Old Holborn: a Juvenal for our times


by John Kersey

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In 2010, he was flavour of the month as the Daily Mail reported the heroic £8,445.15 he raised from nearly a thousand donors worldwide to free Nick Hogan, the pub landlord jailed for refusing to pay a fine imposed for allowing customers to smoke in his pub.

Today, the same newspaper has run a hatchet job on award-winning libertarian blogger and satirist Old Holborn, unmasking him as Robert Ambridge from Braintree, Essex, and describing him as “one of Britain’s vilest Internet trolls”.

A broad-minded, indeed traditional conservative view of satire, would be that it is a necessary component within a healthy society; that there is always a need to question assumptions, to subject the powerful to scrutiny through satire as well as earnest discourse, to hold a mirror up to society and show us for what we really are.

Savage and offensive comment on those in public life has a long and distinguished history. Roman satire divides into two main schools named after their most distinguished exponents: the Horatian and the Juvenalian. Horatian satire is mild and dedicated to the exposure of folly – the style of most of BBC Radio Four’s satirical material. Juvenalian satire attacks what is perceived as evil through savage ridicule, sarcasm, scorn and invective that is less easily perceptible as pure humour. It is this tradition that was maintained by such as Gillray, whose cartoons spared their subjects few blushes. At times, the Juvenalian tradition has been maintained by various underground magazines, and  by Private Eye, though today that organ seems less inclined to end up in the courts tussling with the likes of Goldsmith and Maxwell than was once the case. Nowadays, Juvenalian satire and the blogosphere have found themselves natural partners.

Today, in contrast to the satire boom of fifty years ago, there is no longer a secure establishment to lampoon. The modern political class is not the Alec Douglas-Home-style aristocracy, entrenched in centuries of tradition and permanence, but a creature of the middle classes with all the uncertainty and herd instinct that this implies. It bends to public opinion, to fashion, to focus groups and spin-doctors because its principal ideology is the gaining and maintaining of short-term power and money, rather than any more nebulous or lofty moral concept of politics. This makes it a difficult target for satirists.

The global shift of politics to the left, and the embrace by neoconservatives of the culture of the left, is a particular problem because most comedians and satirists are themselves of the left. They are forced either into a position of arguing that politicians are not left-wing enough, and espousing instead a form of utopian or populist socialism, or of turning away from politics for their material. Without the distinct characters of yesteryear, satirists are also faced with politicians who have limited recognition among the general public and few personally distinguishing features. There may be enough there to make the odd joke, but there is no longer enough there to fill an act or to be sure of laughter. And there is nothing remotely that would recapture the edginess and the danger that is satire’s lifeblood.

In this atmosphere, there will inevitably be some who will seek out a Juvenalian option. This alternative is to find whatever the modern establishment holds dear that has the reek of humbug and, once that soft underbelly is revealed, to wield the scalpel without fear or favour. This is a significantly bigger game than previously, because now what is being attacked is not merely politicians, but a much wider section of society itself; its mainstream media, its sacred cows, its common values, its morality and hypocrisy – indeed, the way we live now. The target is not simply those who are most prominent in the public eye, but others who, despite their media portrayal, may not perceive themselves in any way as being part of something that can be a legitimate subject for humour.

By nature, this is humour that can – indeed must – give offence. Because of this, the satirist who adopts the Juvenalian approach is ultimately playing with fire. It is this spirit that prompted Jyllands-Posten to publish cartoons criticizing Islam and Muhammed. It is this spirit that inspires Frankie Boyle’s more outrageous (and memorable) moments. And it is the same spirit that prompts Old Holborn. It is humour on a knife-edge, provocation taken to its limits, the tense anticipation of the verbal gladiator who has the plain courage to say to a baying crowd something he finds funny in the full knowledge that he will be lucky to escape unscathed from the aftermath.

In this battle of wits, the sledgehammer response of mere outrage cannot be sufficient, though it is the most frequent recourse for those who cannot match the satirist blow for blow. Most have not understood that they are participants in this particular game in the first place, let alone the rules of engagement. The Mail’s response certainly has nothing about it that inspires such confidence. Lazy clichés about Mr Ambridge’s “gap-toothed” appearance and supposed resemblance to Coronation Street‘s Roy Cropper, his “dilapidated” home and his “battered” Toyota speak of journalistic desperation rather than insight.

It is worth noting that Old Holborn’s stance throughout his vicissitudes has been both consistent and dignified. He has constantly advocated free speech without boundaries. He is entirely happy for others to insult him or return his style of humour in kind. And he is astonishingly persistent.

