What is the quality of boyhood that we would find admirable in this earnest 68-year-old and near teetotal man?by Sam Leith / August 13, 2017 / Leave a comment
“The absolute boy…” This phrase, used of Jeremy Corbyn, is a curious one, isn’t it? It seems to be cognate with, or at least from the same drawer as, “total lad” or “top bloke.” Many on the hated Blairite centre-left have criticised it for its implicit sexism. It’s hard to disagree with them. What is the quality of boyhood that we would find admirable in this earnest 68-year-old and near teetotal man? Cheekiness? Liminal sexual potency? Up-for-a-laughness?
This viral nickname is the linguistic token of a throwback to the Loaded-lad culture of the 1990s: a strand, though not the only one, in Corbyn’s hardcore support. Of course it’s ironic, but so was Loaded. Centrist opponents of Corbyn, especially female ones, think they discern attitudes that seem to bear out the analysis. This is the language of footie-terrace banter. It’s a token, as some would see it, of a general infantilisation of political discourse.
Ordinarily you’d use “boy,” in a political context, not as a term of approbation but of deprecation: “a boy in a man’s job”; or, more archly slighting, a “boy wonder.” William Hague copped a little of that during his time as a relatively youthful Tory leader, I seem to remember. (It bears noticing that the “boy-in-a-man’s-job” jibe is quite as sexist as “the absolute boy” in its way.)
And in any case it’s such a strange phrase. Why the definite article? If the degree of boyhood needs marking with the qualifier “absolute,” you wonder why he’d be marked out as not “an absolute boy” but, as you much more commonly see it, as “the absolute boy.”
Germaine Greer wrote a book called The Boy back in 2003, a lavishly illustrated art-historical coffee-table-book that celebrated the erotic appeal and evanescent beauty of male youth. That, I don’t think, is the intended boyishness that the phrase seeks to convey, though it’s nice to imagine it might. No: not the vulnerability, the tangle of limbs, the Renaissance fetishisation of adolescence. Rather the “boy” is a man-boy: a jack-the-lad; a thumber of his nose at the stuffed shirts and metrosexual girly-boys in Westminster.
And absolute? Here it seems to function as an all-purpose intensifier, as in “an absolute shower” or “the absolute pits” or “absolute beginners.” But it carries a cargo of connotation. The OED’s primary meanings of “absolute” pay the Labour leader a higher compliment than perhaps even its users intend. Its primary meanings are of independence, of autonomy, of completeness and of being answerable to no authority, of being “measured or considered only in relation to a fixed standard, or in relation to space or existence as a whole.” That’s a good thing in a metaphysical object or grammatical structure; not such a good way to think about a democratically elected politician.
In his late poem “The Blackbird of Glanmore,” Seamus Heaney uses the word in an unusual way: “Hedge-hop, I am absolute/ For you…” Absolute seems to carry, in this devotional poem about death, a freight both of unwavering commitment and of (perhaps) its etymological echo of “absolute” as in absolved or forgiven. That would apply more to the supporters—absolute for Corbyn, and self-absolving—than to the object of their devotion.
“The absolute boy” emphasises, in a slightly cultish way, Corbyn’s singularity. He earns both a definite article and a categorical adjective. It places the emphasis not on what he does, but on what he is—an absolute ruler, if you like—and aligns that implicitly with a set of ideas and values around a particular sort of masculinity.
To my ear it calls to mind Ben Elton’s old routine about the laddish banter you used to see on the television show Blind Date. “‘Birds,’ eh Cilla!” Elton would chirp. “He’s a lad, innee, eh? He’s a lad, Cilla! Eh? He’s a bit of a cheeky chappy! He said ‘birds,’ Cilla! He’s a lad! He’s a lad… He’s a wanker, Cilla!” Quite so. Corbyn, as far as I know, neither solicited nor encouraged this nickname. Let’s give it a rest, shall we?