Bustopher Johnson

Patrick Mackie

View full image

When the trailer for the movie Cats came out last summer, it was met with euphoric, gawping revulsion. The whole look of the thing was dazzlingly askew; the hybrid animation used to turn the actors feline had created something that viewers wanted both to watch and to look away from. Dislikes outnumber likes on YouTube by nearly three to one – but the video has been watched more than 16 million times.

The trailer appeared days before Boris Johnson became prime minister. The film itself was released immediately after his general election success in December. Rumours suggested that it was being edited and rejigged right up to the last minute. It was said that it was being held back from reviewers for as long as possible. The hope seemed to be for either a word-of-mouth success that would bypass critical opprobrium or a cult triumph that would revel in it.

Johnson’s electioneering worked along oddly similar lines. He campaigned with an aggressive, shambling vacancy that rendered him invulnerable. The media seemed to be letting him turn it into an election about Brexit, but his real genius was to refuse even to air the merits or otherwise of that corrosive epochal smokescreen. It is hard to argue with the thin air left behind when all political content has been whisked off. Since only the left had any ideas, it was their ideas that were targeted. How do the conservatives do it? Why does something that calls itself conservatism keep proving so convulsive, and yet seem to so many so convincing and appealing? And why is it that T.S. Eliot’s ‘practical cats’ come scampering out of the alleyway at moments of rupture in the conservative tradition?

The poems emerged out of the 1930s, a period when Eliot’s brand of extreme conservatism had had to think through – or avoid thinking through – its relationship to more obviously convulsive versions of right-wing ideology. Eliot’s neomedieval ruses were designed to be the most hopeless of lost causes, and he would have seen few affinities between his politics and Johnson’s. The more openly capricious side of his mind made its first posthumous comeback – as Skimbleshanks, Macavity and so on struck the West End – during Thatcher’s first term in office. Andrew Lloyd Webber (later elevated to the Tory benches in the House of Lords) was audaciously redefining the meaning of playgoing, creating a new type of pastiche commodity that combined many of the excitements of modern drama with nostalgia for an evanescent upper-middle-class world of West End sophistication.

I saw the new film on New Year’s Day in a little multiplex in Witney, David Cameron’s former constituency. Maybe my curiosity and confusion about the political world outside made me too eager to turn bafflement and repugnance into pleasure. But the cats in Tom Hooper’s film must be as stridently odd a vision of the cultural present as has emerged anywhere. The way they look is a stunning merger not just of the human and the creaturely, but of both with levels of technology that layer verisimilitude onto fantasy all too neatly. The songs pull us in as appealingly as they always did, and then push us back out with the same steely blandness as ever too. We end up beyond even the sway of the uncanny; something hypnotically unconvincing instead prevails.

So it does with the gallery of pastiche gentlemen and depthless chancers that fills the current cabinet. If conservatives are meant to value memory, Jennifer Hudson’s blazingly desperate go at the song of that name is a reminder of how vacant the visions of the past are that fuel conservatism’s poems and politics alike. Their vacancy is their power.

Perhaps we have reached the end of a long period when politics and thought were susceptible to critique. We keep being told that people vote for Johnson and Trump despite their flaws; it is all priced in. But something graver and giddier may be in train, whereby their flaws are positively appealing, are points of identification or cathexis. Our emperors have no clothes, but this will work wonderfully for them if enough people like emperors and nakedness. Hooper’s film is so weird partly because the cats’ intricately artful fur makes them look neither naked nor not naked. If we are at the end of the era of critique, a film in which delight and disdain are tightly joined may help in measuring where that takes us. To hold onto power, conservatism has proved willing to sacrifice all claims to substance. It is an impressive feat that the left must not seek to emulate but needs to understand.


  • 16 January 2020 at 9:27pm
    Norman Ravitch says:

    • 16 January 2020 at 10:33pm
      gary morgan says: @ Norman Ravitch
      Why so shouty, Norm? Also, save the word "psychopath" for an actual one. Nasty. these two may be but your incontinent employment of a modish notion is less than helpful.