On Twitter, Old Holborn has recently directed his invective towards the people of Liverpool. In the words of m’learned colleague David Davis, “Whatever it is that’s bad that happens to Liverpool, or its people, or the fans and supporters of LFC, it’s NOT their fault, OK, geddit?” The victimhood of Liverpool has attracted further comment here in the past. It seems that Old Holborn passed a few comments on Liverpudlian sensibilities one day and found that the reaction exceeded all expectations. Had those who read his Twitter account simply ignored or dismissed his comments, doubtless he would have moved on. But expressions of outrage, particularly when they are the bogus manifestations of the politically correct, are exactly the fuel that Juvenalian satire needs. They indicate that the target believes that they are entitled to special treatment; that they are above being ridiculed, and that they feel justified in silencing anyone who would disrupt that cosy arrangement. They are, in other words, the plainest sign imaginable that the satirist has hit home; that, as so often with humour, what is funny is funny because it reveals the truth.

As of last month, Old Holborn was on his 29th Twitter account; not only this, but he had spoken with the head of Twitter UK and the police regarding death and rape threats sent to Old Holborn and his family by online opponents. While the Mail is happy to report that Old Holborn’s opponents have made a complaint to the police about him, they fail to point out the full facts. Old Holborn may have offended many, but he has not threatened anyone. Rather, it is Old Holborn and his family who have been threatened with explicit and sickening violence. Being offensive, shocking or disturbing is permitted within the guidelines issued to the CPS in respect of the Malicious Communications Act.  Sending death threats most certainly is not.

Old Holborn writes,

“As an avid twitter commentator and satirist, I am regularly accused of being an abusive troll – mainly based on the fact that someone decides to take offense at something I’ve written and can’t be bothered to argue…

I receive death threats pretty much every day, as does my wife and family, employers, customers, the dog and anyone who knows me. We’ve all watched flame wars break out since the very first Compuserve account was launched – we all know there are idiots out there and we all know that making death threats is already illegal, so why the big fuss?

If we decide that Twitter is only for posting pictures of kittens and for celebrities to flog us more tat, we will have ruined one of the only free speech platforms we are still allowed to use. Yes, it can be ugly, like a loud row in a pub or fantastic as a method to interact socially and spread news and information and already has enough mechanisms built in to block abusive users or those who do not sing from your hymn sheet – anything further is simply a matter for the Police. Twitter is not a human right, free speech is.

Whilst Caitlin Moran struts around deciding what the rest of us can say on a free medium, Governments are itching to slap another level of moderation on what we can and cannot say to each other. Do we really want celebrities, backed up by arse licking Politicians to be the arbiters of free speech? Abusive, offensive, shocking and rude tweets are all perfectly legal. Death threats are not.

Offence isn’t given, it’s taken. Everyone has the right to be offended, but by the same token everyone has the right to offend. After all it is only words on a screen.

Free speech is either free or it isn’t. You can’t say “I believe in free speech but…” It just doesn’t work that way.

If the publicity given to Old Holborn – both today and on Thursday night’s Tonight programme on ITV (he persuaded ITV to send a limousine to collect him for the interview) – gets that message across more clearly, it will be more than welcome. He adds, “On Friday, I think the media will know what trolling actually is as I relax on a Greek beach. See how it works yet?”

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20 responses to “Old Holborn: a Juvenal for our times

  1. Insightful article. Both sad and troubling. The Mail is a schizophrenic newspaper – it swings all over the political spectrum.

    Recently from Spiked:

    “It is already becoming commonplace to dismiss as a ‘troll’ anyone whose views do not correspond with your own or with the mainstream, authority-approved outlook. And the well-worn phrase ‘do not feed the troll’ often just means ‘do not engage in debate’.”

  2. Pingback: Britannia Radio » Old Holborn: a Juvenal for our times

  3. The Mail is a schizophrenic newspaper – it swings all over the political spectrum.

    Not at all. It is entirely consistent. It is the articulation of the value system of the Matronly Class, what we used to call “The wives of the men who run the country” in the old “newspapers” joke, but who these days increasingly run things directly. Hence, it largely consists of a compendium of hysteria for airheads.

    • Good analogies Mr B.

      Do you think the Mail does a good job of exposing excesses in public spending etc.? It commissions reports that no other newspapers would normally bother with…

  4. Pingback: Free Speech for the right kind of speech. | underdogs bite upwards

  5. Am I that ugly my face needs to be censored in the pic? Asking for a friend ;-)

  6. The fact that Old Holborn gets such a vitriolic response demonstrates how relevant and needed his commentary is. He provokes such anger precisely because he says things that are uncomfortable truths.

