I Wrote This

20 Feb 2015

£5.1bn a high price for racism?

As a fan of West Ham United I’m always looking to legitmise my dislike of Chelsea FC and on first viewing the jarring retro-metro-racism seems like a good reason to condemn the denizens of Stamford Bridge.

Galling bigotry, filmed on a phone, toxic nostalgia captured by modern technology. The train doors chirp and whirr with Blade Runner newness but the white men clustered in the carriage sneer and chant like cavemen. It doesn’t make sense anymore, “Those days are gone,” we nervously think as we listen to them sing “we’re racist, and that’s the way we like it”.

To see anyone bullied hurts in our guts and as Soulymane S gamely tries to board his train home I admire his tenacity and feel the vicarious guilt that my racial and national affiliation with the perpetrators provokes.

Why are these men, white like me, English like me, football fans like me behaving so abominably? A spokesman for Chelsea said “These actions have no place in football or society” but society is where this took place, not in another world or another time but here and now.

David Cameron said the incident was “disturbing and worrying” what these statements, these vague and abstract sentiments fail to address is the context in which the event occurred. It is embarrassing that this familiar face of football should flare up like forgotten herpes at a time when the Premier League has sold itself for 5 billion quid or some other inconceivable number. There’s an amoral hooliganism in capitalism that’s difficult to comprehend when the figures gratuitously inflate. Why not 6 billion or 7? A pound from every person on the planet to watch the people’s game.

Premier League boss Richard Scudamore said he could make no guarantees of the redistribution of this astro-cash or of reducing ticket prices. Of course not, it’s not his job to represent fans or the majority of people that work in the game, his job is to ensure profit.

That’s everybody’s job now whether we like it or not, to be profitable or to be irrelevant. Chelsea in fact are the only club that offer a living wage to their staff, most clubs in a sport awash with money pay their staff, the minimum wage. The minimum, the smallest amount allowed; what a tawdry ambition. The idea that this tremendous sum of TV money might find it’s way into fans’ pockets is beyond risible, it’s heretical, it is against the doctrine of “market fundamentalism”. Fans are customers and customers will be charged the maximum amount possible. The maximum; what an unpleasant sentiment.

The continuing disregard for the role of fans will no doubt be exacerbated by this lolloping wodge of extraordinary dosh. The game is funded by big business and fans don’t matter, they are little more than set dressing, crowd artists, extras, herded ambience for a global TV audience.

Can we bear to try to understand those white men? Those neat Neanderthals in a silver fuselage have probably supported Chelsea all their lives. Likely their dads and grandfathers supported Chelsea. The Chelsea that existed in a world that may as well have been in the stone age, with none of Abramovich’s dubious billions, the Chelsea of Ken Bates, or further back a team that before 1905 was run from their local pub.

Their club has been taken from them; their game has been taken from them. You understand I’m not seeking to excuse racism, racism is no longer on the table of discussion for right-minded people, even the most ardent racists grudgingly cast aside their dumb creed as obsolete along with the VHS. It is a curse for those who suffer from it and a burden to those who practice it. What must they be feeling to behave so cruelly to another man? A man ultimately no different from them.

My feeling is that behind the ugly bravado and louche violence is a fearful impotence. Lost with nothing to believe in and knowing they don’t matter they dig for meaning by stirring the cadaver of revolting dead prejudice. Sulyman S said these men should be found and locked up and it’s difficult to disagree with this unjustly abused man, attacked in his own country by invading thugs. I would agree that these men should be found, because clearly they are lost but they are already locked up. Locked in lives without meaning, where they are as obsolete as their wailing, where their connection to community and history has been coldly stripped and sold.

In Germany all but two of the Bundesliga clubs are controlled by fans, tickets are reasonably priced and the common voice is heard.

All football clubs should be controlled by the fans that support them, that love them and the communities that they represent.

Perhaps the Chelsea spokesman was right, perhaps these actions took place outside of society, perhaps these men are outside of society, discarded and redundant, bonded only by shared hate. Perhaps the Premier League similarly exists outside society, garnering huge wealth and hogging it for itself, not sharing the bounty with fans, growing bitter on the fringes. Or perhaps under “Capitalist Extremism” there is no society at all.

The destination of the hooligans on the train is inextricably linked to the journey of the modern game. If you treat fans like they don’t matter, like they’re not worthy of grace, then it isn’t surprising that some behave disgracefully. When fans take back the clubs that are theirs, and run them collectively, aberrant acts like the metro racism can be communally condemned from a just position, not the altar of cold profiteering and cunning hypocrisy.

10 Jan 2015

Paris

Away on holiday in a low signal land events in Paris are glimpsed as if through a crack in a door back to a terrible and confusing world.

