Friday, 14 November 2014

BRAND BRAND: NOTES ON THE PSYCHOPATHOLOGY OF THE LEFT [I]



We all know the system isn’t working.

Russell Brand, Revolution

 

This is the way, step inside.

Joy Division, The Atrocity Exhibition

 

 

Russell Brand. The very name is perfect, shipwrecked as we are in an age of corporate branding. The media celebrate Brand as, perforce, a celebrity. The Left – including the entire political class - lionise and revere him. The Right sneer and heckle, wondering why they themselves have no celebrity voice. Stand-up comedian, bad-boy Lothario, Parliamentary cross-committee drug consultant and ex-junkie, fist-pumping barricade stormer and, as per his latest book, revolutionary, brand Brand has it all. Poor boy.

Brand is ubiquitous, everywhere at once. You quite expect to see him turning up in historical footage or photographs, like Zelig or Forrest Gump, and it’s a strange media fall-pipe that hasn’t featured his nasal imprecations, hirsute high cheekbones and slightly unnerving stare. Brand’s people, it seems, have struck a seam of pure marketing gold; the erudite rogue with a heart of that same precious metal. It is tempting to invoke Julie Burchill’s moment of gnomic genius concerning Stephen Fry; that he is a stupid person’s idea of what an intelligent person is like. But we must tread softly. This is a difficult age to read and diagnose, and we have in Brand a splendid example of its symptomatology. Just as measles presents as small red spots on the skin, perhaps too the 21st century’s onerous and declining culture was always bound to present as Brand’s latest book, Revolution.

The Right-wing reviewers who have assessed his book, and recent televisual performances, have a somewhat predictable take on Revolution. They hate it, and jeer accordingly. Having just read it myself, I wonder whether a slightly less reflexive response might not be needed. It is not a bad book, in and of itself (although for different reasons than Brand might believe, as his people know fine well) and it is a useful as a performance indicator of what I will call, over the next few parts of this extended review, the psychopathology of the Left.

Brand is, of course, marketing and branding dynamite. Who do you think an up-and-coming young Turk of the political class, or even a veteran war-dog of the House of Commons, would rather be photographed with: Peter Hitchens or Russell Brand? The reaction of our gauleiters to being associated with Brand reminds me of a story told to me by one of Britain’s foremost portrait painters. At a board meeting of a leading fine arts magazine, David Bowie put in an appearance. The normally staid and conservative board members, just for the day, sported jazzy bow-ties, coloured socks, or a daringly chintzy pocket kerchief. They understood, in their way, that rock ‘n’ roll was in town. So too with the politicos. In terms of photo-ops, Brand has ousted the wounded Obama. But, on the subject of art, what of Russell the writer?

As a prose stylist, Brand is like a hungover binge-drinker doing needlepoint. He is an exemplary Wikiwriter, the book leavened with names that spice up the index but which Brand has clearly not read or, if he has, has not understood. Again, this is symptomatic of what we might call (to adjust numerically a Noël Coward song) 21st century blues. In Revolution, the English language is put through the same type of contortionist paces we can imagine visited erotically on one of Brand’s many sexual conquests and, just as it is easy to imagine one of Brand’s paramours crawling from the bedroom in search of some simple love-making, so too I found myself having to take a breather from Brand’s prose style with a brief glimpse elsewhere. An example from an embarrassment of riches;

‘We human beings are the temporary expression of a greater force that science as yet cannot explain but is approaching in its fledgling understanding of the harmony and transcendent principles of the quantum world.’

Nonsense on stilts it may be, but this is metaphysics for the iPod generation. It is tough going if you value prose. Venturing in to Revolution – and I think you should - you may wish to keep a palliative handy to remind you of the sheer effectiveness of simple, beautiful writing. I found myself relief-reading, as though through tears of gratitude, the first sentence of Henry James’s Washington Square, a dreadful book with a near-perfect opening line.

But, on closer examination, Brand’s writing once again has much to say, despite itself. Do you remember when politicians began using the glottal stop? Ed Miliband, George Osborne, Yvette Cooper, suddenly began enunciating ‘later’ as though it were a homophone of ‘layer’. Downwardly mobile cadence is nothing new; London pubs are full of middle-class boys shouting about football in the pretended tones of Millwall dockers. Ex-England cricket captain Michael Vaughan says the word ‘batting’ as though he were naming some Malaysian potentate. Ba’ing, perhaps. But I digress.

Brand tries far too hard to be street. It is as though his sub-editor was hired from a roofing firm rather than a journalistic agency to look over the book and roughen its edges, tousle its hair. A ‘dunno’ here, a ‘wanna’ there, an ‘an’ all’ for good measure. You sometimes feel Brand is being paid by the innit. Like tattoos, sloppy language stops being a sign of rebellion when everyone, even the leader of the opposition, does it.

And Revolution is far from being rebellious. In its student-union way, it is as conservative as a history of The Royal British Legion. Colin Wilson’s The Outsider (see previous posting here) is far more revolutionary than Revolution, because it advocates something that will never, can never happen; that young people be adventurous in the culture they imbibe.

This, then, is Brand the writer. In the next section of our diagnosis of the psychopathology of the Left, we will ask the patient to roll over, and examine his other side. Brand has hinted that he may run for Mayor of London; what of the politics of Revolution?