"I got invited to David Walliams's wedding . . . but I'd have just been on my own at the buffet"

A few extra bits from my interview with Russell Howard.

For those of us outside TV's coveted 18-25 age bracket, the extent of Russell Howard's popularity might not have registered. His topical comedy show Russell Howard's Good News is currently on its fourth series (with a fifth already scheduled for later in the year). It regularly makes the top-five rated shows on BBC Three, with around 800,000 viewers. His Facebook page, meanwhile, has 1,632,805 fans.

I interviewed Russell for the current issue of the New Statesman, covering his politics ("I don't really have a political agenda -- I just like things to be fair; I get angered by pomposity"), his policy on naughty jokes and the Daily Mail website ("It leaves me utterly depressed"). The full piece will be online later in the week but, in the meantime, here are a few bits there wasn't room for in the magazine . . .

How much do you police your jokes for whether or not they're going to cause offence?

The test I always like to do is: would I do that in front of the person? If I wouldn't, I won't say it. Also, because it's my show and it's me, I would rather -- and this sounds profoundly wanky -- I'd rather it was beautiful and brilliant rather than just slagging someone off.

When we did the Chilean miners, every comedy show was [doing sketches] about the idea of them shagging each other. It was all quite obvious stuff, I thought. We made it about Mario Sepulveda. They were all offered wheelchairs, after all those weeks and the trial they'd been through, and he said: "I won't need that wheelchair -- but my wife will." The crowd was like "Wahey!" I just like that utter bravado. So we concentrated on that and ignored the idea of them shagging each other down there, which I think people were a bit bored with.

Is there any topic that is completely off-limits for you?

We look at the merits of each story and try to figure out whether it's funny or not and sort of go from there. It's not as if we go, 'Oh, we must not talk about this,' or, 'We must not talk about that.' We just try to work it out. There was a story last year about a guy who had banned gay people from coming into his bakery and we did a whole load of jokes about that.

He banned gay people from coming into his bakery?

Yeah, it's amazing isn't it? And I put forward the joke that any man who makes a living by pumping cream into buns is in no position to criticise the gay community. We're sort of tucked away on BBC3, really, and they let us get on with it.

Being on BBC3, you've ended up with a huge young fanbase. I asked your fans on Facebook what I should ask you about -- and one asked whether you were writing an autobiography.

I haven't really thought about it. I'm only 30, so hopefully I have a bit more time to do more stuff . . . What I should do is let my mum ghost-write it and then we'd have a book! By Christ, we'd have a book!

Do your parents ever offer you comedy advice?

My dad likes to. I mean, he's a businessman, he designs call centres, but he's also working on an idea for a children's TV character and it's terrible. And me and my sister go: 'It's the BFG, it is the BFG!' It's about this old guy who gives dreams to children. And we're like 'Dad, it's the fucking BFG!'

My dad occasionally will give me ideas and stuff like that and I have to politely turn them down. But he loves it, he really enjoys it. But my mum is unwittingly funny and I take quite a lot of stuff from her because she just has no idea of how funny she is.

What about your friends? Have any of them ever minded cropping up in a routine?

I ask them and also I change their names as well, so if there's anything particularly embarrassing, I ask them if it's OK. If it isn't, I won't do it but I always change their names.

Obviously, you live in the glamorous metropolitan hot spot of Leamington Spa. Have you ever lived in London, gone to the Ivy and Soho House and lived the "celebrity" lifestyle?

The reason I live in Leamington is basically because my girlfriend is doing medicine at Warwick, so we moved in together and that was the easiest place for her. And because I'm a stand-up, living in the middle of the country is great. Since we moved there, I've been doing loads of stuff on telly so I bought a flat in Maida Vale with my brother, so I have the best of both worlds.

When I'm in London, I spend a lot of time with my brother and my mates around there playing five-a-side football and stuff like that. Not really going to the Ivy. I've been once, last week, actually. It was brilliant, I really enjoyed it. But I think it should be wildly exciting and like, "Ahh, this is pretty cool, innit?" because if you lose that, you won't be a particularly good stand-up comedian. "Y'know in the Ivy when the service is ridiculously good and everything tastes great, what's up with that?" "Y'know when your butler's really uppity in the morning? Would it kill him to chew gum? He stinks!" So I try and lead a normal life.