This violence now though has the eerie familiarity and bilious dread of a recurring nightmare and can be pieced together with weary glances at airport lounge TVs, foreign newspapers and despairing texts from troubled friends.

Devastation in the City of Love, the New Year already feels tainted, blood stained in January by murder and sieges and grieving widows.

I don’t know much about Charlie Hebdo, the satirical magazine where the murders took place. As a believer in God I respect the beliefs of all faiths, as a human being I respect freedom of speech. Where do we go then beyond fear and condemnation, cowed in the  valley of the shadow of death two weeks into 2015?

How can any spiritual scripture be used as justification for mass murder? How can the tenet that The Prophet ought never be depicted ever override Islam’s most mundane greeting AsSalaam alaikum – “peace and mercy be upon you”? It can’t and it doesn’t.

The young, bewildered, pitiable men that carry out these atrocities probably at the behest of older, power hungry men do not speak for Islam or Muhammad or Allah.

This language has nothing to do with the God I believe in or the God any of the Muslims I know believe in.

These men of murder are the symptom of a creed that lies as far away from God as is possible to conceive and do not represent Islam anymore than George Bush, Tony Blair and Halliburton represented Christianity, or ordinary, secular Europeans and Americans when they profited from the bombing of innocent Iraqis.

I suppose there will now be calls to curb our freedom. There will be tension and fear in mixed communities like the one I live in, there will be a temptation to generalise and damn in the bleak and monotonous tears of these insistent tragedies.

The awful fact is that violence of this type is almost impossible to stop. If any of us decide to yield to the terror within us and inflict violence, misguidedly or arbitrarily then how can it be prevented? More gates and bars and guards? More spying and borders and hate? More division and suspicion and derision? That is the philosophy that got us here.

The only answer is in the territory of the spirit, in the deep interconnectedness within us all. In the acceptance that all action on this plane is the manifestation of an inner realm and violence of an inner malady. Our only hope is compassion and love. To marshall vigorously the only terror and violence we can absolutely control; that which is within us individually.

I don’t mean this in a wet, liberal “kumbaye ah me lord” type way. I am saying that we must love as passionately as they hate. We must respect as vehemently as they desecrate. It is not easy to be peaceful and loving in the face of dreadful violence but it’s all we have.

The reason I feel frightened by tragedies such as this is because I think there’s nothing I can do, but there is. I can love and tolerate and reach across the fear. In places where secular and religious folk live together we have got to start observing the main message of every scripture; “be nice”.

All the other stuff is speculation; which book is best, which God is the most mighty. None of us know what’s beyond the sensory realm, this tiny sliver of material life strewn within the infinite. But we each have the power to create heaven or hell here on Earth, extremists on all sides are clear in their intentions and actions, we, the vast, powerful majority, Christians, Muslims, atheists and undecideds have to be more committed and more determined. We must love life more than they love death. We must love each other more than they hate, in God’s name, in Allah’s name in Charlie’s name, in all our names.

08 Jan 2015

Amma

image

You know when someone says “Come and stay at our ashram in Southern India” and you say “I will” whilst simultaneously thinking – “Yeah, like I’m going to an ashram. I don’t even know what an ashram is”?

Well, I actually went.

I now know that an Ashram is a community that is run on spiritual principles, in this instance, Amrita, near Kochi in Kerala is founded on the philanthropic ideology of Amma; if you know of Amma at all it will be as the Indian woman who tours the world dishing out cuddles to anyone who wants one.

When I first heard of “The hugging saint” I thought how can you get to be a saint just by hugging? My understanding is that  you have to do at least three miracles that are then verified by the Vatican. I suppose my fervently competitive nature is incensed by the notion of another’s canonisation –“That’s not fair, I want to be a saint” I think. Plus if epic physical interaction is now a milieu that’s acknowledged in the mystical realm I’d like to trade my “Shagger Of The Year” awards for something more spiritually substantial. Like sainthood.

This frivolity aside I first met Amma in Manhattan about five years ago with my mate Eddie Stern who happens to be one of the world’s foremost yoga teachers. Interesting how the world of eastern spirituality, a world that defies form and deifies oneness, is still beset by fierce hierarchy. At least it is when it comes into contact with my daft world view.

This conditioning means I bring cynicism and competitiveness to all new data and as such when first introduced the carnival that surrounds Amma there was a director’s commentary of doubt underscoring the gentle awe of our first meeting. From the back of the 5000 seater venue beyond the Amma calenders and other more bizarre forms of merch, upon the stage she sat, devotees around her conducting the complex midwifery that accompanies each hug. Due to the deluge of cuddle hungry punters an infrastructure has been designed around the ritual that is a bit like a baptism and a bit like the queue for Space Mountain in Disney World Florida. As you near the front, certain that the hours of waiting are at an end, a new, sub queue appears, as you snake towards the giddy ascension.

