Who’s afraid of the Maybot?

Most of us remember our first encounter with a mechanical life-form. Depending on when we were born, some of us had nightmares about Daleks. I, Maybot by John Crace - reviewed by Charles Harris in the Library CornerOthers have had their dreams haunted by Transformers.

Or Alexa.

In November 2016, a trembling British nation came face to face with the Maybot, as she clanked into life in the daily political sketch written for The Guardian newspaper by satirist John Crace.

Of course, we’d all seen Theresa May before. Just. She’d become Prime Minister after managing to remain almost invisible during the Brexit campaign.

Then remained not much more visible, while all her rivals managed to either fall over their feet or stab each other in the back.

The Maybot appears

The fact that she had (limply) opposed Brexit, and was now campaigning as the best Tory to deliver it, seemed strangely unimportant. The job was hers.

Sadly, though, the contradictions began to take their toll. She spoke in slogans (“Brexit means Brexit”) might sound profound but meant nothing. Never very warm, the strain drained her of humanity.

Then the Maybot arrived – first appearing in Crace’s report of an interview she gave in India:

“Have you made any plans for a Brexit transitional deal?” inquired a Sky News reporter.

Whirr. Clunk. Clang. The Maybot’s eyes rotated into life. “I’m focusing on delivering article 50,” she replied, unable to prevent herself from answering an entirely different question.

“Will you be able to deliver on the £350m that was promised to the NHS?” the reporter persevered.

“When the people. Whirr. Voted in the referendum. Clunk. They wanted. Clang. A number of different things,” said the Maybot, struggling with her circuit board.

“Was the referendum dishonest … ?”

Inside the Maybot, the last shards of the real Theresa were fighting to get out. She was not a number. Especially not 350 million. She was a person in her own right. She did still have a mind of her own. Then the malware took over again.

Personality politics without the public

I doubt Crace thought about the Maybot as much more than a passing joke. But the barb stuck. Something about the robotic charmlessness of the Maybot rang all too true.

Part of the image may be unfair. Not every good Prime Minister needs to have the charisma of Princess Di.

However, May, herself, helped by embarking on a campaign based on personality politics without bothering to have a personality. A campaign which involved hiding from public questioning, and endlessly repeating empty slogans (“Strong and stable”).

She has now graced fifteen months of columns and escaped into the wider community. Just last week, I caught it being used in the UK by The Spectator (hardly a left wing magazine) and across the pond in the US paper Politico.

It was therefore inevitable that the Maybot would creak into print. In I, Maybot – The Rise and Fall, Crace gives us a selection of columns extending just over a year – from June 2016 to July 2017.

Hubris and farce

To be honest, having lived through it, and read all the columns, I expected to find it a disappointment. I was wrong. Crace’s acid humour crackles from the start.

Beginning with an introduction, which reminds us of the events that led to the referendum and May’s rise to the top, Crace plunges us straight back into that time of hubris and lazy certainties.

The early chapters, before the Maybot appears, draw us into the madness. May is by no means the only victim. Crace skewers more or less everyone in the political establishment and beyond.

The Brexiteers are not spared, but Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour party hardly come out well either. Corbyn himself appears as an inept bumbler, until by some magic he emerges from the General Election as a victor – despite losing.

Maybot – the tragic star

But of course the Maybot is the star, and Crace is intelligent and sensitive enough to give us not only the farce, but also the tragedy.

The Maybot, in his hands, isn’t just a figure of fun. Beneath the rusty steel breast, we detect a human being horrifically out of her depth. A would-be Churchill or Thatcher, called to undertake an impossible task: to heal a party, and a country, that does not want to be healed.

There is something cruel about all good satire – and nothing is more cruel than watching Theresa May fall apart, unable even to resign, because nobody wants to take the poisoned chalice from her.

I, Maybot is a great read because it is very funny (unless you are May, Corbyn or an arch-Tory, I suppose). But we never forget that the story it tells is one of a once great nation at loggerheads with itself and an ambitious woman, trapped by her own ambitions.

Amazon UK USA

The Making of the Maybot

The Maybot in the Spectator

The Maybot at Davos

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