Also, I feel awkward in those situations . . . I might change in a few years. I mean, I got invited to David Walliams's wedding and that's pretty nice -- but I'd just be on my own, just stood around, eating fucking loads of food at the buffet, going: "Hey Elton, Elton, have you tried these sausage rolls?" Because that's what happens to me at normal weddings: I always end up on my own in a corner, so it'd be exactly like that -- except with famous people.

God knows what it's like to get into that world where you're desperate to get into the papers . . .

Have you ever been papped?

No, I get a few photos occasionally when you go into Radio One, basically the doors open then you see flash, flash . . . then -- Oh, it's you -- and the clicks stop, which is pretty funny.

I can't imagine what it must be like seeing various celebrities going, "Oh, I'll go to that nightclub because there'll be lots of paps there. Hopefully there'll be an up-skirt shot of me in the paper!" Those bastards that do that, the up-skirt shots, can you imagine that? It doesn't get worse than that.

Presumably you've had stuff written about you in the papers that you didn't like . . .

I'm pretty seriously annoyed with Closer magazine. I was talking about getting married with my girlfriend and did this joke: "We are going to get married one day because the further you go on, your girlfriend turns gradually into Gollum."

They didn't run the interview with me -- they put a photo of me looking really cross and just a speech bubble that had me going: "Better get married soon because my girlfriend's turning into Gollum." I said to them, "You know I didn't say that." Her mates had seen it and just [asked me] what the fuck are you doing? So now I don't speak to Closer.

The other thing that pissed me off was the Independent said last year that I earn £4m, which I didn't. My mates are like, "Alright, moneybags!" and I had to show them my bank balance. That slightly pissed me off because it makes me look like this greedy bastard. I mean, I don't do any corporate gigs or adverts or things like that. I just do gigs.

Russell Howard's Good News mixes serious issues and jokes. How do you find the right balance?

We just decide which of the heavier stories we want to slip in. So it's: "Here's a funny one, here's a funny one, but this is a bit fucked up. Here's a funny one, here's a funny one, bloody hell! Did you hear about this?" It has to be like a snaking conversation with your mates in the pub. That's kind of the aim. You chat and you're being really silly and funny and then suddenly you talk about Colonel Gaddafi. It's that kind of bizarre tone.

Russell Howard's Good News is on Thursdays at 10.30pm on BBC3.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

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The West can never hope to understand Islamic State

Graeme Wood's The Way of the Strangers: Encounters with the Islamic State reminds us of something that ought to be obvious: Islamic State is very Islamic.

The venue for the declaration of the “Islamic State” had been carefully chosen. The Great Mosque of al-Nuri in Mosul was a fitting location for the restoration of a “caliphate” pledged to the destruction of its enemies. It was built in 1172 by Nur al-Din al-Zengi, a warrior famed for his victories over the Crusaders. When Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi ascended the pulpit in July 2014 and proclaimed his followers to be “the backbone of the camp of faith and the spearhead of its trench”, he was consciously following in Nur al-Din’s footsteps. The message could not have been clearer. The Crusaders were back and needed defeating.

Time present and time past are both perhaps present in time future. In Islamic State’s propaganda, they certainly are. Sayings attributed to Muhammad that foretold how the armies of Islam would defeat the armies of the Cross serve their ideologues as a hall of mirrors. What happened in the Crusades is happening now; and what happens now foreshadows what is to come.

The Parisian concert-goers murdered at the Bataclan theatre in 2015 were as much Crusaders as those defeated by Nur al-Din in the 12th century – and those slaughters prefigure a final slaughter at the end of days. When the propagandists of Islamic State named their English-language magazine Dabiq, they were alluding to a small town in Syria that – so they proclaim – will at last bring the Crusades to an end. Every issue is headed with the same exultant vaunt. “The spark has been lit here in Iraq, and its heat will continue to intensify – by Allah’s permission – until it burns the Crusader armies in Dabiq.”

