Injecting the mainstream with chimney-sweep chic

Media commissioners love Russell Brand because they think he’s the perfect combo of prole edginess and intellectual wit. Only he isn’t.

Tim Black

Tim Black
Columnist

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This article is republished from the January 2009 issue of the spiked review of books. View the whole issue here.

Film star, stand-up, broadcaster… is anything beyond the crotch-powered talents of Britain’s Byronic-man, Russell Brand?

He’s proved that he can ‘act’ the lusty lothario in romcom Forgetting Sarah Marshall; he’s flashed his comedy cojones in several stand-up tours since finishing fourth in Hackney Empire’s New Act of the Year in 2000; and he’s shown himself to be a fearless broadcaster, no more so than when leaving phone messages telling 80-year-old Andrew ‘Manuel’ Sachs that he had had sex with his granddaughter, and, not only that, he ‘didn’t have oughta’.

Seeing that he had actually had sex with Sachs’ granddaughter, many felt that this very public, very humiliating admission was not only crude, but a little bit, well, immoral. But that’s enough of other people. Back to Brand: a man for whom the world really does seem to be his oyster. And that includes sports columns.

That’s right, sports columns. Or, more precisely, football columns. And, for those who a) don’t read the Guardian, b) discard the sportspages on a matter of principle, or c) just can’t get enough of Brand’s wank-sodden jottings, fret not, you’re in luck. Thanks to HarperCollins, nearly a year’s worth of the back-combed bouffant’s weekly ejaculations are now available in a neatly packed little collection called Articles of Faith.

The problem for Brand is that sports writing is just not that easy. Innuendo and onanistic fantasy do not a great football insight make. Too often dismissed on the basis of its trifling subject matter, sports writing is actually capable of far more than that. Simon Barnes at The Times, for instance, immersed in the spectacle of sport – its dramas, its narratives, its nuances – is able to enliven the experience of spectatorship, to enrich its vocabulary. The England cricket team’s collapse in the 2006 Ashes series becomes tragic in the retelling; the England football team’s collapse under Steve McClaren becomes farce. Barnes’ attentiveness to the subject matter, a willingness to submit to it and take it seriously, elevates sporting competition by capturing the human truths at its heart.

Take Barnes on the phenomenon of David Beckham, a footballer and public figure who ought to invite far more criticism than he does, for the shameless self-publicity, for sporting 101 prattish haircuts, but most of all for falling short, ‘a failure summed up for ever by that penalty kick in Portugal, where, as the great leader taking the first kick in the shoot-out, he sent the ball spiralling high into the Portuguese night and English hopes down to the bowels of the earth’. But Beckham is hardly criticised, not then, and very rarely now. And the reason, explains Barnes, lies in the resonance of the Beckham tale. From the vilification after being sent off against Argentina in France ’98, Beckham’s determination not to be ground down, to face the hate, booing and sarong-sporting effigies and win redemption, is too compelling a story. And redeemed he was, with that winning penalty-kick against Argentina in the 2002 World Cup. Rejection has always brought out the best in Beckham. Barnes writes: ‘[He] has given the world all kinds of reason to despise him and they simply haven’t worked. Cynicism, prejudice and even logic have had no chance. The beauty of Beckham’s story and the decency of his nature have been too much.’ (1)

So is Brand able to provide similar insight? Well, not exactly. When Brand actually describes meeting Beckham he is unable to get beyond his own impression of him: ‘David Beckham, on the basis of my encounter with him, is a charming, intelligent and charismatic man who emanates warmth and star quality in a manner comparable to Princess Diana – for this alone he ought to be kept in the team for as long as he’s willing to turn up.’ Is that really the case? Does Beckham really deserve his place in the English national football team on the basis of alleged warmth and star quality alone? Is he really comparable to Princess Diana? The problem with Brand’s football columns is that they always demand an incredulous ‘really?’ in response. They’re just not serious. His grandiloquent flippancy undermines any potential apercus.

This is perhaps unfair to Brand, since he is a comedian. His forte, indeed his need, is to make people laugh hard, not see clearly. And there is little faulting some of the gags in his columns. Writing before England played Israel and Russia in their ill-fated Euro 2008 qualifying campaign, he noted ‘bloody hell, it don’t look good’ before alluding to boxer Chris Eubank’s lisp: ‘Rio Ferdinand said that not qualifying is “unthinkable” but that just sounds like Chris Eubank describing the Titanic. It is thinkable, too bloody thinkable.’

