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September 7 2019
A scene from The Prisoner, the 60s television series with Patrick McGoohan.

Ever vigilant, I have been preoccupied with Brexit since it was only a small wobble on the horizon, jouncing toward us like the white balloon thwarting Patrick McGoohan’s escape efforts in TV’s The Prisoner. From afar the balloon looked harmless, almost frolicsome, but as it drew nearer it swelled with ominous portent until it reached the point of impact—bam.

So too Brexit. The prospect of Britain divorcing from the European Union seemed at first like an unthinkable outcome that became anxiously thinkable and then omigod it’s actually happening. The vote to leave served as the dress rehearsal to the election of Donald Trump. Now, with the elevation of Brexiteer supremo Boris Johnson to the role of prime minister, the United Kingdom and the United States find ourselves ruled by two leaders united in windswept hair and feckless to their custard cores.

Things, in short, are completely fakakta.

But the fetal position is no way to face the future, and we must take our solace and solidarity where we can. The best Brexit podcasts offer packets of information and analysis that double as morale modulators, maintaining a semblance of sane perspective that allows listeners to feel less adrift in cognitive dissonance. So, where to begin? How about here:

“Brexit means Brexit,” the former prime minister Theresa May repeated again and again, as if clapping two erasers together. It was her mantra, her tautological catchphrase, her rhetorical squasher; it may be the only memorable item to survive her brief tenure at 10 Downing Street. (Private Eye commemorated her legacy as prime minister with a blank cover.)

Things are completely fakakta. But the fetal position is no way to face the future, and we must take our solace where we can.

And yet, “Brexit means Brexit” is not self-explanatory and self-evident, no matter what they tell you back in the steam room. It is the task of The Guardian’s monthly Brexit Means … podcast to tackle the riddle of what Brexit actually means in practical reality; the show examines the unfolding ramifications of Brexit’s consequences with an expert, ensemble hustle and bustle that gives its overlapping talk an Altman-esque texture. It’s a good place for the uninitiated to start.

Similar in mode and manner is Brexitcast, which beams out weekly, with frequent “emergency” episodes in between as events dictate and the madness accelerates. Even though it’s a BBC production with a suitably stately intro (“This … is the BBC”), Brexitcast is not an exercise in pearl-drop diction but a journalistic jam session from a quartet of political reporters—Katya Adler, Adam Fleming, Laura Kuenssberg, Chris Mason—taking a whack at the latest developments with a heavy dash of brio and esprit de corps. “We’re like the Avengers,” Fleming has said. “We’ll assemble when required.”

Not All Jollies

It isn’t all jollies. At times the strain and fatigue of keeping up with every corkscrew turn of the Brexit story, the cliff-hanger deadlines, and the endless rounds of musical chairs in the Cabinet give impromptu emergency episodes a slight punch-drunk air, similar to being up all night and feeling your head go hollow. This is a battle fatigue that M.P.’s and officials suffer from as well, Brexitcast points out; a psychological attrition that makes it harder to think and act straight.

One of the balloons designed to fly over the British Pavilion at Expo ‘70, in Osaka.

Even though I am anti-Brexit, I want to pretend to play fair by acknowledging a pro-Brexit podcast, Chopper’s Brexit Podcast, recorded at the Red Lion pub in Westminster. This is a model that deserves emulation. Many podcasts would benefit from the sonic mise-en-scène of being taped in pubs or dives or vape lounges, especially those American confabs where Ivy League weenies dispense eyedropper ironies and coterie insights. Hosted by Christopher “Chopper” Hope, chief political correspondent of The Daily Telegraph, the podcast is very much a Telegraph-Spectator intramural affair, the clubby atmosphere conducive to the present moment, since Boris Johnson (BoJo) is himself a well-oiled Telegraph-Spectator vet; it gives the show a home-team advantage, a closer feel for the strategic gamesmanship.

Roiling Ambition Beneath the Buffoonery

It uses that insider’s edge well. In the July 24 edition, the guest was Andrew Gimson, author of the biography Boris: The Adventures of Boris Johnson and billed as “the man who knows him best,” though Gimson acknowledged that he is a befuddling phenomenon even to those who think they’d had him pegged. One thing that is clear is that, as with Trump, ambition roils underneath the buffoonery. Johnson’s sister told Gimson, “As a small child he wanted to be world king,” and one can easily imagine infant Trump banging a similar giant spoon.

Described as a “lazy workaholic” by Gimson in a phrase borrowed from journalist Charles Moore, Johnson is a sporadic dynamo who often flies by the seat of his pants and flapping shirt tails—or pretends he does (see also Jeremy Vine’s “Shaggy Boris Story” in the July 27 edition of AIR MAIL)—so who knows how he will pilot Brexit to its Halloween deadline? Will he ruthlessly pursue a hard “no-deal” Brexit, or negotiate something more statesman-like that prevents Britain from amputating itself from Europe and becoming Trump’s clapping seal?

If I were a wagering man, my money would be on no-deal Brexit followed by earth tremors and a cloud of locusts that blots the sun. I have lost hope of anyone in authority on either side of the Atlantic doing the smart thing, or the right thing—not if the wrong dumb thing is within clammy reach. So be it.

The Rebel Spirit of Negation

There is a liberation to divesting of false hope, a tonic clarity, like a punk chord clearing away the cobwebs. That is why the Remainiacs podcast resonates most with me. Its logo and slogan inspired by the Ramones (Ho Hey, Let’s Stay), the Remainiacs revels in the rebel spirit of negation, refusing to accept Brexit as anything other than a rolling catastrofuck that needn’t have happened, shouldn’t have happened, and should be resisted with every word and sneer at one’s disposal.

One of the Remainiacs’ chief presenters is Ian Dunt, the editor of Politics.co.uk and author of the 2017 best-selling wake-up call Brexit: What the Hell Happens Now? The book was as much a battle cry as a prognosis, and its attitude informs the Remainiacs, whose dark, punk-inflected humor extends into episode titles (“Anarchy in the U.K.? EU Vote Aftermath”) and synopses (“As the Tory leadership race is buried under an avalanche of dead cats, we’re joined by … ”), and one episode, “Rise of the Trolliticians” (“Does the future belong to ‘trolliticians’ who don’t really want to achieve anything—they just want to ruin everything around them?”), is like the thundering sequel to The Thick of It’s 2007 special “Rise of the Nutters.” The nutters have fully risen, taken charge, and are on the move, and these podcasts offer ringside seats for the reckoning to come.

James Wolcott is a columnist for AIR MAIL