At the summit, Amma, which is Malalayam for “Mother” is backed by swamis and sari swathed acolytes. There is no grandeur, no messianic staring or theatrical laying on of hands, just a dark brown woman dressed in white giving out cuddles and sweets. In my cultural catalogue, which, let’s face it, was printed in Essex, the only reference I could reach for was visiting Father Christmas’s grotto in Debenhams, Lakeside.

The first embrace that I received was simple. No fireworks but a distilled maternal warmth, that hummed with infantile comfort. As I knelt and sank into Amma’s embrace she murmured something into my ear in a language I didn’t understand but seemed to remember.

I thought about the experience a lot. Why has this simple practice conducted by a fisherman’s daughter from Southern India become a global phenomena? What need is being met? What is being issued along with that hug?

The next time I met Amma was in December last year at Alexander Palace, I heard from a hippie lady at a book signing I was doing that Amma was in town and went along with my mate Mick who chariots me around and the filmmaker Adam Curtis, who is Tolkienesque in demeanour and gargantuan in intellect. The idea of dragging him off to be cuddled down the Ally Pally, all jammed with seekers and freaks gave me a real kick.

Like in New York, the vast space was packed with people wanting on the surface at least, a cuddle from a woman, who if on appearance alone sought asylum in Britain would be slung into a detention centre in Bedford.

It was while waiting on the stage having had my hug that a bespectacled and youthful swami whose name sounded alarmingly like “Shoebomber” said to me “”Come stay at our ashram in Kerala sometime”
“I will” I said.
“Fat chance” I thought.

But here I am on this slender, tropical peninsula that was briefly submerged by the tsunami in 2004 and where Amma was born fifty odd years ago.  We were ferried by Brian (Let’s Stick Together), an American who met us at the airport and became “Goatem” as we crossed  the threshold of the ashram, like Batman when the signal goes up. He explained that Amma was serving lunch to everyone and if we went straight away we’d be fed. I was knackered and really wanted to go to my room but sensed to do so would be seen as a snub. “Don’t snub a saint” I thought worried I might get cursed or bad voodoo so I compliantly shuffled along.

The ashram was like the smugglers bar in Star Wars, filled with jostling oddities; backpackers, swamis, locals, yokels, some silent some vocal, Indians, Americans, Brits, Germans, swarming in chaotic harmony. A giant pink temple with stone elephants and garlands is the central point and pink residential tower blocks flank it. It’s bigger than I expected and more vibrant. This initial scene of dusty wonder is just for starters though, for rounding the corner to where I’m told Amma is there is a secondary quad of buildings; a cafe, more homes and a covered aircraft hangar like structure filled with thousands, literally thousands of people and at the front sits Amma, children at her feet, devotees all about her, serving up grub.

We are taken to the front to see her and get fed and it’s bizarre. As I take a plate from Amma who smiles at me through the mayhem I turn and thousands of eyes are on me, or rather her and I’m a temporary obstacle, I do a sort of Kenneth Williams “oooh”-face and get a little laugh from Amma and the crowd.

Like you I am suspicious of anything that seems too good to be true, like you, I’ve been trained to judge the actions of others in accordance with my own rather more basic motivations.

If you too question the intentions of people that help others then get ready for an epic inquiry. Amma, who many here believe to be a divine incarnation has done some incredible humanitarian work including building five universities across India, several hospitals providing free healthcare for the poor, vocational training centres, an orphanage, hospices, 125,000 free homes for the homeless, 50,000 free meals a month for the poor, monthly pensions for destitute women, free clinics, and disaster relief for the tsunami relief and hurricane Katrina.

Even if you strip Amma’s achievements of all spiritual accoutrement, the chanting, hugging and praying, you’re still left with a sort of Indian Oprah Winfrey.

For a woman of such humble birth to have contributed so richly would have to constitute at least one miracle, I thought as I reclined on the hard flat bed of the basic room on the 7th floor of one of the blocks where I stayed. The Oprah comparison seems less trite as I survey the treats that have been laid on in the room; Amma branded chocolates and soap, her image adorns posters and products throughout the ashram, and if you cynically query this, as I did, then I suppose we need take a good look at our own western idolatry which centres on such worthy icons as celebrity chefs and giant transforming robots.

Obviously I want to believe that Amma between hugging the multitudes and feeding the masses is a decadent fraud who lives in clandestine opulence scoffing her own chocolates and at her naive worshippers. When I visit her dwelling for a chat this aspersion is cast aside as she lives in a flat similar to the one I’m staying in, aside from a few accrued religious knick-knacks, yards from the house where she was born.

