First, a statement of principles: the person reviewing this book considers himself left-wing at a time when to be even mildly left-wing is to be considered extremely communist, at least in the eyes of anyone who is right-wing (or “mainstream” as I believe at least 80% of all UK media would have it). I voted remain, rather than leave. I don’t think we have an immigrant problem in the UK, and I don’t think that immigration has anything to do with such things as pressurised public services, which have been damaged by austerity and Tory rule and not immigration or benefit scroungers or whatever else the tax avoiding head honcho of the Daily Mail wants us to believe. I believe that tax evasion and the way in which Government supports big business is a far larger problem and I believe that the establishment, in the form of the media and the Government and the aforementioned big businesses, work together in order to keep people distracted, cowed and beaten down. I believe in social justice, would rather live in a society that is fair rather than a society that is cruel, even if that means I pay more tax. And I would happily pay more tax if it meant the gulf between rich and poor stopped yawning quite as much as it is. If you powerfully disagree with any of this, I would hazard a guess that Stewart Lee’s Content Provider, a collection of columns that (mostly) appeared within the Guardian and the Observer between 2011 and 2016, is NOT FOR YOU.
Just for the record, or the uninitiated, Stewart Lee is a comedian. His comedy is not of the observational sort. He builds long routines, sometimes based on repetition, sometimes deconstructing the notion of stand-up even as stand-up is itself performed. He is clever (at a time when cleverness is seen as being a kind of a mean trick played on the ignorant). His columns are not long, obviously. As such, one could argue they don’t play to his obvious strengths. There is a much tighter format at play across the sixty or so columns collected here. Much is, as you would expect, reactive. Content Provider is not a million miles away from what Charlie Brooker was doing in the likes of I Can Make You Hate or The Hell of it All with the exception that Lee is better read, has an interest in esoterica and isn’t as eager to please as Brooker is. If you follow politics, even loosely, you’ll have an idea of the kinds of things that draw Lee’s attention – think: Tory hypocrisy, Tory venality, the Olympics, the Royal Wedding, the iniquitous relationship between the media and the Government, the iniquitous relationship between business and Government, the UKIPs, the dismantling of the NHS and the BBC, the migrant crisis, the racist reaction to the winner of the last Great British Bake-Off, corruption in FIFA, corruption in DEFRA, the demonisation of Jeremy Corbyn… If you’ve reached this point in the review, having thought “well, I didn’t quite agree with everything he said in the first paragraph but I was open-minded enough to at least see what the book is about” – and then found that list of topics dull, again – this book is NOT FOR YOU.
Stewart Lee annoys people – sometimes just by being himself and by doing what it is he does, and sometimes inexplicably because people are stupid. Content Provider is stuffed with examples of the stupidity of people, many of the columns including a handful of the kinds of comments his columns drew on the Guardian. Some of the comments are of the “I didn’t understand this, therefore it’s shit” variety. Some of the comments miss the point to such a staggering degree it is profoundly depressing. So, for example, in the column, “Jezza the jester? He’s here to satirise politics as we know it”, Lee writes about some kids on a bus:
“She corbyned you man,” laughed a teenager on the 73 on Tuesday… Listening in, I realised the phrase described a situation where one of the youngsters’s remarks had been deliberately misinterpreted to some rival youths with the intention of compromising, perhaps fatally, his standing in their social mileau.”
A couple of paras on, Lee writes (and the caps are mine):
“NOW, NONE OF THE ABOVE IS TRUE.”
But that doesn’t stop one eagle-eyed Guardian reader from writing:
“Your whole story about the youths on the bus sounds like something you invented. So pathetic.” John Doe
He did make it up, you plank, you think as you read. He said so! There are unfortunately probably a couple of dozen examples of people taking things literally that are obviously comedic. (Lee writes about teaching his children to steal from Starbucks because Starbucks avoid paying tax – and morons go on and on about it. He was joking, you think as you read. You morons!). It is, as I’ve said, profoundly profoundly depressing.
Ah, you might say (as Stewart Lee himself has said elsewhere), you only like (or pretend to like!) Stewart Lee because it makes you feel like you yourself are clever. I’m willing to acknowledge that I don’t get every reference he makes. I’m also willing to admit that I don’t like every column in the book (some of the longer Observer columns definitely over-stay their welcome and too quickly and too easily descend into a kind of anarchic bedlam). I’d even go as far to say that in between sharing a lot of the same feelings about a lot of the same subjects – my favourite example of this in the book is,
“When I was a child, my grandmother always referred to our pet dog’s excrement as “business”, so to this day, when I envisage “the business community”, I imagine a vast pile of sentient faeces issuing demands whilst smoking a Cuban cigar, an image that seems increasingly accurate as the decades pass.” –
I am still sometimes confused by where the ‘real’ Stewart Lee stands and where the persona ‘Stewart Lee’ operates. Obviously there are times he adopts positions to draw the ire of the stupidly literate Guardian readers (who are living proof that half a brain is indeed a dangerous thing) – and there are times when he drops the kind of Daily Mail-baiting throwaway line (mentioning ‘the gays’ or ‘feminist dungarees’, which, as you’d expect, provokes apoplexy from people who spend their lives on the hunt for anything to be upset about) alongside pompous reiterations of the number of awards he has picked up (which he does just to make people go on and on about how pompous he is in the comments section – and that is what they do!). But there are times when I feel my own narrow opinions challenged too. So, for example, in a piece that never ran in “stupid men’s lifestyle magazine” ShortList, he talks about how Irish bookies Paddy Power defaced a 3,000 year old English chalk hill figure, and Lee writes,
“I hope everyone who works for Paddy Power, or thought this was funny, is fucked to death by a giant white horse, the cold-hearted sport morons.”
Now, I get the sense that most high street bookies employ a lot of people for not very much money – and those self-same people probably have absolutely no say in the kinds of things that happen in their Marketing department. So, whilst I agree that whoever came up with the idea to deface the hill figure is probably a thoughtless cock, Lee’s throwaway line feels awkward. Then I worried whether I was being as literal as the cocks who go on and on in the Guardian comments section. Then I read the longer piece Lee wrote for the Spectator about the debacle of not writing for Shortlist and it included the line,
“I had hoped to pastiche punchy lad-mag style and twist it to my own ends, but there’s a head-butt economy about gadget porn that’s actually hard to approximate…”
And I thought, was he trying to be as bullish as the lad mags are, as casually offensive, does it even matter if the piece never actually ran in Shortlist, maybe I’m being too literal, blah blah blah. And I arrived at the point I usually arrive at, the point where I edit myself. This is what sets me apart from the people who populate the Guardian comments section. Later, writing about Grant Shapps, he writes,
“…though apparently this was a joke, but one so subtle people took it at face value. Now he knows how I feel writing these columns.”
But then Content Provider is not a manifesto and Stewart Lee is not Owen Jones. As such, if you were to place Content Provider alongside, say, Jones’ The Establishment, it would appear improbably scattershot. Saying that, somewhere between the real Stewart Lee and the persona of “Stewart Lee” I think there is an artist who would encourage his fans (and, you know, quite possibly the people who hate him as well) to think for themselves. This is what satire is for. We (still) live in a land where people can disagree. Just about. And for as long as that lasts, it feels very positive. And given the world we live in, and the speed with which it appears to be going to hell in a handcart, I’ll grasp at whatever positives I can find.
Any Cop?: Lee is definitely as challenging in column form as he can be as a stand-up. Provided you know what you are letting yourself in for (and provided you view him, as I do, as almost the last bastion of some kind of opposition to the ridiculous bullshit we get handed via the mainstream media every day), Content Provider gets a big thumb’s up from us.