I’ve finally worked out why 2018 is so terrible. It’s a combination of issues, obviously: the rise of far-right nationalism, a spineless political elite standing by as our democracy is subverted, Michael Flatley thinking that it’s acceptable to produce and star in his own gangster movie – these are all equally terrible things. But there’s one part of the nightmare that has been overlooked – and might hold the key for fixing this mess: the death of the silly season.
Right now would usually be prime silly season time. Front-page headlines would mostly be some variation on “Gosh, it’s really hot” or “Oh, it used to be hot but now it’s not so hot”. But it’s inside – where page after page would be assembled by desperate subeditors (the ones who have made sure this piece isn’t chock full of typos and generally doesn’t read like a load of old rubbish) – where the real nonsense happened.
The best silly season stories involve animals on something they shouldn’t be on: dogs on surfboards, squirrels on crack, a duck on a drunken bender (extra points for the duck wearing a bow tie and starting a fight with a dog). Sometimes they involve the image of celebrities in places they shouldn’t be – Michael Jackson in toast, for example.
It’s not just print media. Two years ago Sky News – the masters of Terrifyingly Loud Breaking News Graphics That Are Constantly on the Verge of Giving Me a Panic Attack– dedicated an entire segment in August to whether northern dogs wagged their tails less than their southern counterparts. I only wish they’d covered it with their usual breathless reporting: “BREAKING NEWS: Puddles the golden retriever in Middlesbrough has averaged just 17.2 wags an hour for the past week. Kay Burley has a special report into the sadness in his eyes at 11.”
I lived for silly season. I always anticipated some kind of mega-silly story that would blow us all away: a drunk peacock on a three-day bender eating a slice of Freddie Mercury toast gets attacked by a fox on heroin, itself distracted by an image of Trigger from Only Fools and Horses in the stars. Inevitably the whole thing would be resolved by a cat on a Segway, and the journalist who reported this would win a Pulitzer silly season award, and their choice of drug-addled animal as a pet.
Sadly, that doesn’t look like happening this year. Silly season is dead, suffocated by actual news. From the resignations/carefully staged tantrums of David Davis and Boris Johnson to Justine Greening calling for a second referendum, or the giant fascist orange vomiting outrage from the White House. The news just won’t let up.
It used to take the hint during the World Cup and Wimbledon, like it had signed a non-aggression pact with sport for July and August. It knew we’d be back again in September after our summer fling, hungry for actual meaty news stories once again. Now though, The News is just relentless – forcing itself down our throats 24 hours a day, every story ever more laden with details, facts and ramifications. There should be a law against releasing something as consequential as the Brexit white paper in summer – it’s too hot to read or understand, and we’re more than likely going to use it as a sweat towel.
However, the death of the silly season doesn’t mean the death of silly stories – it just means they’re mixed up in the actual news. Take Theresa May’s line on the Andrew Marr Show that Donald Trump told her to “sue the EU”. She told it like a joke, or like a fun stat she had just found out about tail-wagging in Sunderland. But it wasn’t – it was both a gross display of ignorance from the president of the United States, and a pretty staggering betrayal of confidence by the prime minister which may have wide-ranging consequences for the UK’s relationship with the US and the EU.
Similarly the resignation of Andrew Griffiths as small business minister is being treated like a silly story, when really it’s a pretty gross tale about a politician in high office abusing his power, and doing it in government time. It’s like we’ve overloaded on wild, breathless news for 12 months to the extent that we can’t really work out what matters any more.
There has to be a way to segregate the news back into serious and silly once again. Maybe some kind of temperature-based lock system in Whitehall: if it goes above 30C (85F), the government gets locked out of the office and no one is allowed to resign or make a leadership bid until the weather gets a little less silly-seasony.
Whatever we do, we need to do it fast, because the lack of silly season is making us all crazy. My brain just can’t compute Trump, Putin or the Democratic National Committee hack right now. Give me a dog on a skateboard. Please.
• Jack Bernhardt is a comedy writer