I always maintain that I take on a persona when writing columns for the Observer: that of an adopted man, from a relatively normal social background, who is an obvious victim of imposter syndrome. I don’t so much write the columns as transcribe them. The adopted man stands at my shoulder, just out of sight, biting his nails and chewing the inside of his face, mumbling things into my ear, some of which I mishear. He simply can’t believe he is being employed by a posh left-leaning newspaper that his own parents wouldn’t have read, and knows there has been some mistake.
Thus, he tries to compensate by employing overfinessed language and attempting to give a good account of himself, politically and intellectually, aware that he is being scrutinised by his betters.
Obviously, as this persona is the same as me, it is not a massive stretch to channel it, although I am surprised this other me hasn’t been sacked. What is true of both the columnist and the standup characters of me is that over the period of producing work in the interregnum between the EU referendum, in June 2016, and the supposed departure date, 29 March 2019, both became increasingly angry, bitter and incoherent.
Similarly, comments from members of the public, like those on the column republished below, from members of the public who uploaded their views to social media or the paper’s website, while often astute in identifying weaknesses in the work, also become more frenzied as the months pass, as if we are witnessing a collective national unravelling of sense. Many of them, it is increasingly clear, are also the work of anonymous agents, perhaps hired for the purpose, intent on advancing very specific disruptive processes on behalf of unnamed paymasters.
The only voice you can trust is the one the footnotes are written in, which seems to be pursuing its own agenda: an autobiographical unburdening intent on setting various stories straight, as if the author, now suddenly finding himself in his 50s and watching the world he knows fall apart and decay as he himself in turn falls apart and decays, can sense death on the horizon and wants to leave his personal effects in order, to minimise the inconvenience caused to his family.
Observer column, 1 May 2016: ‘The EU debate is a battle of big beasts, not beliefs’
Last weekend I found myself trapped on an isolated, monster- infested Pacific atoll with a pair of twin psychic Japanese schoolgirls. A skyscraper-sized lizard, with three fire-breathing heads, the result of careless radioactive experiments in the 50s, and now a huge and clumsy metaphor for both the dangers of human scientific meddling with Mother Nature and postwar Japanese identity anxiety, had cornered us in a cave on the beach. *1
My new friends Lora and Moll hoped to summon to our aid a gigantic moth, with roughly the dimensions of an airship, over which they exercised a strange interspecies erotic sway. Anticipating this titanic struggle of equally matched opponents, each driven by blind instinct and insensible to reason, my thoughts naturally turned to June’s forthcoming Brexit vote.
Arguments about Brexit are tearing my family apart. In March, drunk in the late dark, and loose on the internet, I had ordered a European flag from Amazon, intending to fly it from the roof come the week of the Eurovote, so as to annoy any divs living locally.
But I forgot about the flag and left it on the sofa, and now the cat has taken to sleeping under it. *2
Which is odd, as previously he was an avowed Eurosceptic, and would hiss aggressively whenever I put any European free jazz on the stereo. Indeed, we have on occasion used Günter “Baby” Sommer’s Hörmusik solo percussion album to drive him from the room when he made a smell.
In a heated late-night argument with my pro-Brexit stepbrother two weeks ago, I used the contented cat’s obvious happiness underneath the European flag to show him how Europe could shelter and comfort us, like cats under a flag. My stepbrother, brilliantly, snatched the European flag off the cat’s back to show how the creature, and by association the nation, was quite capable of functioning without the embrace of Europe. I think this is an example of the kind of easy-to-understand argument the British public claim has been denied them in favour of tedious figures and facts about trade, environmental legislation, human rights and immigration.
The cat looked annoyed and eyed both of us with resentment. Already, the Brexit debate is tearing families apart, stepbrother against stepbrother, stepbrother against stepbrother‑in-law, stepbrother-in-law against stepcat. “Shouldn’t you be in Japan by now, anyway?” he said, throwing my flag on the fire.
