The commentariat are baffled by Jeremy Corbyn. He does the unthinkable of giving straight answers to hypothetical questions. He can be pictured with a large marrow and not look ridiculous. So infuriated was Eamonn Holmes by Corbyn’s lack of sartorial concern that the Sky presenter gave up on sentences and reverting to a state of spluttering apoplexy. For all the talk of spin in Team Corbyn their man’s great achievement is perfecting the charm of dullness.
This week we were reminded by the publication of the Dull Men of Great Britain that dullness is quite a different shade of grey to boring. These figures, like Corbyn, shroud their rejection of certain norms under the guise of mild manners and dandruff-shouldered dishevelment. Featured dullards like John Potter, 60, who spends his time compiling the European Rail Timetable, or Michael Kennedy, 73, who spends two hours every day (except Saturdays) moving rocks to build a seawall, are rebels whose cause is the defiance of being like everybody else. Yes, we can look up time of the Utrecht to Rotterdam service in a click- but in Potter’s maddeningly encyclopaedic mind the continental railroad is transformed into a thing of imaginative wonder. Potter often gets calls from other dull “armchair travellers” who use his timetable to dream up their own rail journeys.
A precursor to Dull Men was a book from late 1980s called Glad to be Grey by the brilliant Peter Freedman I was brought in to stir up some noise and ended up launching the book in a laundrette in Covent Garden London. To the surrounding clank of coin-operated machines and pungent damp the great and good gathered to eat biscuits (the budget wouldn’t stretch so we offered tap water and rich tea biscuits) and listen to Peter’s humorous sketches of the quiet passions of the John Major set. The regulars, meanwhile, continued to load their baskets and wonder what in Persil’s name was happening. The event was picked up by all by the nationals and TV news . Dullness –then and now- is subversive. It is antiquated while also being hipster-proof. It is an anti-attitude. In a time defined by extraordinary levels of self-exposure, there is something refreshing about owning up to one’s natural oddities. We also allowed the regular coin op users to carry on washing much to the bemusement of the snappers and scribblers. Total cost of book launch £62 – the publishers were astonished.
Dullness has always been an act of eccentric defiance. Etymologically it is related to the German Toll, meaning fantastic and other worldly. The dullard was –like Shakespeare’s fools- often the wisest of all and given licence to speak truth to power. When confronted with dullness we don’t often know what do with it- like poor Eamonn. Corbyn’s new austere Prime Minister’s Questions stripped away the theatre that we often say we resent about Commons debates. Yet it only left us wistful for those now banished fruity insults and bombastic turns. Corbyn shames us because, despite all we say about wanting authenticity in politics, he exposes the fact that we actually like the artifice and soundbites. Sitting though his earnest speech at the Labour conference made Satantango, Bela Tarr’s seven hour film about collective farming in communist Hungary, seem like a Jason Bourne caper.
The paradox of both Corbyn and the Dull Men’s Club is that what we appreciate in theory we don’t necessarily want to embrace in a lasting form. Corbyn is a fascinating specimen, a wild child uncultivated in the ways of frontbench politics, but a credible Prime Minister…? And while we have enjoyed reading extracts from Leland Carlson’s book I can’t imagine many will be rushing off to join the Dull Men. Like Groucho Marx I would start to worry if this club would want me.