An exotic display for the court: Making sense of the Marina Hyde fandom

Imagine, right, if Dominic Cummings was a Teletubby.

There are some things which, if you’re going to work in British journalism, you are expected to accept like holy writs — 1) The Royal Family are basically never going anywhere 2) Everyone wants to own houses and landlords are fine, actually 3) Dressing up as a chicken is a perfectly acceptable way of doing journalism, and 4) Every word written by Marina Hyde is a thing of shining celestial beauty.

Every time a Hyde column drops a certain strain of middle-aged men explodes with excitement on Twitter, tweeting that they didn’t think she could top the last column but boy howdy, she really has this time. That the column in question — to use yesterday’s as an example — is merely an extended riff around the idea that Dominic Cummings quitting is a bit like Geri Halliwell leaving the Spice Girls doesn’t matter.

To the Marina Hyde fandom, her pop culture references have the power to bring down governments and part the oceans, leading the cold and weary FBPE tribe to the promised land of… well… probably a country led by someone who looks a little like Tony Blair but tries slightly harder not to do any wars.

Now, I realise that writing a newsletter edition about how I find the veneration of Marina Hyde a bit irritating will open me up to an obvious criticism. Am I just like one of those boring people at parties — remember those? They were usually quite shit — who bangs on about The Beatles being overrated? But my issue isn’t that people like Marina Hyde’s writing; people can like whatever they want to if it’s not hurting anyone else. My problem is what the veneration of Hyde’s columns says about politics in Britain, and how the rush to hide behind her takes shows a childish streak in people who strongly consider themselves to be ‘the grown-ups’.

The deranged enthusiasm of Hyde’s biggest fans is rooted in an idea that somehow if you call Boris Johnson enough names he’ll finally take a level of psychic damage that causes him to swell up like a blimp and explode in a shower of flesh that covers half of London. But, mostly brought up in the gladiatorial banterism of the British public school system, our political class love to be mocked in this consequence-free way. Remember, Michael Gove was positively giddy that he had been included in the new Spitting Image when any functionally useful satire show would have made him livid.

Hyde is in the tradition of her former Guardian colleague Charlie Brooker, but where he was joking about TV stars, she is dealing with a far uglier strain of celebrities — politicians, spin-doctors, and all the other assorted monsters of Westminster and beyond. Just as Brooker’s bile did nothing to unhook the face-hugger of reality TV from the culture, Hyde’s pop-culture reference splattered satirical sideswipes actually end up letting the subjects of her annoyance off the hook too lightly. She humanises these monsters even as her fans think she is skewering them.

In a week when Covid deaths in the UK soared again and even more evidence of corruption came spilling out of the government’s cupboards, Marina Hyde realised that Dominic Cummings is basically a bit ludicrous. Well, he’s been ludicrous all the way to the bank, with his friends and even parts of his family enriched by his time in Downing Street.

It’s already become a cliche to quote Chris Morris’ Channel 4 interview about satire — he only gave it in October 2019 — but it’s the most astute assessment of the toothlessness of our current comedic moment. The most effective satire being made today happens in corners of Twitter where leftist shitposters create whole worlds. Meanwhile, in the pages of The Guardian, calling Dominic Cummings “Barnard Castle Spice” is considered a knockout blow.

Rewatching the Morris interview and hearing him say this line — “I don’t really see the point of comedy unless there’s something underpinning it. I mean, what are you doing? Are you doing some kind of exotic display for the court? To be patted on the head by the court.” — I immediately think of the Marina Hyde columns. At her root, she is deeply, deeply conformist. All her jokes balance on the same idea: “Look at this person who isn’t going about their political business politely and with a level of respect for us, the liberals, so that we don’t have to pay attention to the details.”

You can’t choose who your parents are but sometimes it is relevant. ‘Marina Hyde’ is a nom-de-plume, taken on because, as she wrote in The Guardian, “[her] real name was too long to fit across a single column in The Sun.” Hyde started out at The Sun after attending Downe House School and reading English at Christ Church, Oxford, which has produced more Prime Ministers (13) than any other Oxbridge college. She is the daughter of Sir Alastair Edgcumbe James Dudley-Williams, 2nd Baronet of the Dudley-Williams Baronetcy, of the City and of the County of the City of Exeter. Her grandfather was the Conservative Party grandee Sir Rolf Dudley-Williams.

None of this is a secret and none of it is a reason to suggest that Hyde couldn’t write columns that genuinely struck at what’s rotten in our system. It’s just that it contributes to making her very much less likely to do so and explains, in part, why she is so beloved by many of the people running and maintaining the political culture that she ‘skewers’. The Guardian doesn’t like to consider itself an establishment pulpit but that is very much what it has become and will continue to be. The radicalism of its history was ironed out in the Blairite-era when polish pushed politics to the wayside.

Just as Hyde’s columns do nothing to actually prick the ballooning egos of the politicians she gets in her sights, this newsletter edition will do nothing to change the minds of her ardent fans. No doubt one of them will @ her into a tweet about this article and I will be castigated for my jealousy and the chip on my shoulder so large that it can be observed by Chinese spy satellites. Cosy consensus is a kind of death for comedy, but that’s what British journalism has settled into, a grey kind of blancmange that everyone shovels down while reassuring each other that it’s delicious.