A few days later I arrived in the so-called Land of the Rising Sun for a meeting with the famous Studio Haino, who had begun work on an anime version of my multiple Bafta- and British Comedy award-winning BBC2 series, Stewart Lee’s Comedy Vehicle, which they believed would play well with young Asian hipsters, jaded geisha and disillusioned samurai. *3
Because Fuck! Stewart Lee Pee-Pee Charabanc (the literal Japanese translation of Studio Haino’s new title for the show) was already expected to be a big hit, various merchandise spin-offs were almost up and running. A string of love beads, each sporting a different picture of my face, is already available in Japanese adult stores.
And since January I have been wearing four or five new pairs of pants a day, all of which will eventually take pride of place, when suitably soiled, in vending machines on the streets of Tokyo’s most fashionable districts.
My wife, of course, finds this turn of events ridiculous, but she will be laughing on the other side of her stupid face when the flyblown briefs she currently uses as dishcloths become priceless collector’s items.
And in the increasingly likely event of a British Brexit, the sale of these fetishised items will then fund our family’s relocation to the newly independent free Scotland, from where I will harry the airwaves of England and Wales with liberally biased leftwing satire, the Lord Haw-Haw of sparkling-wine socialism.
In retrospect, the scrum of the Scottish independence referendum looks dignified compared with the dirty war of Brexit. In Scotland, politicians on both sides of the divide at least seemed sincere in their beliefs, rather than selfishly using the nation’s concerns about its future to try to secure theirs.
Indeed, the day when Boris Johnson cynically accused the pro-Europe and “part-Kenyan” President Obama of being ancestrally ill-disposed towards Britain marks the moment at which the mayor of London changed from being merely a twat into a full-blown cunt.
It is appropriate to describe Johnson with pure witless swearing, for that is all he deserves. He is of a political class where any insult, no matter how vicious, is acceptable, if it is delivered with the rhetorical flourishes and classical allusions of the public-school debating society. Hence, Cameron can scornfully sneer at Jeremy Corbyn and describe Dennis Skinner as a dinosaur, yet the venerable beast himself is dismissed from the house when he calls Cameron merely “dodgy”.
The problem for the pro-Europe voter currently is that while obviously despising Cameron as both a person and a politician, one nonetheless wants him to prevail over Johnson, Gove, Iain Duncan Smith and the Brexit camp.
And as the giant moth arrived above the beach, momentarily blocking out the Japanese sun itself, and set about the three-headed lizard with electric rays from its head, I continued to ponder the Brexit campaign.
“Did he who made the lamb make thee?” asks William Blake of the Tyger. It was instinct that drove the moth and the lizard to fight, not ethics. They were as they were. Likewise, Johnson’s Brexit position represents only a fight for personal betterment, not a considered view on Europe. *4
There is an African fly that lays its eggs in the jelly of children’s eyes, the hatching larvae blinding them by feeding on the eye itself. But the fly has no quarrel with the child. It is merely following its nature.
Likewise, Boris Johnson, a vile grub laying his horrible eggs in the soft jelly of the EU debate, has no agenda beyond his own advancement. He believes in nothing, and neither does his spiritual soulmate, the eye-scoffing African fly.
We cowered in our cave, the twins and I, and watched the combat of the monsters. The honest open war of the giant moth and three-headed lizard made prime minister’s questions seem contrived and banal. The earth shook beneath their feet, triggering tidal waves and rivers of lava from the atoll’s smouldering volcano; vast explosions of startled birds scarred the sky; the landscape cracked. There was no “Mr Speaker”, no “Order, order”, no classical allusion and no drawing-room wit. There was only war, terrible war.