The ashram has organically sprouted from this site and the initially suspicious villagers, who thought Amma was a nut when she was growing up (she went round hugging everyone) now adore her. The breakthrough came with the ashrams instantaneous and efficient response to the tsunami. Amma herself was wading through the flood setting up relief camps and consoling the bereaved even before the second wave hit. In many respects Amma could be regarded as a remarkable secular leader; she gets things done. On the subject of the existence of God she said “The question is not is there a God but is there suffering?”

Evidently there is suffering and the averred solution is loving pragmatism. Such is the positive impact of Amma’s work that if I found out she’d murdered a couple of people on her way to the top I’d think it forgivable but it seems there are no skeletons in the closet. In fact looking around her flat I can’t see a closet- if she had one she’d probably let an orphan sleep in it.

Russell Brand Amma

Naturally I asked Amma about revolution. She answered through her interpreter – Shubhamarita (who I’d thought was called “Shoebomber” remember) that the world of politics is so corrupt that it automatically weeds out the well-intentioned and anyone sincere will be subjected to pestilent mudslinging.

An analysis that’s hard to dispute, although I’m never fully relaxed when communicating through a translator. When I interviewed the Dalai Lama a few years back I’m pretty sure, judging from His Holiness’ sour expression, that his interpreter ballsed up a few of my sizzling wisecracks. Misinterpretation was the only possible reason, the jokes were solid.

With Amma I put in a few untranslatable words, like famous names to circumnavigate the problem. For example, when asking If Amma’s spiritual nature is divine how can it be conveyed or taught? Here I cited the genius of Diego Maradona as an analogy. “Diego Maradona was a sublime player but not so good as a coach because genius is non transferable, if Amma is a kind of spiritual genius how can we normal folk learn from her?”

I heard amidst the translator’s Malayalam, the native language of Kerala and the only language Amma speaks, the name of Argentina’s peerless soccer star, like in a Fast Show sketch.

Her answer pertained to the presence of divine gifts in everyone but I wasn’t t entirely sure that the question had been understood. I repeated it later to some western devotees while eating – beloved Goatem/Brian, PooNar, a beautiful Malaysian woman, Vivek from Reading, and Vinay from Wisconsin. This time away from Amma’s gently shimmering presence, I’m more candid in my syntax “In me there is an animal that wants to kill and fuck, how can anyone, like Amma, born divinely connected ever understand that?” Vinay who first met Amma when he was a boy, thrust into her presence by New Age parents, put it succinctly “Perhaps we can never be like Amma, entirely devoted to service and love, but from her we can each learn to elevate the aspect of ourselves that is and perhaps, as a result, the world as a whole”

The people I hung out with at the Ashram were cool, from the fully switched-on swamis who emanated ochre kindness and westerners basically like me; lost, lonely and hollow, disillusioned with the religions of the west – materialism, consumerism and individualism, certain that there must be something more.

On New Years Eve it becomes clearer what that might be. The aircraft hangar is jammed and banging, it’s a holy rave up. Amma has spent the day doing dharshan – that’s the cuddles, she goes on for ages, 12, 14, 16 hours at a time, hugging everyone without discrimination, turning away no one. Then just prior to midnight the kids at the ashram school put on a performance and then Bhajan – a call and response series of songs led by Amma, beautifully accompanied by a dozen musicians on keyboards, bongos and what not.

The climactic number is like a football chant to Kali, goddess of creation and at the chorus Amma shouts something and everyone, which now constitutes 10,000 amped up people shout back “Jai”. I’m sure no one here feels desperate, hopeless or alone. It’s intense. It’s like Upton Park. Except obviously at Upton Park desperation is frequently palpable. With each choral holler arms are flung heavenward. The people, together as one.

What Amma has intuited, or was born knowing, is that everyone wants to be loved and that everyone is worthy of love. Like a Mother she loves unconditionally and serves expediently.

What she demonstrates, we in our loveless social structures are scrabbling to discard. In Amma we have an example of what can be achieved if we build upon the principle of love. Throughout our crumbling culture there is fear, desire and anger and more and more, we all need a hug, the solution to our spiritual sickness might be simple, we can start to change the world by loving each other.

17 Dec 2014

Hello Jo

Hello Jo, thanks for your open letter, I do remember you from the melee outside RBS and firstly, I’d like to say sorry for your paella getting cold. It’s not nice to suffer because of actions that are nothing to do with you. I imagine the disabled people of our country who have been hit with £6bn of benefit cuts during the period that RBS received £46bn of public bail-out money feel similarly cheesed off.

I can’t apologise for the RBS lockdown though mate because, I don’t have the authority to close great big institutions – even ones found guilty of criminal activity.

