"Satire is a glass, wherein beholders do generally discover any face but their own."
-- Jonathan Swift, The Battle of the Books
I've only ever managed to watch one episode of Nathan Barley.
Nathan Barley has a Wasp T-12 Speechtool, with mp3 dex, and a big number 5 because 5's the most frequently used number. It's been out for three weeks in Japan- where's yours? His website, trashbat dot cock, is registered in the Cook Islands. Yeah, so it's called trashbat cos there's trash, yeah, that's everything around us, everything is trash, just trash everywhere. Then there's bat, which is ... - ... bat. Trashbat. It's well weapon. He is a self-facilitating media node, yeah? Peace, lambchops. He did this hilarious thing where he electrocuted his designer and animator and then put it on site with a scratch ending - it's wicked! You can see the pee stains on his underwear. Keep it dusty! That's well fuckin futile, my nigga.
You will have noticed that I chose to open this writeup with a quotation from Jonathan Swift's preface to the Battle of the Books, an early interjection in a debate over the use of classicism and cultural value that Swift and his friends the Scriblerians actually lost, but that we remember them as winning. But that's a story for another day. You will also have noticed how it jarred alongside the short paragraph above in which I described Charlie Brooker (Guardian journalist) and Chris Morris (The Day Today, Brass Eye, etc)'s satirical creation, Nathan Barley, largely in his own words.
Swift matters to this because of another of his works, A Tale of a Tub. Swift was a Tory, which makes him a Conservative in today's terms. He was also deeply conservative - he and his fellow Augustans (and I use that term with all due apologies to literary scholars who will want to challenge its usefulness) essentially thought that all change was detrimental and that the more strongly things could be fixed as they were better, or the less bad they would eventually be. In this since they were the original linguistic prescriptivists and are part and parcel of the momentum behind the creation of the Oxford English Dictionary. A Tale of a Tub is a text that implodes, to put it bluntly, because of the abuse of language. As Paul McNamee writes: "(Nathan Barley) was about language, how it can be twisted and distorted and used as a cracked mirror to show up the absurdity of... well, just about everything."
You hear the phrase 'Swiftian satire' often. People mean ‘savage’, but Swiftian satire is more than savage – it is filled with hate and fear. Hate for humanity in its wretched postlapsarian state and fear for how much further we could fall. And I can’t bring myself to summarise the episode I saw. It’s too like revisting some horrible trauma, or book four of Gulliver's Travels. Straight man Dan Ashcroft is surrounded by people in the thrall of phrases like ‘Trojan Measure!’, red plastic tractors, pinball, tiny hats and rock-paper-scissors transmuted into cock-muff-bumhole. He works at and cannot leave a magazine that routinely trivialises rape and he is revered by the people he despises. He spends his episode trying to leave his waking nightmare, only to find it again in a different iteration where he thought he’d find humanity and solace. At the episode’s close he finds himself in the Nailgun Arms, with an appropriately dislocated horror, joining in a rousing round of cock-muff-bumhole: “Oi! You farted up my muff!” a colleague brays.
If I had chosen a different focus for this node, I would have written about how Baudrillardian all this was – how Dan Ashcroft is stuck in and nauseated by a world of hyperreality, a phantasmagoric space emptied of reference. Nathan Barley shows the appalling vacuity waiting in the desert of the real, where we are heading.
But I thought that writing about Baudrillard would be even more pretentious. And Swift is closer in intent to what Morris and Brooker are pinpointing. To use a loaded term from Swift’s time, he is surrounded, in his own sugaRAPE office, at the Sunday magazine he interviews for and everywhere else, by dunces. Nathan Barley is deeply uncomfortable viewing. Not just for anyone who has humiliated someone, or been humiliated. Not just, even, for anyone who's been a little too fashionable, or used some jargon or some slang in an exclusive way, or been vulgar or unkind or lied or failed a loved one. But if someone's spoken to you and you've not heard them because you've been looking inwards - if you've ever made a tiny contribution to the entropy that is suffocating us all - then you will find this a difficult show to watch.
Like I say - I've only ever watched one episode of Nathan Barley.
Nathan Barley - Nicholas Burns
Dan Ashcroft - Julian Barratt
Claire Ashcroft - Claire Keelan
Produced by Channel 4, UK, and aired between February to March 2005 in six episodes of 26 minutes each. A sequel to the series is slated.
Simulacra and Simulations, in Selected Writings, Jean Baudrillard, ed. Mark Poster, Oxford: Polity, 1998
The Writings of Jonathan Swift, Jonathan Swift, ed. Greenberg and Piper, London: Norton, 1973