    No soft soap, no false equivocations, just his honest opinions.

    And now millions of people are aware of him and his views. There’s a lesson in that.

  7. Maybe the Mail is just being consistent, in its appearing to readily attack New Media in any way it can, using a varieties of method and subject matter, as it surely recognises the threat that it poses to its own future and position of entitlement and influence? It would be in its interest to suppress what others feel free to say, wouldn’t it?

  8. Enoch's Eyebrow

    On a related topic:

    UK: EDL Leader Tommy Robinson Charged With Public Order Offences

    http://gatesofvienna.net/2013/09/enforcing-islamic-blasphemy-laws-in-tower-hamlets/

    Mr Gabb — a question for you. If the BNP, EDL, Emma West & Co. have got hold of “the wrong end of the stick” on race and immigration, why is the state persecuting them and not persecuting you, as you hold the right end of the stick? Is the state frightened of the Libertarian Alliance? Or are you in fact saying nothing and doing nothing that need concern them, as they continue to guide us all towards that shining Slave State on a Hill?

    • I’m not Mr Gabb, but I think a lot has to do with being white working class. The white working class have for many decades been a scapegoat and object of middle-class aversion.

      Fill these organisations with students and ethnic/sexual diversity, and no one would trouble them.

  9. Enoch's Eyebrow

    I’m not Mr Gabb,

    I know. I didn’t expect Mr Gabb to answer. He doesn’t like inconvenient questions or facing uncomfortable facts.

    but I think a lot has to do with being white working class. The white working class have for many decades been a scapegoat and object of middle-class aversion.

    Yes, the white working class seem to stand in the way of the Slave-State project. But the Libertarian Alliance don’t, which is why the state doesn’t persecute them. Note, however, that Enoch Powell was a great scholar and hardly a member of the underclass. It didn’t do him any good when he spoke for the nation in the 1960s.

    Fill these organisations with students and ethnic/sexual diversity, and no one would trouble them.

    They could only do that by ceasing to be what they are. If the BNP recruited thousands of vibrant minority activists and turned into the SWP, it would no longer be persecuted by the state. So the question remains unanswered: why are the Slave-Staters going after the EDL and leaving the Libertarian Alliance alone?

    My answer: The Libertarian Alliance might like liberty and talk loudly about supporting it, but the LA doesn’t understand where liberty comes from or know who its worst enemies are. Otherwise the LA would be saying and doing things that worried the Slave-Staters.

    • Persecution is seldom rational.

      If I was the head of the EDL, I would organise a ‘pink’ EDL march. Imagine how red-faced and intolerant all those UAF supporters would look when they showed up? Likewise, the EDL could do a black march etc..

      Have fun messing with their minds like they try to do to everyone else. A few well-orchestrated pranks could bring down the establishment… ;-)

  10. The post from “Justice for the 96″ looks like a threat of violence and has been moved to pending.

    “Enoch’s Eyebrow” is annoying me less for his comments than for his like of multiple identities. I want him to choose a single name and stick to it. If he doesn’t I will start to post his IP address.

  11. Enoch's Eyebrow

    “Enoch’s Eyebrow” is annoying me less for his comments than for his like of multiple identities. I want him to choose a single name and stick to it. If he doesn’t I will start to post his IP address.

    Ah, there speaks a true libertarian. Or do I mean NSA employee? I did have some respect for you once, Mr G, but it is rapidly dwindling to a gnat’s crotchet. More later. If you let me.

  12. Enoch's Eyebrow

    Mr G, if you want to put me in my place, simply refute this:

    If the BNP, EDL, Emma West & Co. have got hold of “the wrong end of the stick” on race and immigration, why is the state persecuting them and not persecuting you, as you hold the right end of the stick? Is the state frightened of the Libertarian Alliance? Or are you in fact saying nothing and doing nothing that need concern them, as they continue to guide us all towards that shining Slave State on a Hill?

    However, if you want to prove that I’m right about the LA, ignore the question and continue to make threats about exposing my IP (on which threat see below).

    Nick di Perna said:

    Persecution is seldom rational.

    That is not a sensible comment, even by libertarian standards. The entirely rational point of persecution is to harm an enemy. As I said above: unlike the utterly ineffectual Libertarian Alliance, the white working class stand in the way of the Slave State. Therefore any organization that defends the white working class is an enemy of the Slave-Staters and will be persecuted. But their real target is Britain as a historic nation. The Slave-State cannot be built on that foundation, so it has to be destroyed. That’s why Enoch Powell was vilified and driven out of power. He tried to defend the historic nation against its most effective solvent: mass immigration by unassimilable aliens. New Labour did not covertly open the borders on irrational grounds or in a fit of absentmindedness.