The locking of the doors and your tarnished lunch came about as the result of orders from “the faceless bosses” upstairs after I wandered in on my own while we secretly filmed from across the street – then security swarmed, all the doors were locked and crowds gathered outside. I must say Jo; it felt like RBS had something terrible to hide. But more of that in a minute.

Neither was I there for publicity, although you could be forgiven for thinking that; for many years I have earned my money (and paid my taxes) by showing off. If I needed negative publicity (and, believe me, that’s all talking publicly about inequality can ever get you) I could get it by using the “N word” on telly, or putting a cat in a bin, or having a romantic liaison with the lad from TOWIE.

I was there with filmmaker Michael Winterbottom making a documentary about how the economic crises caused by the banking industry (RBS were found guilty of rigging Libor and the foreign exchange) has led to an economic attack on the most vulnerable people in society. I don’t want to undermine your personal inconvenience Jo, I’d be the first to admit that I’m often more vexed by little things; iPhone chargers continually changing makes me as angry as apartheid – so I can’t claim any personal moral high ground, but a chance to make a film that highlights how £80bn of austerity cuts were made, punishing society’s most vulnerable during the same period that bankers awarded themselves £81bn in bonuses was irresistible.

The mob upstairs at RBS who exiled you with your rapidly deteriorating lunch have had £4bn in bonuses since the crash. Do they deserve our money more than Britain’s disabled? Or Britain’s students who are now charged to learn? Is that fair?

They were some of the questions I was hoping to ask your boss – but we got no joy through the “proper channels” so we decided to just show up.

Not just to RBS, but also to Lloyds, HSBC and Barclays. I know that the regular folk on the floor aren’t guilty of this trick against ordinary people; they’re like anyone, trying to make ends meet. As you point out though, it’s hard to get to the men at the top so we were forced into door-stopping and inadvertent lunch spoiling. The good news is that this film and even this correspondence will reach hundreds of thousands of people and they’ll learn how they’re being conned by the financial industry and turned against one another – that’s got to be a good thing, even if it makes me look a bit of a twit in the process and the national dish of Spain is eaten sub-par.

Now I’ll be the first to admit your lunch has been an unwitting casualty in this well-intentioned quest but I couldn’t resist the opportunity to ask new RBS boss Ross McEwan if he thinks it’s right that he got a £3.2m “golden hello” when the RBS is sellotaped together with money that comes from everyone else’s taxes. I wonder what he would’ve said? Or whether it’s right that Fred “the shred” (he shredded evidence of impropriety) Goodwin gets to keep his £320k a year pension while disabled people have had their independent living fund scrapped.

And it’s not just RBS mate. Lloyds, Barclays, Citibank and HSBC have all been found guilty of market rigging and not one banker has been jailed.

Trillions of public money lost and stolen and no one prosecuted. Remember in the riots when disaffected youth nicked the odd bottle of water or a stray pair of trainers? Criminal, I agree. 1800 years worth of sentences were meted out in special courts, to make an example. Some crime doesn’t pay, but some crime definitely does. My school mate Leigh Pickett, a fireman is being told that he and his colleagues won’t be able to collect their pension until five years later than agreed, five more years of backbreaking, flame engulfed labour – why? Because of austerity.
Put simply Jo, the banks took the money, the people paid the price.

I was there to ask a few questions to the guilty parties, now I know that’s not you, you’re just a bloke trying to make a crust and evidently you like that crust warm – but again, it wasn’t me who locked the RBS, I just asked a few difficult questions and the place went nuts. The people that have inconvenienced homeowners, pensioners, the disabled and ordinary working Brits are the same ones who inconvenienced you that lunchtime. They’ve got a lot to hide, so they locked the doors. You said my “agro demeanor” reminded you of school. Your letter reminded me of school too, when the teacher would say, “because Russell’s been naughty, the whole class has to stay behind”.

I’d never knowingly keep a workingman from his dinner, it’s unacceptable and I do owe you an apology for being lairy.

So Jo, get in touch, I owe you an apology and I’d like to take you for a hot paella to make up for the one that went cold – though you could say that was actually the fault of the shady shysters who nicked the wedge and locked you out, I’d rather err on the side of caution. When I make a mistake I like to apolgise and put it right. Hopefully your bosses will do the same to the people of Britain.

15 Oct 2014

What monkeys and the Queen taught me about inequality – second extract from ‘Revolution’

When travelling in impoverished regions in galling luxury, as I have done, you have to undergo some high-wire ethical arithmetic to legitimise your position. If you can’t geographically separate yourself from poverty, then you have to do it ideologically. You have to believe inequality is OK. You have to accept the ideas that segregate us from one another and nullify your human instinct for fairness.