How much does Islamic State actually believe this stuff? The assumption that it is a proxy for other concerns – born of US foreign policy, or social deprivation, or Islamophobia – comes naturally to commentators in the West. Partly this is because their instincts are often secular and liberal; partly it reflects a proper concern not to tar mainstream Islam with the brush of terrorism.

Unsurprisingly, the first detailed attempt to take Islamic State at its word ruffled a lot of feathers. Graeme Wood’s article “What Isis really wants” ran in the Atlantic two years ago and turned on its head the reassuring notion that the organisation’s motivation was anything that Western policy­makers could readily comprehend.

“The reality is,” Wood wrote, “that the Islamic State is Islamic. Very Islamic.” The strain of the religion that it was channelling derived “from coherent and even learned interpretations of Islam” and was fixated on two distinct moments of time: the age of Muhammad and the end of days long promised in Muslim apocalyptic writings. Members of Islamic State, citing the Quran and sayings attributed to the Prophet in their support, believe themselves charged by God with expediting the end of days. It is their mandate utterly to annihilate kufr: disbelief. The world must be washed in blood, so that the divine purpose may be fulfilled. The options for negotiating this around a table at Geneva are, to put it mildly, limited.

In The Way of the Strangers, Wood continues his journey into the mindset of Islamic State’s enthusiasts. As he did in the Atlantic, he scorns “the belief that when a jihadist tells you he wants to kill you and billions of others to bring about the end of the world, he is just speaking for effect”. Although not a report from the “caliphate”, it still comes from front lines: the restaurants of Melbourne, the suburbs of Dallas, the cafés of Ilford. Wood’s concern is less with the circumstances in Syria and Iraq that gave birth to Islamic State than with those cocooned inside stable and prosperous societies who have travelled to join it. What persuades them to abandon the relative comforts of the West for a war zone? How can they possibly justify acts of grotesque violence? Is killing, for them, something
incidental, or a source of deep fulfilment?

These are questions that sociologists, psychologists and security experts have all sought to answer. Wood, by asking Islamic State’s sympathisers to explain their motivation, demonstrates how Western society has become woefully unqualified to recognise the ecstatic highs that can derive from apocalyptic certitude. “The notion that religious belief is a minor factor in the rise of the Islamic State,” he observes, “is belied by a crushing weight of evidence that religion matters deeply to the vast majority of those who have travelled to fight.”

Anyone who has studied the literature of the First Crusade will recognise the sentiment. The conviction, popular since at least the Enlightenment, that crusading was to be explained in terms of almost anything except religion has increasingly been put
to bed. Crusaders may indeed have travelled to Syria out of a lust for adventure, or loot, or prospects denied to them at home; but that even such worldly motivations were saturated in apocalyptic expectations is a perspective now widely accepted. “Men went on the First Crusade,” as Marcus Bull put it, “for reasons that were overwhelmingly ideological.”

The irony is glaring. The young men who travel from western Europe to fight in Syria for Islamic State – and thereby to gain paradise for themselves – are following in the footsteps less of Nur al-Din than of the foes they are pledged to destroy: the Crusaders.

Jonathan Riley-Smith, who revolutionised the study of the Crusades as a penitential movement, once wrote an essay titled “Crusading as an Act of Love”. Wood, in his attempt to understand the sanguinary idealism of Islamic State sympathisers, frequently echoes its phrasing. In Alexandria, taken under the wing of Islamists and pressed to convert, he recognises in their importunities an urgent longing to spare him hellfire, to win him paradise. “Their conversion efforts could still be described, for all their intolerance and hate, as a mission of love.”

Later, in Norway, he meets with a white-haired Islamist to whom the signs of the impending Day of Judgement are so palpable that he almost sobs with frustration at Wood’s failure to open his eyes to them. “To Abu Aisha, my stubbornness would have been funny if it were not tragic. He looked ready to grab me with both hands to try to shake me awake. Were these signs – to say nothing of the perfection of the Quran, and the example of the Prophet – not enough to rouse me from the hypnosis of kufr?”

