Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Book Notes: The Hell Of It All by Charlie Brooker

What is a clean-mouthed, Christian blogger doing reading (let alone reviewing!) a book by well known foul-mouthed atheist, Charlie Brooker? Its a fair question which deserves an answer - and the answer is that I picked it up in some railway station or airport, not quite knowing what I was getting and once I dipped into it, simply couldn't put it down. The Hell Of It All, is Brooker's collected Guardian columns, 2007-8 and brings together all of his splendidly derisory rants against the modern world from those years.

The reasons I found this book compelling are twofold. Firstly, Brooker writes with such a snarling pizzaz that it is hilariously funny. He doesn't offer well-balanced, nuanced reflections on aspects of modern culture, politics, TV, games, relationships and people; he rages against the idiocy he sees all around him. Brooker is an unapologetic misanthrope who doesn't offer a mild critique, but uses the power of language (and scorn) to  demolish his targets, While his language is funny, it is also exceptionally crude. He doesn't just cross the line in terms of taste and decency, but positively attacks it - this is not a book for the easily offended. Every language system (apparently) has its' taboo words designed specifically to shock, outrage, provoke and liken ordinary activities and people to unflattering body parts and functions. Brooker knows a lot of these, and bombards the reader with them repeatedly. The problem with the collection of individual columns into book form is that while they were intended to 'stand alone' and be read at a healthy rate of one per week; this format encourages the reader to consume them chapter at a time. While the once-a-week ride on Brooker's expletive powered cynicism wagon might raise a smile, an eyebrow or irritation; immersion in his tide of dark profanity is less satisfying. This is because while the language might at first raise the emotional pulse and thump his points home with the required arrogant air of sneering contempt; overuse lessens the desired effect. I may be unusual in my response to offence, but I find that over-exposure to the whole panoply of proscribed words lessens their offence; with one exception. My Christian sensibilities are such that while the regular biological/sexual swear words eventually fail to shock anymore, use of "God", and all the variations of "Jesus Christ" consistently provoke a deep unease. Still, despite this reservation I love the way that Brooker rants. For example, Valentines Day "The only national celebration dedicated to mental illness" (p121) is, for single people, "a cruel joke, you're like a one-legged man on National Riverdance Day" (p122) Or try this for size, from p310 about TV Show "Knight Rider":
".... a show about a coiffured berk in a talking car, and it was awful. David Hasselhoff was the berk, the talking car was a Trans Am called "KITT". It's fondly remembered today thanks to its' cool theme tune and amusingly portentous title sequence, in which a bowel-straining voice-over told us we were about to witness 'a shadowy flight into the dangerous world of a man who does not exist' (presumably because being honest and saying, 'here's a load of made-up **** about a *** in a car which might help you pass another hour before death,' didn't play so well with the focus-groups)."
What's not to like about this - even if I had to 'bleep' a couple of moderately offensive words? 

Secondly, I found that time and time again I agreed completely that the targets of Brooker's ire are things which positively deserve debunking, ridicule and opprobrium. Whether it is idiot TV talent shows, celebrity culture, skiing, Valentines Day, Boris Johnson, conspiracy theorists, the BNP, Piers Morgan, Knight Rider, male-stupidity, pseudo-science, advertising - a glorious list of targets well in need of a critique, this book is all the more fun because the critiques are gloriously ruthless, funny, self-indulgent, over-stated and needed.

Here he goes after current men's fashions in a review of some ghastly TV male make-over thing:
"The point of the programme, apparently, is to 'explore' the increasingly demented body-image issues afflicting British men. Men have completely lost their minds in recent years, buying hair straighteners and eye-liner and stupid bloody clothes in their millions in a concerted effort to craft themselves into a cross between a Manga character and a Big Brother contestant. Walk down any high street these days and its like passing through the Valley of the Preening Wusses. While women have an impressive variety of of 'looks', from Girls Aloud to 1940s vamp, fashionable men only seem to have one [which is]  "vain *****". Why would anyone want to dress like these ***-***-***-****? This is life, not an audition for Hollyoaks."  (p308-9)
Well quite.

The other side of all this is Brooker's disarming modesty. He doesn't see himself as apart, or above the culture of which he writes, but happily dismisses himself along with all the other victims of his diatribe; and even apologises when a victim of his pen turns out to not be a "***" after all! While he clearly despises much celeb-culture, and the 'reality-TV' shows which manufacture fake celeb's, and seems to despise people who watch such inane parp; he cheerily writes as one of them. Amusingly for all his ranting about the folly of love, marriage, parenting and the horror of children - since completing these columns he has also taken up all of these life pursuits. He even takes the time to inform the reader that he doesn't hold his own writing in especially high regard either - which is nice.

One thing that surprised me was how charming Brooker can be in his appreciation of things. I certainly didn't buy the book to be charmed; I was wanting to wallow in disdain with a kindred spirit, but yet some of these moments in the book were delightful. Brooker might vent his spleen at a pretentious or boring celeb chef but his enjoyment of Heston Blumenthal doing weird, weird things with food was fun. When Oliver Postgate died there were many well-meaning obituaries which noted the politics, ideology, and creativity of his "SmallFilms" team which made the likes of "The Saga of Noggin the Nog", "Bagpuss", and "Ivor the Engine". Only Brooker's though did a good enough job because of all those I read, it was his that nailed the fact that it was the reassuring sound of his voice that above all, meant so much to children in the 1970s.

Throughout this book, Brooker takes aim at (and excoriates with flourish), many of the things that I find myself grumbling about. I think that from the opening salvo, "The hell of nightclubs" it was clear that I would appreciate this book. Reading chunks of it out to my wife (or getting her to read bits of it if the kids were about), she repeatedly rolled her eyes and said that it reminded her of me. As I read Brooker, it became apparent that we are consistently irked by many of the same things, and share a panoply of the same foibles, follies and fears (uncannily similar at times). Where we differ, I suppose, is that while we agree that so much of what surrounds in this world us is utter ****, I retain a basic Christian worldview which maintains that ultimately there is a good God, who will redeem it. His view is that this world is appalling, so appalling in fact that it deserves mockery, because that's all there is; whereas I think that the world is appalling but that is because it is fallen, and divorced from its purpose and creator; and that's all that matters. So while I read, snarled, scoffed, laughed and applauded along with Charlie Brooker it became clear that while we might want to hit the same targets, we are firing from quite different positions.

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