Edward Slingerland, a professor of ancient Chinese philosophy at Stanford University, demonstrated this instinct to me with the use of hazelnuts. As we spoke, there was a bowl of them on the table. “Russell,” he said, scooping up a handful, “we humans have an inbuilt tendency towards fairness. If offered an unfair deal, we will want to reject it. If I have a huge bowl of nuts and offer you just one or two, how do you feel?”

The answer was actually quite complex. Firstly, I dislike hazelnuts, considering them to be the verminous titbits of squirrels. Secondly, they were my hazelnuts anyway; we were in my house. Most pertinently though, I felt that it was an unfair offering when he had so many nuts. He explained that human beings and even primates have an instinct for fairness even in situations where this instinct could be seen as detrimental. “You still have more nuts now than before,” he chirped, failing to acknowledge that all the nuts and indeed everything in the entire house belonged to me.

Continue reading here

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13 Oct 2014

Extract from Russell’s new book ‘Revolution’

I suppose we must each ask of ourselves – or each other, have fun with it, it could be a quiz – two fundamental questions: 1) Are you happy with things the way they are? And 2) Do you believe that things could be better?

I know most people want change. I know most people can’t be happy with the current regime. In any electoral process worth having, we might assume that the 3.5 billion people who have as much wealth collectively as the 85 richest people in the world are up for some amendments an’ all. I just used the calculator on my phone to subtract 85 from 3.5 billion and the answer had a letter in it. Even the calculator has gone berserk at this injustice.

That aside, a significant number of people are not happy with the way things are. I’m not, and I’ve done all right out of this system: I’ve a big house, a nice cat, and when I write books, they’re immediately put on the school curriculum. So this system has not been bad to me. I’ve been given everything I wanted. The problem is, I didn’t really want it. That desire was put there. Who put it there? And why?

Continue reading on The Guardian

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14 Aug 2014

Robin Williams’ divine madness will no longer disrupt the sadness of the world

I’d been thinking about Robin Williams a bit recently. His manager Larry Bresner told me that when Robin was asked by a German journalist on a press junket why the Germans had a reputation for humourlessness that Williams replied, “Because you killed all the funny people.”

Robin Williams was exciting to me because he seemed to be sat upon a geyser of comedy. Like he didn’t manufacture it laboriously within but had only to open a valve and it would come bursting through in effervescent jets. He was plugged into the mains of comedy.
I was aware too that this burbling and manic man-child that I watched on the box on my Nan’s front room floor with a Mork action figure (I wish I still had that, he came in a plastic egg) struggled with mental illness and addiction. The chaotic clarity that lashed like an electric cable, that razzed and sparked with amoral, puckish wonder was in fact harvested madness. A refinement of an energy that could turn as easily to destruction as creativity.

He spoke candidly about his mental illness and addiction, how he felt often on a precipice of self-destruction, whether through substance misuse or some act of more certain finality. I thought that this articulate acknowledgement amounted to a kind of vaccine against the return of such diseased thinking, which has proven to be hopelessly naive.
When someone gets to 63 I imagined, hoped, I suppose, that maturity would grant an immunity to adolescent notions of suicide but today I read that suicide isn’t exclusively a young man’s game. Robin Williams at 63 still hadn’t come to terms with being Robin Williams.

Now I am incapable of looking back at my fleeting meeting with him with any kind of objectivity, I am bound to apply, with hindsight, some special significance to his fragility, meekness and humility. Hidden behind his beard and kindness and compliments was a kind of awkwardness, like he was in the wrong context or element, a fallen bird on a hard floor.

It seems that Robin Williams could not find a context. Is that what drug use is? An attempt to anaesthetise against a reality that constantly knocks against your nerves, like tinfoil on an old school filling, the pang an urgent message to a dormant, truer you.
Is it melancholy to think that a world that Robin Williams can’t live in must be broken? To tie this sad event to the overarching misery of our times? No academic would co-sign a theory in which the tumult of our fractured and unhappy planet is causing the inherently hilarious to end their lives, though I did read that suicide among the middle-aged increased inexplicably in 1999 and has been rising ever since. Is it a condition of our era?

Poor Robin Williams, briefly enduring that lonely moment of morbid certainty where it didn’t matter how funny he was or who loved him or how many lachrymose obituaries would be written. I feel bad now that I was unduly and unbefittingly snooty about that handful of his films that were adjudged unsophisticated and sentimental. He obviously dealt with a pain that was impossible to render and ultimately insurmountable, the sentimentality perhaps an accompaniment to his childlike brilliance.

We sort of accept that the price for that free-flowing, fast-paced, inexplicable comic genius is a counterweight of solitary misery. That there is an invisible inner economy that demands a high price for breathtaking talent. For me genius is defined by that irrationality; how can he talk like that? Play like that? Kick a ball like that? A talent that was not sculpted and schooled, educated and polished but bursts through the portal, raw and vulgar. Always mischievous, always on the brink of going wrong, dangerous and fun, like drugs.

