When I was handed Gareth Cliff’s book to read, I realised immediately what was going on.
I’m not talking about the darkened underground chamber I was locked in, surrounded by sadistic publicists, or the hot coals that were being applied to my singed nipples. I refer to the words stuck between two sheets of stiff paperback.
You see, many years ago (2010, to be exact) I was at the Gateway Shopping Mall in Durban, and having a couple of minutes to spare; I wandered into a bookshop and went over to the humour section. I didn’t think that I’d find anything good, given that Barry Hilton passes for funny in that part of the world.
But I was lucky – I happened upon a copy of Mitchell Symons’ book Don’t Get Me Started. Well, I say book – it’s a 244 page collection of rants on any topic you choose.
Every week, Symons writes a column in the British tabloid the Sunday Express in which he vents his spleen at all the world’s irritations and general abundance of bollocks. Don’t Get Me Started is snippets from those columns (including many contributions by his readers) in book form.
It is a lung-shakingly funny read. Symons is an unapologetic curmudgeon and is set in his (admittedly) vintage ways, but manages to get away with it because he is both cuttingly funny, relevant and very dear with his words.
Observe him as he indulges himself in aggravation:
People with bad breath who insist on sharing it with you. Please feel free not to.
The expression “Been there, done that, got the shirt”. You haven’t, you haven’t, you haven’t.
Market researchers. “Can I have a few minutes of your time?” Fuck off.
He also mentions the things that should piss him off, but don’t:
Piers Morgan. So what if he’s got the hide of a walrus and more front than Sainsbury’s? He adds to the gaiety of the nation.
Coldplay. Not necessarily worse than any other modern band. But certainly more successful – hence the flak.
And so forth.
The formula for this sort of publishing is very simple – use the book form to expand your brand across the public consciousness, like one spreads Bovril on toast. It’s the reason why Jay-Z and Theo Walcott have books out (someone is going to hell for that).
It’s the reason why Jeremy Clarkson has his set of books.
So to judge Cliff’s effort as being anything other than a cynical ploy to make even more people aware of his views would be unfair. He admits as much in his page of acknowledgements. “This book would never have happened if the publishers hadn’t approached me to do it,” he admits. Well, there you go. As cynical as Beelzebub.
I have no idea what Cliff says on radio, but I don’t imagine I’d like it very much. He seems to be entirely lacking in mirth and ironic inflection. Where he means to tease, he just bullies. Where he thinks he’s the exasperated voice of reason, he comes across as a lecturing bore. You can almost feel him stop to wag his finger as he types out the sentences.
Cliff is no accomplished novelist or engaging essayist. He’s a radio jock, first and foremost. That’s what he’s good at. So to expect light and glittery text from his collection of blog posts is asking for too much – but he could at least have made an effort to be funnier. Instead of being the drunk, funny uncle at the wedding, he’s the surly, drunk uncle. The unpleasantly surly, drunk uncle.
Instead of the clean-shaven jock that Cliff is, imagine this was said by a gin-soaked octogenarian: “Someone has to say it: ancestor worship and animal worship are not part of your culture, inseperable from your identity. They’re outdated, primitive, unnecessary rituals which make you an easy target for racists who think you haven’t caught up to the 21st century.”
Cue the nervous grimace.
Entitlement can be endearing, if it comes wrapped with a wicked sense of humour. Mitchell Symons, and to a lesser extent Jeremy Clarkson, proved that. Without the funny, it’s just… bad.
Which isn’t to say Cliff’s book won’t sell well. I fully expect that it will be a best-seller by South African standards, primarily because a lot of us feel the way that Cliff does about everything. We feel entitled and yet very small – we pretend not to care but crave attention just the same.
Well, go ahead and buy Cliff’s book. I encourage you to. Read it and recognise yourself, South Africa. Recognise yourself and weep.
Want to win a copy of Cliff’s book? Tell what you’d like to have seen Cliff comment on in his book. The five most original answers win a copy.
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