What Boris Johnson’s Crappy, Prize-Winning Limerick Tells Us About the Privilege of Power
The man is a fraud.
It's not really a secret that Boris Johnson wants to be our next Prime Minister. A natural progression: first London, then the country, then the world. But it seems that things might not be going so well; his first major post after leaving City Hall isn't in the Cabinet or a trade delegation; instead, he's the winner of a £1,000 poetry competition.
The contest was organised by the Spectator's Douglas Murray after Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan tried to prosecute a German comedian for reading an offensive poem about him on TV. The government in Turkey is corrupt, nepotistic, incompetent, reactionary and increasingly dominated by a cult of personality around its president – and so it fell to the Spectator to take a stand, encouraging its readers to send in their rudest Erdoğan poetry and stand up for free speech. Announcing the winner, Murray admitted that "there were better poems. For sure, there were filthier ones." But Boris won that £1,000 to add to his millions anyway, because we all love Bozza, don't we? And it certainly can't hurt that as well as being the former Mayor of London and a sitting MP, he was for a while the editor of none other than the Spectator. As a statement of British values, it couldn't be clearer.
This is Boris's poem:
There was a young fellow from Ankara
Who was a terrific wankerer
Till he sowed his wild oats
With the help of a goat
But he didn't even stop to thankera.
Forgive me for getting pedantic here – actually, don't, this is important, and it needs to be said. Boris Johnson's award-winning entry is not a good limerick. It's a terrible limerick; a shitty, half-baked non-effort, something that would be an embarrassment if it had been written by an eight-year-old child, something which would make me suspect foul play if that child had used it to win a £10 book voucher. Critics are, predictably, focusing on the fact that "wankerer" is not a word, and that "oats" does not entirely rhyme with "goat". This is true: "wankerer" is not a word, "oats" does not rhyme with "goat". But that's not why it's a bad poem. Good poets have invented new words throughout history, often for the sole purpose of making a rhyme; when that proves impossible they've been happy to lob a misshapen half-rhyme at the reader. It doesn't matter. Forget what the words mean; just try reading out the first two lines to yourself. They simply don't work.
The first line is OK, perfectly serviceable; the second is a hideous, violent mess, a hastily cobbled scrapheap of syllables arranged without any attention whatsoever to the rhythms of English speech. It's not really clear where the limerick's ordinarily anapaestic stresses should fall: the second foot, "terrific", doesn't easily admit any, and placing it in the middle, like you usually would, makes the whole line feel lopsided, opening up an awkward metrical gap before the last word. And then in the final line the words all come out at once, with no pattern whatsoever; it's as if Boris is just vomiting a sticky torrent of words directly into your face. Boris Johnson tries to present himself as a cultivated man of the arts, a fleshy repository of all that is good in the Western tradition. It's a lie. He can't even write a decent dirty limerick. The man is a fraud.
In his defence of the award, Murray writes that it's "a wonderful thing that a British political leader has shown that Britain will not bow before the putative Caliph in Ankara [...] In Britain we still live and breathe free. We need no foreign potentate to tell us what we may think or say." Indeed we don't: we have our own perfectly good British potentates for that.
Is it really so brave to make fun of a foreign leader by saying he fucked a goat? Here in Britain there was a tiny, brief instant last year when the entire country could talk about nothing other than the allegations – strongly denied – that our own Prime Minister had actually, literally, fucked a dead pig in the mouth – and what happened afterwards? The desperation and unfreedom of modern Britain never let up. We might have just enough freedom to make a joke out of the grimy misery that constitutes political life in this country, but real freedom would be the freedom to actually change it.
Power in Britain works in a different way to power in Turkey. Taking the piss is a national ritual, so entrenched that the ruling classes are happy to join in. Boris himself is a frequent defender of his own free speech, if not a particularly good one – remember his hilarious takedown of all those mawkish Scousers who years later turned out to be absolutely right? Or his description of "piccaninnies" in the colonies with "watermelon smiles"? Still, we have to make do with what we have, and redirect the general rudeness as best we can. It's a bit harder to write a limerick about Boris Johnson than it is to do one about Erdoğan – for a start, given that he was born in New York and spent his childhood in Oxford, London, Washington DC, Connecticut, Exmoor, Brussels and Berkshire, he isn't really from anywhere. The traditional opening line will have to be abandoned. But I had a go anyway.
Although Boris lives in a mansion
He never learned shit about scansion
Instead – this is true –
He fucked half the zoo
For the animal kingdom's expansion.
While pursuing his studies at Eton
Young Boris was quite often beaten
Though his conscience would burn
He would beat off in turn
With a ballgag, a bra, and a leash on.
Try it yourself. The winner gets nothing.
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