I lock my noisy cat out of my dining room for the duration of my Zoom interview with Guardian columnist Marina Hyde. “So if you hear weird screams, it’s not a person,” I explain. “It’s a cat.”
“My daughter is brought from school by my husband, so if you hear strange cries here that is a person,” says Marina Hyde. “And my best for your cat.”
The cries of children and animals seem like an appropriate backdrop for a discussion of What Just Happened?! Dispatches from Turbulent Times, a book collecting six years of Hyde’s chronicles on pop culture, sports and, most importantly, politics. It’s been a particularly messy six years, including Brexit, Trump, Brexit Again, Jeffrey Epstein, Prince Andrew, Boris, Getting Brexit Done, Dominic Cummings, Partygate and Liz Truss. I laughed with every page, but also felt my rage level rising at the general malevolence and incompetence.
Perhaps, Hyde says, readers should “burn each page as they go.” In a few weeks we will a live event together at Liberty Hall in Dublin. “We could have a brazier on the stage where we can drop the pages one at a time,” she suggests.
‘You would be calling on some crazy people. Most of the people who were in the papers were celebrities who wanted to be in the papers. They would ring and tell you who they were in bed with’
Hyde is as funny in person as he is on the page. She even has a sense of humor about herself. She refers to herself as a “Sloane” a few times in this interview because, she explains, “I look pretty classy.” She is rather classy. His father is literally a baronet. But she never claims otherwise. “Do you remember when Guy Ritchie released his first film and he pretended to be from the East End?… I think there’s nothing to hide. I’m just trying to make a joke about it first in case you think I haven’t noticed.
In her early twenties, she didn’t know what to do with her life. She was working as a temp and ended up being sent to answer the phones at the Sun’s showbiz office. “You would appeal to people who were completely crazy. Most of the people who were in the newspapers were celebrities who sought be in the newspapers. They would ring and tell you who they were in bed with. Then you were getting calls with people saying, “I’m going to kill Chris Evans on TFI Friday night, are you interested in the story?” And you’d be like, ‘I guess, if you do?’ ” She laughs. “Before, I worked in law firms and banks and the calls were much less interesting.”
She became a general “dogsbody” at the Sun before becoming a writer. She had never considered writing before, although oddly as a child she wanted to be a politician. “I was radically and suddenly disillusioned with this notion when I was 18, when I met a lot of people who I realized would be the future men in politics, and I just thought, ‘ Oh, my God, these people are awful.'”
She was working with ‘these people’ again when she worked on the Guardian newspaper column a few years after starting with the Sun. “We would ring true [politicians] and try to get them out of the message. It was so rude, the things we were saying, but I think because I was such a Sloane, they didn’t really notice until it was too late… So you call Archie Hamilton, who was this incredibly dumb Tory MP… and we’d say, ‘They found an amazing chimpanzee in a zoo that they say can communicate’. “Yes, very interesting.” “And we know you love animals. ‘Yes.’ “We were just wondering if you would do an intelligence test against the chimpanzee?” And then we would transcribe the call.
Lost in showbiz
She first found a rhythm, she thinks, writing about sports and then fame in her Lost in Showbiz column. She still enjoys writing about celebrities. “When Mark Wahlberg revealed his daily routine, and I found out he gets up at 2:30 a.m. and does four workouts a day.” She begins to laugh. “To be ‘Mark Wahlberg’? Why are you killing yourself in pursuit of being someone who plays in Daddy’s Home 2?
The 2000s were a golden age for celebrity culture, but it was also toxic. “There was a major obsession with ‘castaway’ young women, people like Lindsay Lohan, Paris Hilton, Britney Spears,” she says. “The magazines were disgusting… They circled sweat stains and body parts of celebrities deemed unsuitable. They were really despicable… I remember writing about celebrity magazine editors once in the style they would have written about Amy Winehouse or Britney Spears… Someone got in touch about it saying, “Why did you do that? I said, ‘You do it every week in your magazine.’ »
“Cabinet ministers behave, in many ways, like crazy popstars who talk nonsense… This is the decadence of Studio 54”
It took longer to find a voice when writing about politics. She thinks it started to click for her when she stopped trying to write with dignity and deference and got swept up in the ridiculous white heat of Brexit. She realized that politics was no longer very different from show business. “The biggest reality TV star of this era, Trump, ended up in the White House,” she says. “Cabinet ministers behave, in many ways, as if they were crazy pop stars who say whatever they want…It’s the decadence of Studio 54.”
