March of the Lemmings by Stewart Lee | Book review by Steve Bennett © Steve Ullathorne
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March of the Lemmings by Stewart Lee

Book review by Steve Bennett

Can you bear to read another word on Brexit? 

Sometimes it sees as if Stewart Lee can barely write one, even though he has been obsessed by covering every divisive detail of the subject in his increasingly regular Observer newspaper columns.

In the preamble to this collection of the astringently sour articles that he’s written since the referendum, the comedian admits he’s deepeningly  cynical and depressed about the whole process. And let’s face it, his persona was never Mr Sunshine in the first place.

As one of the spiritual leaders of the metropolitan liberal elite snowflakes, Lee does not hold back on his angry contempt for the crooked, venal politicians whose arrogance, lies and false promises have divided the nation and uncorked an ugly hatred and contempt that cannot be returned to the bottle.

Nor, of course, is he doing anything to heal that rift himself, with brutal, often spiteful, ad hominem attacks on the cheerleaders of Brexit and withering dismissals of those who voted with them.

Though plenty of this is savagely funny, even some of those on the same side of the fence as Lee might find some of the articles in March Of The Lemmings difficult to digest, not least because in some weeks he seems to have taken against the idea of easy readability. He admits to having a‘personal vendetta against the very idea of a newspaper column’ as well as conceding: ‘The political situation has been so stupid now, and for so long, it seems beyond satire. I reach for ever-more desperate methods to mock it.’

So waters are muddied by his use of obtuse analogies, arcane reference points and downright untruths. ‘Well they started it,’ would surely be his comeback to that. 

He’s a pedant’s nightmare with his misspellings, misrepresentation and misinformation, partly just done out of mischief, partly done to wind up any opponents. He’s the sort of writer who evokes the underground subculture of early 1980s skinhead novels, then misquotes them to make a point, even if very few would notice he was being parodic.

Extensive footnotes provide some welcome context that the original readers would have been denied, helping to make them more lucid. In one such addendum, the comedian admits that the anger and disillusionment he affects on stage has become real – and indeed whether he delivers bitterly funny or just plain bitter seems down to a coin toss.

The columns are also accompanied by some selected below-the-line comments, as you might expect from a Marmite comic who popularised the practice of putting bad reviews on his posters alongside the more gushing quotes. 

Sometimes reader feedback makes valid points about the personal enmity that colours his prose; sometimes they are an unedifying glimpse into the sort of hardcore Brexiteers’ psyche that would happily dub a judge an ‘enemy of the people’; and sometimes they just show that they missed the joke entirely. Lee certainly seems to wear the ‘is this supposed to be funny?’ comments as a badge of pride.

While individual columns read in isolation can be hit or miss, largely based on just how wilfully obscure he’s being, over a whole book the more complex interplay between his material and his audience emerges, giving some validity to publishing this as an anthology beyond the usual pre-Christmas cash-in. 

Lee’s feelings of being bewildered and furious at the political situation mix with personal anecdotes and deconstructive passages as he explores his angst not just about the state of the country but how to address it – just the sort of ‘meta’ traits that fans will clearly recognise from his stand-up.

Indeed, the columns are perhaps best seen as works in progress towards his live work, which is consistently satisfying and rewarding in its complexity.

The last quarter of the book turn to his performance, being a liberally annotated transcript of his Content Provider show that drew on the same political themes. It is this section that makes March Of The Lemmings essential reading for students and practitioners of stand-up.

As well as the sort of background you might find on a DVD commentary, Lee offers more forensic notes on how routines develop and play out on the night, as well as how his performance toys with the stress lines in the room that he goes out of his way to create. 

Despite many imitators, Lee’s uniquely skilled and experienced at this technique, which shines a light on the usually unseen mechanics of stand-up – and the footnotes here only intensifies that beam. Lee analysed previous stand-up shows in the books How I Escaped My Certain Fate and If You Prefer A Milder Comedian EP, and this offers more of the same revealing insight.

As for his intention that March Of The Lemmings be the definitive commentary on Brexit, that is doomed to be thwarted by the miserable fact this shitstorm will continue to batter this country for years to come, whatever happens or doesn’t happen on October 31. 

Only one thing is for certain, ‘Boris Piccaninny Watermelon Letterbox Johnson will continue to spout insulting dog-whistle adjectives Lee can insert into his name.

• March Of The Lemmings: Brexit In Print And Performance 2016–2019 by Stewart Lee has been published by Faber&Faber, priced £14.99. Click here to buy from Amazon for £10.06 or here to buy from Foyles at £12.99.

Published: 3 Oct 2019

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