Content Provider by Stewart Lee | Book review by Steve Bennett

Content Provider by Stewart Lee

Book review by Steve Bennett

Now you don't have to wait for David Mitchell to go on holiday to read Stewart Lee's musings. For the comedian and stand-in Observer columnist has assembled five years' worth of his articles for the Sunday broadsheet, and a handful of other outlets, in one anthology of over-extended satirical metaphors.

But why buy a book when all the pieces are still online? Well, apart from being able to display it on your bookshelf as a permanent plaque to your smartness and liberalism, columns once meant as ephemeral, topical commentary take on a new perspective after the event. Lee is fond of saying context is not a myth, so as the context changes, so too does the tone of these pieces.

Given the recent political upheaval, some topics seem like historical curios. Whither Grant Shapps now? The man once so much satirical fun for his pyramid marketing schemes, alter-egos and bullying allegations was much higher on the agenda just over a year ago, with Lee telling a tall tale of his own about once serving in a maggot-vending business alongside the ambitious young capitalist.

Yet for insight you can't beat Lee's description of Boris Johnson as 'Britain's first self-satirising politician', or his serious appraisal of Michael Gove – like Lee, both an adoptee and part of the team behind long-forgotten 1992 satirical TV show A Stab In The Dark – as a man who's devoted his whole career to salve the insecurities of his state school education. 'To get accepted by the posh sporty cunts – Cameron, Boris, George "Pencils" Osborne, etc,' Lee opines of Gove's entire career motiviation. 'And them secondly, as an attempt to get revenge on them somehow'. How prescient those words, written shortly before the EU referendum, look now.

Like his stand-up, Lee's columns often meld the big issues with his personal place in commenting upon them. He starts parodying and undermining the conventions of 'clockwork opinion monkey' columnists, expected to exploit their real lives (or heightened versions of them) for the weekly entertainment of readers, anathema to his usual aloof, intellectual approach. This dilemma comes to a fore when Mitchell takes a six-month sabbatical and Lee must turn out a column every week. In this case, Lee adopted the persona of a 'pragmatic deadlines freak [who] got on with the job in hand that I, a perfectionist finessing every word, could never have done in the time allowed.' Nonetheless, the pieces still hold up as commentary on the genre as much as they are on the right-wing government agenda.

We know Lee's thinking as most of the articles are given a preface. These either simply remind us of some of the now-lapsed headlines which are twisted and parodied, or, more interestingly, they offer an extra critique or explanation to his own work, months or years down the line. For example, acknowledging that he misjudged the public mood on what now seems a particularly mean response to the Olympic spirit that didn't permeate his grouchy detachment in summer 2012. Yes, sometimes he gets things wrong.

Content ProviderBetter than his own justifications (or otherwise), Lee as also included some of the most choice bottom-half-of-the-internet reactions to his pieces – often from readers who hilariously miss the point and take Lee's exaggerated, intense satires at face value. 'Your whole story about the youths on the bus sounds like something you invented,' sniffed one John Doe, after Lee imagined 'corbyn' to have entered the lexicon of street slang. 'So pathetic'.

Lee's pantechnicons full of sarcasm, especially that aimed at the smug liberal elitism he's well aware of possessing, so often pass the clickbait skim-readers and kneejerk commentators by.

Still, if you, too, are a smug, liberal elitist, there are few better voices to echo and amplify your own impotent disillusionment than Lee's. Dry, ironic satire at its finest.

• Content Provider by Stewart Lee will be published by Faber & Faber on Friday, priced £14.99. Order a copy from Foyles here.

• Or enter our competition to win a copy.

Published: 3 Aug 2016

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