Robin Williams could have tapped anyone in the western world on the shoulder and told them he felt down and they would have told him not to worry, that he was great, that they loved him. He must have known that. He must have known his wife and kids loved him, that his mates all thought he was great, that millions of strangers the world over held him in their hearts, a hilarious stranger that we could rely on to anarchically interrupt, the all-encompassing sadness of the world. Today Robin Williams is part of the sad narrative that we used to turn to him to disrupt.

What platitudes then can we fling along with the listless, insufficient wreaths at the stillness that was once so animated and wired, the silence where the laughter was? That fame and accolades are no defence against mental illness and addiction? That we live in a world that has become so negligent of human values that our brightest lights are extinguishing themselves? That we must be more vigilant, more aware, more grateful, more mindful? That we can’t tarnish this tiny slice of awareness that we share on this sphere amidst the infinite blackness with conflict and hate?

That we must reach inward and outward to the light that is inside all of us? That all around us people are suffering behind masks less interesting than the one Robin Williams wore? Do you have time to tune in to Fox News, to cement your angry views to calcify the certain misery?

What I might do is watch Mrs Doubtfire. Or Dead Poets Society or Good Will Hunting and I might be nice to people, mindful today how fragile we all are, how delicate we are, even when fizzing with divine madness that seems like it will never expire.

 

First published in The Guardian, 12th August 2014

19 Jun 2014

I Want to Believe

Russell Brand on England and World Cup

The world isn’t made of atoms, it’s made of stories. The World Cup is an arena in which narratives are fulfilled. Heroes, villains, scapegoats, underdogs, triumphs, near-misses and tragedies, all are played out on a global stage, a pagan drama in a secular age.

Here I am, another World Cup, staying up late, worrying, hoping, like a heroine in a Motown song or Angie Watts, jumping back into the arms of my three-lion lover, murmuring the split-lipped refrain of the abused, “This time they’ve changed”.

If I could’ve told little eleven-year-old Russell, bereft in the asphalt wasteland of Little Thurrock Primary School as he listened to the bewildering lies of Jamie Dawkins (that England would be allowed to proceed in the tournament and that Diego Maradona’s Quarter Final hand ball had been retroactively banned by FIFA; he was the hardest kid in our school, I had no choice but to believe) that in 2014 I’d be once more, like a wincing white-coal fire walker, striding into the agonising known he’d’ve been dazzled.

It’s also likely that adult, time-traveller me would’ve been arrested because I’d’ve been unable to resist giving Dawkins a bit of a dig for all the bullying and that, along with my very presence in a primary school playground, would’ve been grounds for police intervention.

The excuse “I’m a time traveller from 2014 come back to warn my child self against the perils of forming an emotional attachment to England because it leads to heartache and contradicts my wider philosophy that nationalism is outmoded and conflagratory” would likely be greeted by the Essex constabulary as confirmation that they were indeed dealing with a paedophile and see me slammed in the cells.

As a child, in the spirit of Pulp’s “Disco 2000”, I’d often wonder where I’d be at the arrival of forthcoming World Cups, in ’86 when it first became relevant to me, the idea that in 2014 Gary Lineker, the Golden Boot winner, would be a silver-haired anchor and I at 39 would be older than every player in the tournament, would’ve been as inconceivable as refs using sputum sprays to mark 10 yards or a World Cup held in a desert due to alleged corruption.

When in Italia ’90 I heard that Cameroon’s Roger Milla was 38 I was amazed he could walk, let alone do that sexy pole dance he did at the corner flag to celebrate scoring, 38? It was like Father Christmas was in the team.

It is an indication of how indelible and deep the game’s grammar is seated that a relatively innocuous addition like the foam ejaculate seems so absurd and anomalous. It’s a highly territorial and aggressive piece of bureaucracy.

In the Spain vs Holland match the ref jizzed a blob of foam on Bruno Martins Indi’s bootie and the player looked furious. That moment would’ve been inexplicable to a viewer from the recent past, an aggrieved player berating the ref for spurting grog on his footwear. This addition lends further credence, though, to the beloved chant “The referee’s a wanker”.

The destruction of the invincible Spanish is a result that indicates two things; it could be a classic World Cup and no one knows anything about football. When Spain announced their squad the commentators went into an orgy of praise, fetishising even the omissions. “Negredo doesn’t even make the squad,” they gasped.

Well, Spain have been thrashed. Arjen Robben, a Nobby Styles for our day, a man born bald, who’ll die bald and looked like a gnarled Woodbine-smoking mill worker when he was 16, tore through the world’s best team the way he tears through time, like it doesn’t exist.

