And A Happy New Year To You Too, Enver Hoxha
At this time, I always like to relay Enver Hoxha’s encouraging words to the Albanian people on New Year’s Day 1967 (as rendered by the English service of Radio Tirana). “This year will be harder than last year. However, it will be easier than next year.”
Jeremy Corbyn tried to tell this as a sparkling jest at a seasonal party after his election as Labour leader but he somehow failed to convey the irony and you could have stored meat in the audience. Hostile media seized on the incident to suggest that Corbyn actually admired Hoxha and indeed, that he never met a crazed Stalinist he didn’t like. It put Corbyn off sparkling jests and he spent his remaining leadership in deadly earnest, which often earned him more laughs.
Hoxha’s New Year Message is probably the most honest promise ever made by a politician, and it is one that he certainly kept year after year. When he died in 1985 his country was friendless, sealed and destitute. Its biggest industry was denunciation: a third of the Albanian people belonged to his internal security service, the Sigurimi, and informed on the other two thirds. I visited Albania in 1992 just after the final collapse of Communism and met a man who had spent over thirty years in a gulag after being denounced for not weeping hard enough in the public mourning for Stalin’s death. The country was beginning to revive in a nascent capitalist new order. One business doing well was Hoxha’s elaborate mausoleum, converted into a discothèque where people could literally dance on his grave.
The only promise to match Enver’s is that given by the Old Testament King Reheboam on the recommendation of an ancestral Dominic Cummings and a team of young hotheaded special advisers. A visiting delegation asks for tax cuts and a few U-turns from the tough administration of the dead King Solomon. In the King James Version, Reheboam replies: “My father made your yoke heavy and I will add to your yoke. My father chastised you with whips, but I will chastise you with scorpions.” Taken as an election manifesto, this did not fare too well. Reheboam lost ten of the tribes of Israel to his rival Jereboam, retaining only the Blue Wall tribes of Judah and Benjamin. I speak as a past winner of the Bertie Wooster Prize for Scripture Knowledge.
Without matching the stark honesty of Hoxha and Reheboam several modern politicians have achieved the same accidental hilarity.
Marshal Costa e Silva was the second President from the military junta which ruled Brazil in the late 1960s. Attributed to him is the proud boast that “When the military government took over, the country was on the edge of a precipice. But now we have moved confidently forward.”
John Major as Prime Minister reacted to a terrible local election drubbing in 1995 with a stirring patriotic image: “We will do precisely what the British nation has done through its history when it had its back to the wall, turn round and fight for the things it believes in.” Sixty million quick-marching as one into the wall.
Peter Mandelson has contributed almost as much to literature as he has to politics, but he was not at the top of his game running Labour’s election campaign in 2010. In rapid succession, he praised Gordon Brown’s granite-like resilience (granite either resists impact or shatters, the one thing it does not do is bounce back), suggested that the Tories had underlined the central plank of Labour’s programme and claimed even more dramatically that the economy was on the road to recovery but that the Tories would pull the rug from under it.
Only recently he has joined a new bank and is promoting its claim to be “finally democratising the sleepy backwater of domestic and international transaction banking”. Some banks might promise only to dam or drain or dredge a backwater but this one offers to democratize it. Will there be votes for Rat, Mole, Toad, Badger and Otter and what if they get outvoted by the nasty ferrets and stoats and weasels? One can only hope that the bank will manage money better than metaphors.
As Vice-President to the senior Bush Dan Quayle attracted four years of mockery for a sequence of supposed gaffes. Many of these were invented, but when given responsibility for the space program he really did say that “It’s time for the human race to enter the solar system” and that “For NASA, space is still a high priority.” I interviewed Dan Quayle in office and came away with some liking for him. He was affable, genuinely tried to answer questions and often showed symptoms of coherence. I would like to believe that his space remarks, and his general claim that “the future will be better tomorrow” were an attempt at post-modern irony but I fear that they were spontaneous. For years he sent me the same very nice Christmas card, but this stopped when I sent him back one of my books.
His boss, George Bush senior, was regularly convicted for driving the English language without due and attention. His wife was a sad victim of an intended tribute when he told the Washington press corps: “They say, in Washington if you want to be loved, get a dog. Well, I don’t need a dog, because I’ve got Barbara Bush.” He had an unfortunate habit of reading out instructions from his speechwriters or handlers. He once surprised some disaster victims on a visit by beginning his prepared remarks with the words “MESSAGE – I CARE.” However, sometimes he achieved an unconscious pathos, as when responding to bad economic news: “We’re enjoying sluggish times and we’re not enjoying them very much.”
As I write these lines, the David Brent of British politics is still our Prime Minister. Like Brent, Boris Johnson is idle and incompetent but expects to be not only forgiven but admired for being an entertainer. He takes immense trouble to maintain that status: before every public appearance his hair is expertly tousled and his suits hand-rumpled by a leading Savile Row tailor. A bulging book of spontaneous gags accompanies every Prime Minister’s Questions.
It must be galling for him, in his final days in office, to reflect that as a professional prepared entertainer he has won far fewer laughs than so many amateur predecessors got without trying. As they used to say in old-time variety auditions: leave your name, but not with us.
Richard Heller has a suitcase full of jokes rejected by his former employers Denis Healey and Gerald Kaufman. He recycled some of them into his latest book The Prisoner Of Rubato Towers (Xerus Publishing).