  • 17 January 2020 at 5:53pm
    Graucho says:
    BJ did not win the election. JC lost it. He lost it when he said he would never press the nuclear button, with his reaction to the Salisbury poisonings, when he vacillated over what to do over Brexit, when he was caught out lying over the Queen's Christmas broadcast, when he failed to face down his critics over anti semitism. Leadership is a hard to define quality, but the electorate decided that BJ had more of it than JC. Personal integrity and policy were neither here nor there.

    • 21 January 2020 at 4:17pm
      Starry Gordon says: @ Graucho
      In other words, he wasn't right-wing enough? This is something lefties are often told, but it's unconvincing.

    • 22 January 2020 at 10:14am
      Coldish says: @ Graucho
      Johnson has made a whole career out of lying, so that doesn't seem to have done him electoral harm. In case Groucho didn't notice, this election was about Brexit.
      It was a big mistake by the opposition (including Labour, not just theLibDems) to agree to Johnson's pleading for an election. Foolishly hoping for two birds in the bush (a parliamentary majority) , the parliamentary opposition lost the one bird in their hand (being able to use parliament to steer the government away from Brexit). We now know, with the advantage of hindsight, that the 'Get Brexit Done' slogan was a winner, if the Tories could convince enough former Labour voters to cross the floor. And Johnson made sure that the message got across in the areas where it counted, such as the West Midlands, the North East, fishing regions of NE Scotland, in much the same way that Trump successfully concentrated his 2016 presidential election campaign on rust belt states like Ohio and Michigan. Let's face it, Johnson deserved his win, as did Trump. No Labour leader, from whatever faction or wing of the party, could have beaten Johnson on this occasion. It's no good blaming Corbyn's 'left-wing' (i.e. social democratic) hard line, or his fence-sitting on Brexit. A clear pro-Europe campaign by Labour would not have held onto any of the lost Labour seats in Yorkshire, the Potteries (Stoke and Newcastle-under Lyme) or County Durham, although it might have kept some defaulters from defecting to the Liberals and letting the Tories back into places like Kensington.
      It seems to me that Labour's biggest problem is the loss of so many former Labour voters in Scotland to the SNP. And that happened under the previous leadership.

  • 21 January 2020 at 4:55pm
    Stephen Timmins says:
    Graucho, may I recommend David Graeber's article in the New York Review of Books on the subject of Johnson's win. "The Centre Blows itself up Care and Spite in the 'Brexit Election'."

  • 21 January 2020 at 5:25pm
    Nicholas Arnold says:
    At the Brexit Referendum, "Leave" received 52% of the vote – and we were told "the People have spoken". At the General Election, the Conservatives, with Johnson as their leader, received 46% of the vote. So, one of the questions this raises is "are the People being allowed to speak?" – Or are our Masters playing fast and loose with what constitutes Democracy?

    • 21 January 2020 at 8:58pm
      Andrew Roast says: @ Nicholas Arnold
      We have a first past the post system, which 68% of the voting population voted to keep in the 2011 referendum. As such using overall voting stats in a general election is meaningless.

  • 21 January 2020 at 7:43pm
    Peter Lilley says:
    Your article tells us nothing - no facts, no rational arguments- except that you don’t like Conservatives or Boris. Surely you can do better than this?

  • 22 January 2020 at 8:36am
    Michael Hammond says:
    I am not sure this article added that much to our understanding of the last election but it was at least coming at it from a different and more eccentric view point; it did make me think and the image made me smile. The contrast I would make is with a Short Cuts article by Tariq Ali in the present edition (23 Jan). As it happens I disagreed with Tariq Ali, and that of course is fine, but I just could not see why it was in LRB when it lack criticality and reflexivity. This blog piece worked in a different way and supplied something fresh. I think LRB has to find a way of talking about UK politics that does not mirror other outlets. So thanks.

  • 23 January 2020 at 12:34am
    Graucho says:
    Too many reactions to answer individually, so I will simply ask why did so many canvassers report previous labour supporters saying that they could not vote labour this time because of JC? Particularly in labour's heartlands. Most voters do not read LRB or manifestos for that matter. They do look for leadership and decisiveness. Labour's policy on brexit was at best muddle headed and at worst duplicitous. I contend that it was JC's failure to get a grip on the matter as opposed to the policy itself that cost votes as well as the other examples cited. Personally I have no time for BJ and I don't believe that he is trusted by the majority of voters. Yet labour got thumped, so some unpleasant questions have to be asked

Read more