I suggested this piece to the SAU Blog editor at the time and he was quite keen on it – promised to “use it shortly” but it has never appeared. I picked up Andrew Sachs’ autobiography in the library the other day and read his chapter on this episode. The years since have lowered my view of Russell Brand, not done anything to improve my view of Ross, and in general I am somewhat baffled that I was so interested in this particular “affair.” Re-reading it now I note the line about America being Brand’s real target. And in retrospect a worldview of faux outrage was being pitted against a worldview of faux rebellion. Who cares? Well, I did at the time (to a degree)
Why I’ll miss Russell Brand.
There is no excuse. It wasn’t funny. It wasn’t clever. It was bullying. It was vulgar. It was stupid. It deserved all the rebukes and righteousness. It represented a disgraceful coarsening of public discourse. It showed how a concept of decency has pretty much disappeared from the consciousness of many younger people. As Richard D North has already written on this weblog, the BBC reacted swiftly and in some ways cannily to the public outrage. True, there was something odd about the mass taking of offence after the event. And Gordon Brown and David Cameron’s comments seem extreme – but this is a national broadcaster after all, in receipt of whopping subsidy. Reithian public service it wasn’t. Nevertheless the feeling persists that surely they could find something better to do?
Jonathan Ross is an unfunny man, whose posture as a laddish provacteur sits uneasily with his enormous salary. There is little to discuss about Ross the personality. Brand is a different matter. Russell Brand, as has been abundantly clear since he first burst upon public consciousness, is a narcissist, a cad, an addict of multiple substances and undesirable behaviours (I have my doubts that anyone can really be an “addict” of a particular behaviour as opposed to a substance) His autobiography, My Booky Wook, could be described most accurately as a catalogue of depravity. It epitomises a certain ruinous view of popular culture that its main function is the shattering of taboos. What is more tedious than the shattering of taboos? Once shattered, that’s that, and the taboo-breaker must move on to find another taboo, except the whole exercise is getting more and more tired. My Booky Wook exemplifies this posture, and for all Brand’s occasional bursts of logorrhoea (which, in truth, are far less impressive in print than on the air or on stage) is ultimately a rather boring catalogue of drugs, sex, violence, narcissism, more sex, more drugs, more violence, more narcissism and so on ad nauseam. A tale full of sound and fury indeed.
Brand’s antic style simply doesn’t work on the page. He is capable of the odd keen observations, such as the following:
Having successfully rid myself, one day at a time, in my twenties, of parallel addictions to the ol’ drink and drugs – if you pluralise drink to drugs and then discuss it with the trembling reverence that alcoholics tend to, it’s funny, e.g, ‘My life was destroyed by drinks’, ‘I valued drinks over my wife and kids’. Drinks! I imagine them all lined up in bottles and glasses with malevolent intent, the bastards – I was now, at this time, doing a lot of monkey business.
“Trembling reverence” is a wonderful, and completely accurate touch, but generally he lets his enthusiasm for elaborate syntax get the better of him, and his prose reads like unstructured stand-up written down verbatim.. He also misuses words more or less constantly, for instance “ideology” –
The driving ideology behind the Homeless James encounter was that no one should really be homeless.
And given that Brand is often excused as something of an intellectual because he uses high-falutin’ words every so often and makes allusions to various literary sources (the book’s title refers to A Clockwork Orange) He calls for a “Revolution” of unspecified nature every so often. Prophetic moments ring throughout the book, as Brand discusses his tendency to sabotage every good thing in his life.
There is a precedent for the ostentatiously warts-and-all autobiography – Rousseau’s Confessions being the first salvo in this war. As Diderot angrily observed, this kind of autobiography is as self-serving, if not more so, than the self-exculpatory kind. Mention your lusts, your brawling, your moments of anti-chivalry and meanness, and the reader will accept your version of events in toto. Thus Rousseau, while ostentatiously beating his breast, was winning himself sympathy and acceptance for his views.
Russell Brand, however, is not trying to persuade us of any philosophy but to establish his own brand as searingly honest provocateur. It is in some ways similar to another extreme autobiography, Klaus Kinski’s, published in English as “Kinski Uncut”. Brand at least has some sympathy for the reader, and his booky wook is rather entertaining, as opposed to Kinski’s dreary tale of sexual incontinence and emotional bullying (and unlike Kinski, who traduces almost everyone who helped him, for instance Werner Herzog, Brand is generous to those who tolerated his excess) – but overall a terrible sense of sordid banality hangs over both books. Depravity is ultimately rather boring, as anyone who as actually tried to read the works of the Marquis de Sade can attest.
Despite it all, Russell Brand is a very funny man.
He is not witty, particularly, or a master of physical comedy. Brand will, I wager, not bequeath many one-liners to posterity, or indeed in twenty or thirty or fifty years I doubt anyone will recall any of his routines. (I have no doubt, by the way, that Brand himself will be alive and thriving – whatever else, he is a remarkably prolific man on a range of fronts, and if he has come through the events described in his book he is well-nigh indestructible)
What’s entertaining in his act is the artifice of it all, the silly Regency rake trappings, the hyperactive rambling rants of themselves. For a while I had vaguely been aware of Brand as a sort of epitome of the modern celebrity cult, a “personality” famous for being famous. Then one evening I, not by design, caught his show “Ponderland.” Shortly after I was giggling helplessly on the couch. “Ponderland”, for those who missed it, was a collection of clips connected by Brand’s rambling musings and observations on them. None of these clips would have been remotely funny without Brand pointing out some particular detail or other.
Brand’s schtick worked very well on the radio. To be more precise, Brand and Matt Morgan, his long-term and somewhat long-suffering sidekick, worked very well on the radio. Morgan was the straight man, the exasperated one, the wet blanket to Brand’s barely-in-control buck.
The Brand-Morgan dynamic is what made the Russell Brand show funny. Jonathan Ross, even when he appeared on the show with Morgan’s hand still on the tiller, came across as desperate, an ageing rebel determined to roll back the years (never mind that Young Ross was no more entertaining) Listening to the notorious show, it is Ross who introduces the now notorious elements and egged Brand on. Unlike the Brand-Morgan shows, which retained a certain innocence, Ross came across like a total creep.
There’s no doubt Russell Brand, or rather the Russell Brand persona, will have been done absolutely no harm by the recent events. In any case America, where he is finding some success already, is his real target.
So farewell from the BBC Russell Brand. Rather despite myself, I’ll miss you. For all that you exemplify the superficial narcissism of the age, and your stance of tabooing breaking today, taboo breaking tomorrow and taboo breaking forever is a sterile worldview indeed, you brought me personally more than a few simple laughs.