happened to be an anagram of ‘Boris’.
Say how this hero Boris, seeming felled
By the evil mite, coughed back up
His gleaming soul renewed and rode out to fight
Sadness with mirth…
The idea of Boris Johnson as an immortal being is quite funny – but perhaps only quite. Its limitations come from the fact that the trope comes from ancient poetry and that the joke – like many of the jokes in the book – lack the immediacy of television and so can’t really make us laugh in the same way.
Compare, for instance, the immortal episode of The Thick of It, about the enquiry into the death of Mr. Tickel. There, at every point, the minutiae of language serves to show the idiocy of many of the characters who made up Blairite Westminster. Then compare it with the scene here where Matt Hancock goes to meet the Circle of Friends, Iannucci’s vivid monster which is intended to mock the class of party donors about whom we heard a lot in relation to PPE and other aspects of policy-making during the pandemic:
So these Friends coagulated around themselves,
Each one bait for another, bait upon bait,
Knowing one another and each one known,
Till they knew themselves inside out,
Arses eaten by faces, faeces dropped on eyes,
Arms reaching into guts, lips retching hands out whole,
Bodies intimate and knotted like a dungy braid.
This is meant to be a metaphor for the sort of friendships which happen in and around the donor classes of the Conservative Party. I’m not sure how successful it is. I suspect from Iannucci’s perspective, all these people are drawn to one another since they all hang around power, but without any particular reasons for being there other than the wish to be close to power. If that were the case then their real predicament is not to know each other, except incidentally. My suspicion is that Iannucci isn’t used to building poetic images and so misses the real opportunity to satire.
The book therefore, though it is written by someone who is an undoubted master in his usual field, has the feel of a first draft at some points. It also contains illustrations which seem to serve the purpose of padding out a short manuscript to book length.
That said, this is still an enjoyable read, which enlarges your sense of Iannucci as an artist. It feels like a pandemic-specific project – the work of someone severed by Covid from the day job.
Pandemonium by Armando Iannucci is published by Lighthouse, priced at £9.99