Wednesday 7 June 2023

Review: Pandemonium by Armando Iannucci

In the late 90s, early 2000s I was in my mid-teens. Too old to play with toys, too young to go out (and too poor for the emerging internet), I watched a lot of comedy on television. One of the programmes I enjoyed most was The Armando Iannucci Shows. Less overtly political than many of his other works, they have a comic-pessimism founded on the expectation of a better world that I really connected with. As a result, I’ve always kept half an eye on what he’s produced and really loved The Thick of It and his Personal History of David Copperfield in particular.

When I heard he was releasing a mock-heroic poem about the experience of the pandemic in Britain, I was really intrigued. Mock heroic is one of the key registers of eighteenth-century writing and I have a particular fondness for it. I also think it’s a tone that really suits the world we are living in, where online bubbles allow people to be monarchs of their own realm and our politicians mix lofty rhetoric with venal actions. 

On picking Pandemonium up, I was a little disappointed that it didn’t rhyme. My experience of mock-heroic poetry comes from texts such as The Dunciad, The Hilliad and The Smartiad (and various other poems ending in -iad) so I was expecting heroic couplets. Instead, Iannucci was more inspired by Milton and Paradise Lost, as well as some of the monstery passages of Dante. He’s a big Milton fan, having spent four years on an uncompleted PHD on Paradise Lost, which he claims to have abandoned when he realised the first lines of the poem could be sung to the theme tune of The Flintstones

It tells the ‘epic’ tale of Orbis Rex, King of the Globe, who descends onto Earth with the first name rearranged into the more manageable, Boris (who as a child, said his ambition was to be the World King). When the beast Pandemic comes into the kingdom, Orbis lulls it into a false sense of security by doing nothing. He gives a rousing-esque speech to the people, flanked by the angels Sweetness and Light before shaking hands with the beast and succumbing to it. There he descends to the underground and meets the blind seer, Dom’nic, condemned to ride a carriage round and round a pillar to test his eyesight. The blind seer then shows Orbis the state of the nation, all the people dying, hiding and generally living in fear - Orbis chooses to disbelieve it. Then there’s a battle with nurses firing needles and Orbis declares the pandemic over and makes a speech how a problem is best solved by ignoring it and making up stories.

There are some really fun elements with how the epic and real mix. I liked how Chris Whitty and co were represented as angels, the references to Dominic Cumming’s Barnard Castle jaunt, the talk of vaccine-deniers and conspiracy theorists. I also loved how the speeches of Orbis genuinely sound like Boris Johnson, with his fractured sentences, trailing metaphors and ‘what-ho’ style British cosplay. 

The best part of Pandemonium is a subplot where Matt Hancock is represented as a Sir Galahad style hero tasked with arming the nation against the pandemic beast. He goes to this swirling vortex of body parts, the friends, donors (and pub landlords) of the Tory party. It’s a disgusting pile of parts, that speaks from a mouth formed by ‘fifteen twats and ani’. This blob of body parts then constitutes a horse-like creature called Dido, which Matt uses as his noble steed. This part works best because it’s truly disgusting and visceral and because it successfully evokes the disgust I feel towards the government’s ineffectual, wasteful, costly and ultimately murderous response to the pandemic. The trouble with the main part is, even as a mock heroic character, Orbis is too heroic. Even referring to Johnson in a mocking way as a hero, is to describe him in a way too close to the way he sees himself. As pathetic and empty the character Orbis is, he’s not empty or pathetic enough.

One clear omission in the poem is any reference to Partygate, as it was written before those stories had hit the press. He says he’s writing a second edition where he plans to add those elements in, maybe that will be a variorum edition - the original Dunciad was a slight work before the revisions and additions. This edition does have some brilliant illustrations by Andy Riley which add to the enjoyment.

The fact is, this poem was written ‘for the drawer’ and wouldn’t have been published if he hadn’t already had a famous name, an agent and a publisher. It’s no great work of literature, though it does have some striking passages.

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