Strange times in England. Just recovering from the fact the Royal Wedding and my 61st birthday occurred on the same day.
Still staring at the two iced fairy cakes I was given by two different people. One has a little Union Jack stuck in the top, the other has icing that incorporates the Anarchist symbol. Yin and yang, so to speak.
After all the excitement, the following day was perfect weather and it just seemed the right thing to do to spend a few hours, sitting in the sun on a stool outside the Lewes Arms, nursing a pint of Guinness and reading this remarkable book, a present from Kate. I devoured it almost in one sitting.
One of the remarkable cultural shifts in Britain has been the rise of what used to be called Alternative Comedy, from humble beginnings in the 1980s to what is now a mainstream attraction which has seen comedy clubs and stand-up nights proliferating across the land and comedians achieving rock star status, able to fill stadiums and headline nationwide tours.
Stewart Lee is a perfect guide to this phenomenon as he became a stand-up at the age of 20 in 1988, rose to dizzy heights with successful tours and award-winning tv series, before becoming involved in writing the libretto for the controversial Jerry Springer: The Opera. As a result he was targeted in a sustained campaign by right-wing Christian fundamentalists and threatened with a blasphemy charge. In addition, he suffered serious medical problems, perhaps brought on by the stress. Burnt out and broke, disillusioned with his craft, he travelled to Australia, found himself, rebuilt his sense of purpose and returned to the fray stronger than before.
Its a remarkable story told in this book in an unusual way. It consists of a main biographical narrative interspersed by several of his extended routines and other material. All of these are peppered with extensive footnotes, often as long as the main narrative which thus offers the reader different levels of text, stories within stories – a complex interweaving of biographical and historical material, disquisitions on the nature of comedy alongside the comedy itself.
Stewart Lee is one scary dude, a tightly-packed fizzing ball of intense intelligence and deep-seated venom, delivering material that is so far beyond the limits of good taste that its genuinely shocking and disturbing but also deeply hilarious. His style is low-key. In a quiet and measured voice, he leads you carefully, line by line with significant and pregnant pauses in between, on an Apocalypse Now journey that will have you squirming in your seat and belly laughing at the same time.
Lee is, amongst other things, fascinated by comedy itself and by the place of comedians in society – modern-day holy fools, granted the right to upturn conventions and stand the known world on its head.
His on-stage material displays an absolute mastery of language and timing which is deeply impressive. Part of his technique involves telling a story once and then re-examining the joke repeatedly from every known angle. Or he’ll start telling you a story and then undercut it. For instance, one begins something like I went to Heathrow Airport the other day and I was in the departure lounge. Actually I’ve never been to Heathrow, I just making this up. Then he begins again, extends the narrative a bit further, makes you laugh, reminds you again that he is just making it up and then begins again, extends the narrative further still ad nauseum.
He takes massive risks and challenges his audience to not walk out, which Robbie Williams did, halfway through one of his sets, to sit there and listen to the finer details of a video he saw featuring two nuns and a pig, or his endoscopic examination (in which a small fibre optic camera is inserted in his greased anus), or the notorious torture pictures from Iraq.
To my mind, he stands comparison with the late Bill Hicks and Lenny Bruce – who like Lee challenged the conventions of society not to merely shock and offend but for a deeper and higher redemptive purpose – unlike the loathsome Ricky Gervais, who just seems a bitter and unpleasant man, only interested in spewing bile.
Stewart Lee has the courage to speak the unspeakable and this remarkable book will force you to examine your prejudices and preconceptions. It will also make you laugh a lot.
‘Stewart Lee: How I Escaped My Certain Fate’ is published by Faber & Faber.
See Stewart Lee in action at: www.stewartlee.co.uk/