    If I was the head of the EDL, I would organise a ‘pink’ EDL march.

    Alas, the actual head of the EDL is just a dim prole. He’s also facing public order charges and the chance of (more) time in jail. That is a good sign of the way he is a threat to the Slave-Staters in a way you and Mr Gabb, as far-from-dim libertarians, are not and never will be. His political activity, guided by healthy instinct, worries them hugely. Your and Mr Gabb’s political activity, guided by corrupt intellect, worries them not in the slightest.

    Note that the EDL have a gay section and have attempted gay pride marches in Muslim areas. But it is difficult to recruit gays to their cause because the Marxists offer gays much more for joining the parasitic totalitarian left. As a libertarian, you don’t understand what is going on and are incapable of saying or doing anything effective to defend liberty. That’s why the state leaves you alone — for the time being. In future, it might want to persecute people for merely talking about liberty, rather than actually standing in the way of those who want to destroy it. Then you’ll have to start worrying.

    Mr S. Gabb said:

    “Enoch’s Eyebrow” is annoying me less for his comments than for his like of multiple identities.

    No, it’s my comments that are the problem. If I were heaping praise on the LA using “multiple identities”, you’d be perfectly happy. I know it’s annoying when someone points out that you and the Libertarian Alliance are utterly ineffectual (at best). But I do not do it to annoy you. I do it in a so-far-vain attempt to rouse you from your dogmatic slumber. I happen to think free speech is an important thing. That’s why I’m not and never will be a libertarian: I want to defend free speech, not serve in the ranks of the useful idiots. Recall Mr T. Blair, whom you scorned and excoriated year after year safe in the knowledge that he wouldn’t hit back. He entered politics to enrich himself and prance about on the biggest possible stage. And all he had to do, in return, was help destroy liberty at the behest of [a group I’ll not mention because you’re terrified of their complete powerlessness and their love of free speech]. Mr S. Gabb, OTOH, entered politics with different motives and not beholden to anything but his own conscience and intellect.

    It’s noticeable that Mr T. Blair got all he wanted from politics. There’s a message for you there, Mr G. Indeed, several messages.

    I want him to choose a single name and stick to it. If he doesn’t I will start to post his IP address.

    I won’t need to define “maieutic” for you, Mr G, so here’s a question (I’ve even made it multi-choice to ease the intellectual load):

    What happens to publicly exposed “racists” in the modern UK?

    A. Nuffink. It’s a free country innit.
    B. They are knighted and given the thanks of Parliament.
    C. They are congratulated for contributing to an important debate.
    D. They are subject to economic, social and (on occasion) legal penalties of varying kinds.

    I can’t do anything to protect myself against the professional thought-police at NSA, GHQ and ze MOSSAD (the last being strictly junior partners, but I’ll throw them in just to make you worried I’ll say something naughty later on (not that you have anything to worry about (they’re powerless and love free speech, after all))). However, by using “multiple identities”, I can protect myself against amateur thought-police and psychotics like Paul “Knife or Bullet?” Marks. They would dearly love to track my postings across the web and get clues to my real identity. If they obtained that, it would, perhaps, enable them to recommend me for a knighthood and the thanks of Parliament.

    Or perhaps not.

    Yes? Do you understand that I am trying to protect my “life, liberty and property” from illiberal people?

    I’ll leave you with that question you won’t (and can’t, for your own peace of mind) answer:

    If the BNP, EDL, Emma West & Co. have got hold of “the wrong end of the stick” on race and immigration, why is the state persecuting them and not persecuting you, as you hold the right end of the stick? Is the state frightened of the Libertarian Alliance? Or are you in fact saying nothing and doing nothing that need concern them, as they continue to guide us all towards that shining Slave State on a Hill?

    • Just for the record, I’m in no way affiliated to the LA (nor any other grouping for that matter). I don’t wish to tarnish their excellent reputation with my dimness.

      “Note that the EDL have a gay section and have attempted gay pride marches in Muslim areas.”

      Then they’re not that dim after all.

      “The entirely rational point of persecution is to harm an enemy.”

      But the level of threat an enemy poses is often more imagined than real. Take WoMD for instance.

  13. You can call yourself anything you like. All I want is for you to stick to one identity. No one is any more likely to find out who you really are if you call yourself John Smith and stick to it than if you go through several dozen other names a month. The latter, though, is both impolite and a nuisance.