How would she define her way of writing? “I really think associatively, so I always imagine things based on what they look like. I can’t really watch sport without thinking, ‘It’s kind of like what happened in the House of Commons last week.’… I think people love football, movies and pop music and they really hate politics. They much prefer it to be filtered through something they love. There is something quite gatekeeper about much of the way the policy is written.
Which writers influenced her? “I loved Nora Ephron. Katharine Whitehorn wrote hilariously about little things in the domestic sphere… One of the best things I wrote after Brexit was a pure boost for her. She once wrote, “Have you ever gone back to your laundry basket and told yourself that something you thought was dirty is now cleaner than anything you’ve got?” She said it more eloquently I really felt that was what happened with Theresa May. If at first someone said, ‘Theresa May will be Prime Minister in four weeks…'” She shakes her head sadly. At the end, when it was just her or Andrea Leadsom, you were like, ‘Oh my God! Listen, it’s okay, I can wear this. It’s pretty clean.’”
What does she think this kind of column writing is for? “I’ve been able to make much more serious remarks since I started trying to tell jokes mostly. You can do a lot of things up top, and then you can be kind of like a DJ, that needle scratch , a little serious at the bottom. I don’t think that changes anything, by the way, not for a second… But I think it’s very comforting. I try to be a friend of the reader, to try to make him laugh, telling him let’s be in a bunch of “us” laughing at “them”… Swift was an incredible satirist, but what did A Modest Proposal change? “
Do publishers ever stop him from going “too far”? “I will go on the wall for a joke. If someone says it’s in bad taste, I really argue the draw and say he has to stay… I still think about it… I don’t think ‘What is someone on Twitter would say about that?, because I don’t care about that.’ But I’m like, ‘How would I feel if I really had to justify this to this person?’ »
What about legal restrictions? “There is almost always a way around…a way that means the reader will understand exactly the same thing from [a joke], but anyway I’m not going to court for this. I really try to get as close to that line as possible. This is my life’s work!
She rarely writes about herself. But the week the story of Sarah Everard’s gruesome death broke, she was followed and verbally abused by a strange man as she picked up one of her children. She decided to write about it because it was so commonplace. “10 or 15 years ago it was the fashion for everyone to write first-person articles about terrible things that had happened to them. I’m really very private, so I don’t like to do that. But I thought there was a reason for it.
“I mean, the business secretary is a man who hates nannyship, but still has a nanny”
Does she find writing cathartic? “There’s something quite cathartic about having to sit dispassionately and contemplate everything Jacob Rees Mogg did that week and think, ‘But what’s the real joke? Once you’ve found your way to him, or whoever will do, to some degree, you’ve dealt with him. I mean, the business secretary is a man who hates nannyship, but still has a nanny.
She’s been writing incredibly funny descriptions of Boris Johnson for the past six years. How does she write them? “I let you into my process, which I think is the least interesting process ever. I go to Google Images, and I just look at the photos and let my gaze drift a bit. And then you just think, ‘Oh, yeah, that’s a Draco Malfoy Cabbage Patch.’ Or, ‘Oh, it looks like a fox-ripped bag of Oxfam donations.’
We end up discussing how we write our columns. She shares everything she’s learned from writing with a low word count and how you should put your best jokes at the top in case readers don’t make it to the end. She writes fast. I’m glad to see that, like me, she leaves gaps in her early drafts where she knows the jokes will be placed later. “These are all shortcomings!” she says. “Only at the end does this creature stagger out of the lagoon.”
Is there an internal conflict between his citizen self and his writer self, where one hates the rise of clownish politicians but the other is eager to write about them? “There is a conflict,” she said. “But if you ask me if I would trade [good material] for milder times for the country, I would definitely choose milder times. I think everyone deserves a break of at least an intermission, an ice cream and maybe a drink at the bar, and then we’ll be back for the second half.
What just happened?! Dispatches from Turbulent Times by Marina Hyde, is published by Guardian Faber. What just happened?! An Evening with Marina Hyde and Patrick Freyne takes place October 18 at Liberty Hall.