Sometimes, it’s the little things that are the most trying, those things which finally lead up to one calamitous, almighty explosion. Mark Steel, perhaps best known for his comedy lectures on BBC Radio 4, is one of those comics which Britain produces in some number: left-wing, intelligent, involved in issues of the day, yet somehow strangely tone-deaf in certain key areas. In What’s Going On?, his 2008 work of humor / memoir / political musing, Steel attempts to answer his own rhetorical question. The results are mixed.
I must confess: I really enjoy Steel’s humor, and his sometimes aghast sense of outrage, particularly when it’s directed against the forces of hypocrisy and evil in the world. I was looking forward to this book, as I’ve enjoyed three of his previous efforts, including Vive La Révolution, which is that strangest of animals, an enjoyable popular history of the French Revolution. What’s Going On?, regrettably, doesn’t quite come up to this standard, although it does have its moments.
One thread of the book is the relationship with his partner, which during the time that the book covers is apparently going from rocky to bad to worse. Steel managed to walk a fairly fine line here, as though having decided that this was a part of the story he had to tell, he elected to try to tell it with the greatest restraint possible. As his children were involved and breakups are wrenching, terrible personal experiences, I don’t really feel the need to comment, save to ask why it was in the book at all. It felt like a forced analogy inserted for the purpose of propping up the rhetorical question posed in the title.
The other, and more substantial portion of the book revolved around Steel’s history with left-leaning (all right, completely leftward-bent) causes, primarily the Socialist Workers’ Party (SWP), but really encompassing anything to do with world politics in the first decade of the 21st Century. Steel illuminates the sort of cretinous infighting which characterizes leftie groups well, and discusses the debacle of former Labour MP George Galloway and the Respect faction of the mid-oughts, among other things. And there’s the typical scorn, not only for Thatcher, Major, and all those who sailed with them, but for the “New Labour” that everyone was so pleased about, the Blairs and the Browns and all the rest of the rot. Steel is right about the never-ending parade of uber-rich interests driving government and politics. But this book is more a retelling of the failings of the Left to in any way counter New Labour selling everything that wasn’t nailed down, than a suggestion of what to do next to stop the bastards. Steel tells us that millions came out against Bush and Blair’s War in Iraq, and even tries to claim that maybe the popular anger stopped sinister things like the Project for the New American Century having it’s way with more of the Middle East, but did it really? Don’t look for documentation here, because there isn’t any, and call me cynical, but I like to see sources when I’m accepting claims like that. I don’t say for a moment that Steel would deliberately mislead the reader, I just like sources. It’s the academic side of my nature manifesting itself
Some parts of the book are priceless. Steel has strong feelings about music and a large collection of vinyl (many times the size of mine). His retelling of his only meeting with the heroes of his youth, Joe Strummer and Mick Jones of the Clash (he dropped the LP that he’d brought for Strummer and Jones to sign), is something that would make anyone cringe (and within a scant few months Strummer was tragically dead of a heart attack). Steel’s memories of the popular comedian Linda Smith, another bright light which dimmed tragically early due to cancer, are clearly fond and profound. There are flickers of the intelligent humor which makes listening to The Mark Steel Lectures a joy. But there’s hardly enough to carry the day. In the end, the book remains much like the Left: a cacophony of conflicting notions with no clear direction or narrative.
Then there’s the book design. I don’t often comment on covers, but this one needs to be addressed. Whoever signed off on the design for this book needs to be given good sharp smack. The cover pictures of Steel are ludicrous, posed with his hand to his head on the front cover, as though trying to evoke confusion, and in a Thinker-esque pose on the back cover in a red jacket (or is it more burgundy? and is it symbolic? or was it just in the bloody wardrobe?), with a cartoon-bubble question mark coming off it.
The sub titular materials on the front cover also get my goat: “When midlife madness steers you off track, sometimes you have to ask…” What’s Going On? says the strap line above the title, then followed by another tag: “the meanderings of a comic mind in confusion”. It’s this second part that I can’t stop shaking my head at. Wouldn’t it have been better to say “the comic meanderings of a confused mind”? Would that have been less torturous?
I think that a bright guy like Steel has been let down by editors and publishers here. Maybe this effort is really of the same calibre as Vive La Révolution was, but I thought that Révolution and Reasons to Be Cheerful were far better books. Perhaps I’ve grown as well, and am now a more critical reader than I used to be. But I can see why I instinctively shied away from the twee notions that this book ends up conveying for so long. At it’s end, “confusion” is probably a bad word to put on the cover, because the book is something of a confused shambles. Although it hangs together, that is more because it has nowhere else to go than for any other reason. This could have been a much better book, and I really wish that it had been.
Originally reviewed 16 February 2014.
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