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Boris Johnson's love of the Incredible Hulk

Blog | By Harry Mount | Sep 15, 2019

Incredible Hulk fan Source: EU2017EE Estonian Presidency

In today's Mail on Sunday, Boris Johnson says Britain will snaps its 'manacles' like The Incredible Hulk if a Brexit deal can't be struck by October 31. He added, 'The madder Hulk gets, the stronger Hulk gets.'

That's not the first time he's said that about the Hulk. He first used the expression 10 years ago. It's a reminder of how much Boris likes lowbrow references. His favourite film is the Ben Stiller vehicle, Dodgeball.

Boris also often flicks between the two registers of high, classical art and low, juicy blockbuster for contrasted comic effect.

“He has an incredible memory,” says his biographer, Andrew Gimson, “and he combines the low-brow with the high-brow – he loves extremely violent films.”

He also understands the comic power of shifting between the Latinate and Anglo-Saxon registers. Through his studies of what he calls the “crunchy” linguistics of Latin and Greek, Boris learnt to examine the building blocks of English up close.

As Evelyn Waugh said of his own classical education, he learnt “that words have basic inalienable meanings, departure from which is either conscious metaphor or inexcusable vulgarity.” Boris knows exactly when to depart from those meanings to produce metaphor or vulgarity, and sometimes both at the same time.

When describing the location of his office in City Hall – “I’m on the, er, upper epidermis of the gonad. Somewhere near the seminal vesical, I expect” – the joke depends on using the formal, scientific, Latinate terms for effect. We are more used to Anglo-Saxon terms being used for vulgarity and swear words – they become much funnier when formalised into technical, medical language.

Depending on the occasion, he’ll cherry-pick from his high- and low-brow memory banks. A few years ago, I remember coming across an extremely serious, erudite article by him on Horace in the Spectator – no jokes, no Incredible Hulk references. What was going on?

It was only when I got to the end that I saw the article had been taken from a speech he’d given to classics dons at the Horatian Society. Again, he was calibrating – up against the top brains, he jettisoned the trashy references. The cleverer Hulk’s audience, the cleverer Hulk gets.