Yet too often the writing’s just verbose. Needless qualifiers, clauses and adjectives riddle his prose to ever-decreasing effect. For Brand, it seems, Proust has come before a fall. ‘Gary Lineker and his sexy, brown legs’, he writes in a piece on the sanctity of the goal, ‘would never put the ball in the net in a pre-match kick-about so as not to tarnish the magic of that rarely achieved objective and midweek I saw, in a match against Real Zaragoza, that paragon of the footballer as divine, Thierry Henry, on sighting a raised flag, curtail his magisterial canter towards goal with the despondency of a man abruptly woken from a beautiful dream’. As ironically bombastic as that sentence is, it is at least preferable to the moments of New Age sincerity: ‘Separation is an illusion and in a game that is built around opposition we discover that ultimately we are all one.’ Try telling that to Birmingham City’s ‘Zulu’ faction.

But what kills the writing is not the mock pomposity, or even the Hare Krishna bollocks, it’s the antique Albany-ish he employs to far better effect in his live performances. Like the chimney-sweep chic of Notting Hill trustafarians, Brand’s verbal style is a fetish of nineteenth-century East End working class, a mixture of archaic phrasing and self-consciously incorrect grammar. Eyes ‘focus ’pon Dean Ashton’; ‘it don’t look good’ for England; it’s ‘them’ global capitalists that are the problem; and all this ‘I did offer, with rare perspicacity’. Blimey, he comes over dead idiosyncratic, don’t he?

What gives the Dickensian-era grammar an absurd feel is the desperately arcane vocabulary, where words from ‘bagatelle’ to ‘trachea’ gleam amidst the cock-er-nee syntax like big, shiny badges of the intellect. This applies even more to the references to, amongst others, Jackson Pollock, PG Wodehouse, and Nietzsche’s The Birth of Tragedy. Clever, ain’t he?

This stylistic contradiction is not accidental to his appeal; it is central. Brand poses as learned urchin, a parochial cosmopolitan, an East End dandy born with a silver crack pipe in his mouth. Combining a refusal to conjugate verbs with a hermetic vocabulary, he is simultaneously common and aloof. He acts the role of the manliest man of the people, ‘going the match’, loving the ladies, and guiltlessly masturbating, while simultaneously enjoying the comforts of the cultural highlands. His pose mocks both, absurdly elevating the low while gleefully degrading the high. There is no limit, nothing he takes seriously.

It has certainly worked for him. From writing broadsheet football columns to his Channel 4 show Ponderland, where he was given free rein to ponder stuff, brand Brand has never been more potent. Commissioning editors love him, producers adore him. Russell can do no wrong. And even when he does, as with Sachs, it’s attributed to his edginess, his sheer unbounded exuberance. They are reassured by the veneer of intelligence, but excited by the plebian, common core. To limit such a powerful force of nature would be to destroy it. And, of course, lose the key 18-34 demographic.

Except it’s not really a force of nature. And it’s not, as Brand himself presents it, ‘authentic and honest’ (2). It’s a spectacular self-performance from a talented narcissist. ‘Is it insanely narcissistic for me to contemplate that Morrissey is trying to communicate with me through the wearing of replica West Ham tops?’ he asks, not entirely rhetorically, at the beginning of one piece. And that’s what the columns reveal. They are only ostensibly about football; their key subject is Brand, the only subject he himself admits that he Googles. Too often the columns begin telling the reader where it is he’s writing from, whether it’s Tuscany, the Isle of Wight, or Hollywood. And too often they revert to Brand’s impression of something, not the thing itself, of what Tony Cottee means to him, of how David Beckham appears to him, not how David Beckham actually is. His gaze is content to rest on the mirroring surface of things.

The contradiction between the wilful anti-grammar and the recondite vocabulary reflect the narcissism at Brand’s heart. For he is both tragically ravenous for admiration, for recognition, yet contemptuous of those who provide it. The world exists for him, and for him alone. And this is the problem with Russell Brand. His overweening narcissism meets the all-too-moveable force of editors and producers too unsure of themselves, and too sure of Brand’s convention-smashing appeal. His is a great talent made slender through the lack of limits. The humiliation of Manuel was but its most devastating example. As these sometimes genuinely witty, but often self-indulgent columns attest, rarely has someone needed saving from themselves as much as Russell Brand.

Tim Black is senior writer at spiked.

Articles of Faith, by Russell Brand is published by HarperCollins. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

This article is republished from the January 2009 issue of the spiked review of books. View the whole issue here.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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