Wood does not, as Shiraz Maher did in his recent study Salafi-Jihadism, attempt to provide a scholarly survey of the intellectual underpinnings of Islamic State; but as an articulation of the visceral quality of the movement’s appeal and the sheer colour and excitement with which, for true believers, it succeeds in endowing the world, his book is unrivalled. When he compares its utopianism to that of the kibbutzim movement, the analogy is drawn not to cause offence but to shed light on why so many people from across the world might choose to embrace such an austere form of communal living. When he listens to British enthusiasts of Islamic State, he recognises in their descriptions of it a projection of “their idealised roseate vision of Britain”. Most suggestively, by immersing himself in the feverish but spectacular visions bred of his interviewees’ apocalypticism, he cannot help but occasionally feel “the rip tide of belief”.

The Way of the Strangers, though, is no apologetic. The time that Wood spends with Islamic State sympathisers, no matter how smart or well mannered he may find some of them, does not lead him to extenuate the menace of their beliefs. One chapter in particular – a profile of an American convert to Islam whose intelligence, learning and charisma enabled him to emerge as the principal ideologue behind Dabiq – is worthy of Joseph Conrad.

Elsewhere, however, Wood deploys a lighter touch. In a field where there has admittedly been little competition, his book ranks as the funniest yet written on Islamic State. As in many a British sitcom, the comedy mostly emerges from the disequilibrium between the scale of his characters’ pretensions and ambitions and the banality of their day-to-day lives. “He can be – to use a term he’d surely hate – a ham.” So the British Islamist Anjem Choudary is summarised and dismissed.

Most entertaining is Wood’s portrait of Musa Cerantonio, whose status as Australia’s highest-profile Islamic State sympathiser is balanced by his enthusiasm for Monty Python and Stephen Fry. His longing to leave for the “caliphate” and his repeated failure to progress beyond the Melbourne suburb where he lives with his mother create an air of dark comedy. Visiting Cerantonio, Wood finds their conversation about Islamic State ideology constantly being intruded on by domestic demands. “His mother was about ten feet away during the first part of the conversation, but once she lost interest in the magazines she walked off to another part of the house. Musa, meanwhile, was discussing theoretically the Islamic views on immolation as a method of execution.”

The scene is as terrifying as it is comic. Were Cerantonio merely a solitary eccentric, he would hardly merit the attention but, as The Way of the Strangers makes amply clear, his views are shared by large numbers of Muslims across the world. Just as Protestant radicals, during the 16th-century Reformation, scorned the traditions of the Catholic Church and sought a return to the age of the Apostles, so today do admirers of Islamic State dread that the wellsprings of God’s final revelation to mankind have been poisoned. What, then, are they to do?

That their enthusiasm for, say, slavery or the discriminatory taxation of religious minorities causes such offence to contemporary morality only confirms to them that there is a desperately pressing task of purification to perform. As Wood observes, “These practices may be rejected by mainstream Muslim scholars today, but for most of Islamic history, it barely occurred to Muslims to doubt that their religion permitted them.” Verses in the Quran, sayings of the Prophet, the example of the early caliphate: all can be used to justify them. Why, then, should Islamic State not reintroduce them, in the cause of making Islam great again?

Perhaps the most dispiriting section of Wood’s book describes his attempt to find an answer to this question by consulting eminent Muslim intellectuals in the US. Scholars whose understanding of Islam derives from a long chain of teachers (and who have framed documents on their walls to prove it) angrily condemn Islamic State for ignoring centuries’ worth of legal rulings. It is a valid point – but only if one accepts, as Islamic State does not, that scholarship can legitimately be used to supplement the Quran and the sayings of Muhammad.

When Wood asks Hamza Yusuf, an eminent Berkeley Sufi, to demonstrate the group’s errors by relying only on the texts revealed to the Prophet, he struggles to do so: “Yusuf could not point to an instance where the Islamic State was flat-out, verifiably wrong.” This does not mean that it is right but it does suggest – despite what most Muslims desperately and understandably want to believe – that it is no less authentically Islamic than any other manifestation of Islam. The achievement of Wood’s gripping, sobering and revelatory book is to open our eyes to what the implications of that for all of us may be.

Tom Holland’s books include “In the Shadow of the Sword: the Battle for Global Empire and the End of the Ancient World” (Abacus)

The Way of the Strangers: Encounters with the Islamic State by Graeme Wood is published by Allen Lane (317pp, £20​)

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era