Well, well. Time flies when you're making fun of the powerful and the mad: 2019 marks the 10th anniversary of the dear old Secret Diary, that weekly appointment with ridicule, travesty, and firmly placing the powerful and mad on whoopee cushions. Ten years of a few laughs, hopefully; 10 years of probably not quite enough nastiness.
It began back in September 2009 with Bill English. Bill who? Every now and then I've wondered about publishing a selection of the Secret Diary in book form but the idea always falls down when I consider its topical and fleeting nature. Satire, like journalism, is concerned with the daily vale of tears of life on Earth, and I barely remember some of the wretches who I've recorded in the Secret Diary.
Who was Sumner Burstyn, who was Louis Crimp, who was Marie Krarup? Who cares anymore about John Key and his head that detached itself from its shoulders and floated mindlessly in the sky, as I recorded in so many, many Secret Diaries?
All political careers end in failure but it's fun to mock them while they last. The purpose of all satire is to incite scorn. It's a noble calling and I take the responsibility with all due respect when I begin a new Secret Diary every Friday morning. I take a deep breath and think: Flay them alive.
University of Sussex scholar Matthew Hodgart wrote a small, excellent study of satire. His 1969 book was called, not especially humorously, Satire. I re-read it at the start of every year and give some thought to what it is that I'm supposed to aim for as a satirist. I'm always astonished and a little disturbed at Hodgart's insistence that satire has to derive from a state of mind which is "critical and aggressive".
A brief note on your satirist's personal characteristics. I'm all good with critical and aggressive. I'm downright hostile. I can't take a joke, I call people names, I'm more or less remorseless. "But you have nice qualities, too," an ex said to me at the precise moment she became an ex and dumped me. I think to myself every Friday morning: Flay them alive. But the very next thought is: Oh don't be like that, lay off, be nice, and anyway who am I, a ridiculous fellow in so many, many ways, to hold anyone else to ridicule?
Such are the kinds of conflicts which have played out during 10 years of the Secret Diary. I suspect I've failed the test, and not been mean or nasty or horrible enough. Hodgart's book refers to one of the first published satirists, Archilochus, famous as the earliest recorded Greek poet after Homer. Archilochus directed a satire at some poor wretch called Lycambes. Hodgart writes, "It was such an effective piece of invective that Lycambes and his family went off and hanged themselves for shame."
God almighty. I'd rather not, thanks. I don't really want the Secret Diary to have to come with that annoying newspaper fad known as the trigger warning – emergency numbers, help-line numbers, that sort of thing. The moral climate these days is sensitive to the touch and there's always some righteous bore out there who would be happy to claim that satire could cost lives.
Emma Burnell, writing in the Independent in 2017, argued that people and not politicians should be the butt of satire's jokes. "It is no longer enough simply to take potshots at those in power simply for being in power," she wrote. "It's not shocking. It's a facsimile of something that once had the power to shock delivered in a comfortable format and repackaged in as unthreatening way as possible…It would now feel more daring to actively defend the role politicians play in our society than to attack it."
I like her challenge. I like her urgent reminder that satire exists to shock and dismay. But I think the idea of defending politicians is insane, and I don't know what to think about her suggestion that satire attacks you – the people who read the Secret Diary, the audience, such as it is.
What do you hold dear? What are your convictions and assumptions? Do you mind if I flay them alive?
I feel like Corporal Jones in Dad's Army: "Permission to shock, sir!" In 2019, to mark and honour my 10 years in the satirical trade, I will make every attempt to be mean, nasty, horrible – I hereby vow to be shocking. The politicians are off the hook. It's not election year, anyway. And it's too easy to mock first-class pieces of excrement like Joseph Parker the Roast Busting wretch. He'll rot in Hell without my contribution. I have other fish to fry. I'm coming for you. Is that okay?