Is it me or did he leave Chelsea about ten years ago? I thought he arrived at Chelsea with a reputation. Who is he, Benjamin Button? If Holland get to the final he’ll probably run out wearing a bonnet and a nappy.

It is this certainty that expectation can be subverted that provides an aperture through which our nation can glimpse hope. We, like hapless romantics, can use any co-ordinates we’re given to construct a narrative that aligns with our yearning.

I swear to you, I’d given up on England, like a hardcore fan that cares more about his club side than the wet festival of Jules Rimet. But like Michael Corleone, every time I think I’ve escaped they keep pulling me back in. Here are the threads that are leading me back to dreamland.

Firstly, Roy Hodgson. I like him, I mean I think he’s lovely, decent, proper, one of yer own. A Bobby Robson, granddad of the game. He exhibits I think the type of human values we subconsciously long for in a national patriarch. We know the score with England managers, we look for ways to dislike them; turnips, wallies with brollies, saucy Swedes, austere Italians; “do we not like them”.

I think Roy Hodgson’s polite and gentle defence of Wayne Rooney who provided an assist but looked out of position and frustrated on the left was deft and sweet. He weren’t having none of it. Gabby Logan asked if Rooney looked stymied and Roy said “he didn’t agree” and that Wayne had “set up our goal, with a fine piece of play”.

He also has soft r’s, which make language flow from him in a mellifluous stream, bubbling across flat rocks.

Rooney did look well wound up though and seems like he needs taking care of. I liken his frustration to erectile dysfunction. He knows what he’s got to do but the pressure, the knowledge of the open goal, hugs his mind to facile, vascular minutia and screws his rhythm.

Contrast him with the unencumbered youths that form the most obvious hooks upon which we can hang our optimism; Sterling and Barkley look invincible and priapic, like no one’s ever explained performance anxiety to them. Firing off shots and roaring across the painted turf, lead by purple, throbbing certainty.

Leighton Baines looked exposed, perhaps due to the lack of a tracking back midfield presence in front of him. I watched the game with my girlfriend and while there was a fair amount of clichéd enquiry and a demand to know X Factor type backstory of players to give her a way to care, she also did that thing that people who know little about a subject sometimes do and pointed out obvious flaws and features that were surprisingly astute. She announced midway through the second half that Baines was her “scapegoat” which was prescient as well as in keeping with the conduct of far more experienced fans.

The world isn’t made of atoms, it’s made of stories, the World Cup too is an arena in which narratives are fulfilled. Heroes, villains, scapegoats, underdogs, triumphs, near-misses and tragedies, all are played out on a global stage, a pagan drama in a secular age.

That is why I, a self-proclaimed clever person, will feel, not think, feel a visceral connection to the men in white shirts and antipathy to those in blue. I said some borderline racist stuff watching the game on Saturday. Well xenophobic, I mentioned the war, criticised Mussolini and tortellini. I truly believed that I had a connection to the carbon-composed, sentient life forms dressed in white that I didn’t share with those in blue. I believed that my life would be improved by a favourable result for the manufactured concept of “England” over the manufactured concept of “Italy”.

I hope the world has changed by 2018 and 2022 and 2026 and 2030. I hope we have found a way of uniting in spite of our differences, of extrapolating our connection to one another beyond prescribed sporting festivals. I hope we can create an identity that brings the world together under one banner of brotherhood, love and justice that we can all believe in. Those dreams are for future World Cups though and future worlds. For now, in 2014, I just want to believe in Raheem Sterling.

06 Feb 2014

Phillip Seymour Hoffman is another victim of extremely stupid drug laws.

In Hoffman’s domestic or sex life there is no undiscovered riddle – the man was a drug addict and, thanks to our drug laws, his death inevitable

Philip Seymour Hoffman’s death was not on the bill.

If it’d been the sacrifice of Miley Cyrus or Justin Bieber, that we are invited to anticipate daily, we could delight in the Faustian justice of the righteous dispatch of a fast-living, sequin-spattered denizen of eMpTyV. We are tacitly instructed to await their demise with necrophilic sanctimony. When the end comes, they screech on Fox and TMZ, it will be deserved. The Mail provokes indignation, luridly baiting us with the sidebar that scrolls from the headline down to hell.

Read entire article here

06 Nov 2013

Russell Brand: we deserve more from our democratic system

I’ve had an incredible week since I spoke from the heart, some would say via my arse, on Paxman. I’ve had slaps on the back, fist bumps, cheers and hugs while out and about, cock-eyed offers of political power from well intentioned chancers and some good ol’ fashioned character assassinations in the papers.

Continue reading here