A dead ant has more dignity than Boris Johnson. In north London, the day that Johnson inconclusively resigned was also Flying Ant Day, when thousands of frenzied male ants, and a few new queens, fly the nest to mate. The males are largely useless and, after spaffing, expire on the pavements and die. But unlike the noble male ants, having been commanded to leave his nest, Johnson, his spaff spaffed, refuses to budge. Look at a dead ant, Boris Johnson, look! And learn what it means to serve.
Last weekend, Rupert Murdoch’s mysteriously motivated Sunday Times released a recording of then London mayor Johnson talking to a woman he appeared to know well. He loses his temper as he gives her the brush-off – “I’ve been incredibly fucking busy! I tried to meet you! Jesus fucking assholes!” – and explains that Kit Malthouse has been unable to give her a job because she was considered “too friendly” with Johnson. Did anyone notice that story? What did it mean? Johnson’s serial shit no longer makes any impact. How do we satirise it? I am worn down.
I hoped music could respin my mojo, planning to see five gigs in the tiny window between my last tour and the try-outs of the new one. Three were poleaxed by Covid and kids, but on Monday I made it to a purpose-built arena on waste ground in east London for the amazing Robots of Abba ™ ® show. Four completely convincing robots of the 1970s Abba performed disco-futurist anthems in a Ballardian post-industrial wasteland of cultural death, before a happy audience of soma-satiated citizens in a sham democracy. Apart from one misguided section, when the quartet were reimagined as petrified Norse gods in a baffling animated saga, it was magnificent. Only the dead would not have danced.
But the unreal entertainment also made me remember bleak 1970s sci-fi such as Logan’s Run, Westworld and Rollerball as much as the joyous ’74 Eurovision. Somewhere at the back of the room I am sure Iain Sinclair was lurking, trousers bicycle-clipped, penning a distressing London Review of Books piece about the Abba dystopia. But the concept was utterly owned. The robots of Abba even went off before the encore for a break, presumably for a nice drink of refreshing oil.
The prime minister explained that because the Agnetha robot wasn’t alive, it wouldn’t count as infidelity
Afterwards, in the black night of an outdoor breeze-block and plywood bar, still discharging Abba hits, I met an old university friend, at her somewhat desperate-sounding request, who had been part of the project’s programming team. Like the anonymous woman who sent her phone recording to the Sunday Times last week, Lovelace – let’s call her that – wanted to purge. She thinks these so-called “columns” mean I am a journalist and will know how to proceed. That’s true desperation.
Lovelace was the chief bioengineer for the Agnetha Fältskog robot – the blond one from Abba, to you. Invited to an early demo of the technology in June 2019, in order to smooth over the siting of the arena, Johnson had been quite taken with the replicant. If you’ve seen the show you will understand why. “Johnson asked me, outright, without a hint of shame,” Lovelace confessed, voice trembling, “if there was some way he could spend the night with the Agnetha robot. He was the prime minister, after all, he explained, and because the robot wasn’t alive, it wouldn’t count as infidelity. It would, he told me, in all honestly, ‘be the same as spaffing into a dishwasher. Or a concrete mixer.’”
Lovelace took a second sip of whisky and continued, shaking: “You’ll understand, Stew, if you work on these robots, you begin to feel almost a friendship for them, but the financiers leant on me, and Johnson arranged to have Aggie delivered secretly to what he called ‘the Daylesford entrance’ of Downing Street. I don’t know what happened – she’s a gentle soul, really – but the next thing we heard, Aggie was on a rampage through central London at 4am, trying to find her way back here to Pudding Mill Lane, the only home she knew, and using her considerable robot strength to maim, and sometimes even kill, any overweight blond white men she encountered.”
I found Lovelace’s tale implausible, blaming it on the stress of working on the project. Why hadn’t any of this made the news? “Do you think a government mouthpiece like Chris Mason is about to tell BBC viewers that Boris Johnson provoked a robot of Agnetha Fältskog into killing fat men? Aggie hid out in the old Hackney marshes filter beds for a day. The Anni-Frid robot knew Aggie better than anyone, so we changed her programming and set her loose the following night to bring her in. The two robot Abba girls battled to a standstill in the West Ham stadium sometime around 2am, redhead against blond, like someone’s sick fantasy. God help us if the security footage ever surfaces. Aggie’s not been the same since. She just goes through the motions on stage. Like a robot. But what do I do? Who do I tell?”
The next night I was at Gloucester’s 19th-century Guildhall for the 45th anniversary tour of Belfast punk survivors Stiff Little Fingers. The 64-year-old Jake Burns looks as much like his teenage self as 72-year-old Agnetha does hers, but has heroically elected to avoid replacing himself with a hot robot, and instead leads the band through an unmediated set of timeless and inspiring punk protest songs, as a friendly crowd of mainly fiftysomething fans stress-test the sprung floor. Good as the robots of Abba were, real people are much better than machines, and as SLF encored with a coruscating Alternative Ulster I thought about how Spaffy Johnson’s bungled protocol may yet unravel the fragile but functional agreement that had seemed unimaginable in 1978. Which is where we came in.
• Edinburgh fringe shows, and dates for the 2022/3 show, Basic Lee, are all on sale