When you have to ask if it's a joke, it isn't

Satire only works when the terms of reference are understood. Plus,how to improve social mobility, and the books that never were
  • @djtaylorwriter

Breezing into the sitting-room a quarter of a century ago to find me in front of, as it might be, Blackadder or a re-run of Monty Python, my father would put his head on one side and bleakly enquire: "Is that supposed to be funny?" Rhetorical questions came no better than this, for anything whose pretensions to humour needed to be established in the viewer's mind rather than existing there from the start could not be authentically humorous.

I remembered these serial put-downs when eyeing up the reviews of Spring Breakers, Harmony Korine's 18-certificate evocation of US-style hedonistic excess. Critical opinion turned out to have roamed all over the place. For every outraged cineaste who diagnosed a bad case of exploitative rubbish, another rose up to commend its art-house shadings, its obliquely repetitive dialogue, Korine's ability, as my colleague Jonathan Romney put it to build "his critique, if that's what it is, not from standing outside the culture but from immersing us in it".

The satirist's tragedy, here in the early 21st century, would seem to be twofold. First there is the difficulty of getting your audience to comprehend that what you are producing is satire. Then there is the problem of defining your own relation to the material you are supposed to be sending up.

I must have watched Paul Verhoeven's Starship Troopers three or four times in a fruitless attempt to work out whether this account of an intergalactic stand-off between planet Earth and a tribe of rampaging super-insects "meant to be funny" or whether it merely glorified some of the authoritarian attitudes and military hardware on display.

Curiously enough, all this returns us to Baroness Thatcher and some of the supposedly satirical novels about Thatcherism which began to appear from about the mid-1980s. Certainly it is difficult to think of a serious novelist – Kingsley Amis excepted – who actively approved of Mrs T, and yet there was a terrible uneasiness about the books written to pillory her: see, for example, the clunking "political" sections of Ian McEwan's The Child in Time (1987). You can't help suspecting that, two decades hence, the "Thatcherite novel" will be regarded as a monument to her reputation rather than a shaft of satirical venom that left its subject sprawling in the dust.


Two educational myths – one historic, the other contemporary – were shattered last week. The first was that Margaret Thatcher was a bad Education Secretary. In fact, as several obituarists pointed out, she preserved the Open University, fought to save free milk for primary school children, only to be savaged for the collective decision that removed it, and ended up as Heath's Cabinet patsy, taking the rap for spending cuts imposed on her department. The second was the idea that the present government's efforts to widen the social take-up of university places have any chance of succeeding when the fees are £9,000 a year.

Unmoved by the torrents of abuse that flood in from cyberspace whenever the claim is made, this column continues to believe that Michael Gove, the Education Secretary, and David Willetts, the universities minister, mean well. In an interview earlier this year Mr Willetts went so far as to insist that universities admissions tutors should treat white working-class boys "like ethnic minorities". But according to a study by the Independent Commission on Fees, while overall acceptance rates among applicants from poorer homes have remained steady, 1,700 fewer boys from the 40 per cent of neighbourhoods with the lowest higher education rates were accepted into a university last year.

What is Mr Gove supposed to do about this? Other government departments seem keen on dramatic solutions to long-term problems. Vince Cable, the Cabinet's radical conscience, has recently threatened to impose quotas on FTSE companies who drag their heels on the question of women directors. Mr Gove could start by identifying a couple of thousand bright but disadvantaged 18-year-olds and awarding them lucrative three-year scholarships. A crude measure, perhaps, but all the subtler ones have failed.


Critics always get very excited by books that never were: the novel sequences cut short by the writer's death; the fragments of Dickens's The Mystery of Edwin Drood and Thackeray's Denis Duval left unfinished on the study desk. Just as fascinating are the books that got written yet for legal or commercial reasons never made it into the publishers' catalogues. The late Francis King, for example, having delivered himself of a reasonably candid autobiography, once suggested that a second, even more scandalous sequel, awaited posthumous publication. Sadly, nothing has yet appeared.

The news that Charles Moore is shortly to publish the first volume of his long-incubated life of Lady Thatcher comes as a welcome reminder of his own status in the pantheon of suppressed or reluctant authors. Back in the early 1990s Mr Moore took a sabbatical to write a novel entitled The Real World. The book never appeared, apparently because it contained an unflattering portrait of the Conservative ideologue Sir Alfred Sherman. Nearly a quarter of a century has passed and Sir Alfred is dead. Why can't this intriguing study of 1980s-era Conservatism now be ushered into print? Or did Mr Moore forget to keep a copy?