From 1977 onwards, the Midlands television region had a slot called The ATV Thursday Picture Show, broadcasting innocuous movies from 4.30 to 6pm after school. In my favourites, the giant monster epics of Japan’s Toho studios, skilled kabuki theatre practitioners in rubber lizard suits battled giant canvas moths and massive stucco lobsters in the beautiful ruins of miniature hand-crafted cityscapes. I was lucky enough to be able to recreate my childhood enthusiasm for the genre in a film item for series two of Stewart Lee’s Comedy Vehicle, in which I, dressed in a half-Godzilla costume, attacked the physical theatre performer Rob Thirtle (Space Precinct, Brum, Philip Glass’s Satyagraha), who appeared as some kind of crustacean, with a shopping bag. These Japanese monster performances still move me more than any computer-generated artifice because I can see the human hand at work. I would rush home from Widney junior school every Thursday, let myself in with the flowerpot latchkey and make toast, my mum still at work, ready for the highlight of the week. My favourite Japanese monster movie was Jun Fukuda’s 1967 effort Son of Godzilla, in which Godzilla fights giant web-shooting spiders to save his ugly turnip-faced crying son, Minilla. My own father wasn’t around much when I was young, and Godzilla taught me everything I know about parenting. You basically roar and stomp and everything works out in the end, as long as you love your kids and make sure that they know that. For God’s sake, make sure that they know that. And kill any lobster that threatens them. Burn it! Burn its face off!!
This cat died in mysterious circumstances in 2017. We were all inconsolably distraught, to the point where friends and relatives must have worried that we had lost all sense of perspective. But for the first 10 years of our marriage, my wife and I toured our standup acts relentlessly, trying to consolidate our appeal before it was too late, one of us away performing, the other at home parenting tiny children, in lonely rotation. And that cat was a constant, the family member you saw when you got in at 4am from Telford, waiting to greet you and welcome you home. He was a conduit that closed all four of us into a circle. How many substandard spaghetti westerns did I watch in the small hours, with the cat my only companion? How many late nights would I have spent drinking alone to kill the post-show adrenaline, like some sad alcoholic, unless that cat had been sitting up with me, making a legitimate social event of what would otherwise have been evidence of a gradual slide into a terrible addiction? “Have you caught any mice today?” I would ask him. That cat saved our marriage, I suspect, and when he knew we would be OK, he sensed his work was done and took himself away. Anyone who doesn’t like cats must be dead inside.
There is no Japanese version of Stewart Lee’s Comedy Vehicle, though much of my standup appears on YouTube with handmade Russian subtitles, and a Russian comedy fan has had a tattoo of one of my jokes, about the 70s Liverpudlian comedian Tom O’Connor, done on his arm, despite none of my work, or that of Tom O’Connor, being available commercially in Russia. How did I get here?
Last year, I organised a benefit to raise money for a memorial stone for William Blake, my favourite autodidact poet-artist, even though I suspect he would have been a leave voter. I couldn’t attend the unveiling, which was lucky, as I was frightened of a lot of the people who were going to be there, but the William Blake Society gave me an impressive chunk of the leftover marble, inscribed with a gilded “B” by the engraver, which I was able to pretend was a birthday present I had had specially made for my wife.
Below the line: readers respond to the column
Can we please keep this sort of hysteria out of the EU debate? We need sober analysis and reflection, not this.
Stewart Lee: a propagandist masquerading as a comedian, who is promoted as sophisticated and as a confidence trick to make people buy into the narrative.
I suppose everyone has a right to write as much unfunny, impenetrable gobbledygook as they judge will make them rich and famous.
Painfully unfunny as per usual.
Typical public school socialist.
“Want stories like this in your inbox?” it reads at the bottom of the article. What? Do I want more stories about giant three-headed lizards fighting to the death with giant moths with x-ray eyes that also manage to describe Boris Johnson as an eye-eating grub laying vile eggs in the EU membership debate? Are you kidding? Of course I do! Have you actually got any though?
Stuart, you are a total arse, using “pro-Europe” for “pro-EU”. It occurred to us last night that calling the EU “Europe” is like calling Nato “the Atlantic Ocean”, or Fifa “Earth”.
Stewart Lee – another smug, millionaire Marxist from the well-heeled comedy establishment.
This is probably the most ridiculous article I have seen! Can’t the remainers come up with any sensible arguments about the issues?
You too? Underwear turned into dishcloth (by being cut in half)? Trouble is the dishcloth ones often end up back in my underwear drawer, so on a dark winter’s morning I frequently find myself trying to struggle into tatty half-sized briefs with no leg holes.