    As for the Libertarian Alliance, we are what we are. And, since your terror of the “Exclusive Brethren” requires you to creep about in multiple camouflage, it’s at least unfair of you to expect us to go at them with our faces on full view.

    But there’s an end of it. Choose a false name and stick to it. Keep making a nuisance of yourself, and I’ll publish your IP address, so MOSSAD can come and shoot you up the bottom with a .22.

  14. Enoch's Eyebrow

    Nick DiPerna wrote:

    But the level of threat an enemy poses is often more imagined than real. Take WoMD for instance.

    Not a good example. WoMD were an excuse for what the neo-cons wanted: they didn’t care whether they were really there or not. Similarly, mass immigration provides excuses for hate laws and other aspects of the Slave State. The laws serve the end of the Slave State, not their stated ends. So people who oppose mass immigration are enemies of the Slave-Staters and will be persecuted. Muslims are v. good for the Slave-Staters’ purposes, so the EDL, in opposing Muslims, will be persecuted. There’s nothing irrational about that. New Labour knew what they were doing when they opened the borders.

    Sean Gabb wrote:

    No one is any more likely to find out who you really are if you call yourself John Smith and stick to it than if you go through several dozen other names a month. The latter, though, is both impolite and a nuisance.

    It isn’t several dozen. I don’t post here regularly, so I forget what name I used the last time I was here. However, if it is a nuisance, I will use variants on “Enoch’s Eyebrow”, e.g. “Enoch’s Eggnog”.

    As for the Libertarian Alliance, we are what we are.

    T. Blair: “I am what I am.”

    A crook.

    Libertarian Alliance: “We are what we are.”

    Ineffectual.

    And, since your terror of the “Exclusive Brethren” requires you to creep about in multiple camouflage…

    I’ve already said that I can’t protect myself from the professional thought-police at NSA, GCHQ and MOSSAD. They know who I am and I would have been wiser, from a personal point of view, never to work against them. But I think free speech is important and I don’t like its enemies.

    …it’s at least unfair of you to expect us to go at them with our faces on full view.

    I don’t ask anything I’m not prepared to do myself. However, you have advantages over me in that you’re part of an organization and have academic credentials.

    Keep making a nuisance of yourself, and I’ll publish your IP address, so MOSSAD can come and shoot you up the bottom with a .22.

    Again, MOSSAD already have my IP address and an ever-expanding file on my crime-think. They will also be watching you, in case you show any signs of ceasing to be a useful idiot and of pointing out who the greatest — not solitary, note — enemies of free speech are.

    • ‘Level of threat’ does not necessarily equal ‘level of persecution’.

      Anyone who thinks that being persecuted means that they are on the ‘right track’ is deluding themselves. There could be many other factors at play here. Even the zombie witch-hunters that call themselves ‘progressives’ need groups to target. It is also biologically instinctual for main social groups to keep sub-groups in their ‘place’.

      • Enoch's Eyebrow

        Nick diPerna wrote:

        Anyone who thinks that being persecuted means that they are on the ‘right track’ is deluding themselves.

        Give examples to prove your points. You said the state persecutes the EDL because they’re proles. I pointed out that Enoch Powell wasn’t a prole. Nor is James Watson, the Nobel Laureate who was persecuted for stating scientific fact: blacks are, on average, less intelligent than whites. So please produce an example of the state persecuting someone who isn’t “on the right track”, i.e. who isn’t challenging the lies and crypto-Marxism behind the Slave State. If Enoch Powell had had his way, immigration would have stopped and there would have been no excuse for the hate-laws. We’d also have avoided suicide-bombings and the excuse they have provided for the surveillance state.

        Like Enoch Powell, the EDL are on the right track: Muslims are a solvent for historic Britain. They are v. bad for free speech, among much else. The British state wants to take away our free speech and Muslims are excellent allies. As I keep saying, New Labour, which was full of former communists, knew exactly what it was doing when it opened the borders.

        There could be many other factors at play here.

        Please list some.

        Even the zombie witch-hunters that call themselves ‘progressives’ need groups to target. It is also biologically instinctual for main social groups to keep sub-groups in their ‘place’.

        You’re glimpsing the light. The Russian communist party ostensibly persecuted on ideological grounds as it destroyed the historic Russian nation. But biology was at work, because the communists were disproportionately drawn from minorities. Alawite-ruled Syria is another example. The British state is run by people who want to destroy the historic nation. You can call them Marxist if you want, but there’s something biological behind that. Blair wasn’t biologically motivated, but he was hired by people who were.