"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 end of solitude: in a hyperconnected world, are we losing the art of being alone?

In the end, Solitude feels a bit like an amiable cop-out. 

Michael Harris is a Canadian writer who lives in a big city and whose life is defined and circumscribed, as so many Western lives are now, by digital technologies. He finds it hard to leave his phone at home in case he misses anything. He worries about his social media reputation. He uses apps and plays games, and relies on the internet hive mind to tell him which films to watch or where to eat. Here is what happens when he goes on holiday to Paris:

Disembarking from the train from London, I invited a friendly app to guide me to a hotel near the Pompidou . . . The next morning, Yelp guided me towards a charming café in the Marais. There, wizard-like, I held my phone over the menu and waited for Google Translate to melt the words into English. When the waiter arrived, I spoke into my phone and had it repeat my words to the grinning garçon in a soft, robotic French. Later, at the Louvre, I allowed a Nintendo-sponsored guidance system to track my steps up the centuries-old Daru staircase as I squinted confusedly at its glowing blue you-are-here dot . . .

Terrifying, isn’t it? Well, I thought so as I read it, and Harris thought so afterwards. It was situations like this, during which he realised that his life was controlled, confined and monitored by distancing technologies, that led him to wonder whether solitude – the act and the art of being alone – was in danger of disappearing.

Harris has an intuition that being alone with ourselves, paying attention to inner silence and being able to experience outer silence, is an essential part of being human. He can remember how it felt to do this, before the internet brought its social anxiety and addiction into his life. “I began to remember,” he writes, “a calm separateness, a sureness I once could live inside for an easy hour at a time.”

What happens when that calm separateness is destroyed by the internet of everything, by big-city living, by the relentless compulsion to be with others, in touch, all the time? Plenty of people know the answer already, or would do if they were paying attention to the question. Nearly half of all Americans, Harris tells us, now sleep with their smartphones on their bedside table, and 80 per cent are on their phone within 15 minutes of waking up. Three-quarters of adults use social networking sites regularly. But this is peanuts compared to the galloping development of the so-called Internet of Things. Within the next few years, anything from 30 to 50 billion objects, from cars to shirts to bottles of shampoo, will be connected to the net. The internet will be all around you, whether you want it or not, and you will be caught in its mesh like a fly. It’s not called the web for nothing.

I may not be the ideal reader for this book. By page 20, after a few more facts of this sort, I had already found myself scrawling “Kill everyone!” in the margins. This is not really the author’s fault. I often start behaving like this whenever I’m forced to read a list of ways in which digital technology is wrecking human existence. There are lots of lists like this around at the moment, because the galloping, thoughtless, ongoing rush to connect everything to the web has overcome our society like a disease. Did you know that cows are now connected to the internet? On page 20, Harris tells us that some Swiss dairy cows, sim cards implanted in their necks, send text messages to their farmers when they are on heat and ready to be inseminated. If this doesn’t bring out your inner Unabomber, you’re probably beyond help. Or maybe I am.

What is the problem here? Why does this bother me, and why does it bother Harris? The answer is that all of these things intrude upon, and threaten to destroy, something ancient and hard to define, which is also the source of much of our creativity and the essence of our humanity. “Solitude,” Harris writes, “is a resource.” He likens it to an ecological niche, within which grow new ideas, an understanding of the self and therefore an understanding of others.

The book is full of examples of the genius that springs from silent and solitary moments. Beethoven, Dostoevsky, Kafka, Einstein, Newton – all developed their ideas and approach by withdrawing from the crowd. Peter Higgs, the Nobel ­Prizewinner who discovered the Higgs boson particle, did his best work in peace and solitude in the 1960s. He suggests that what he did then would be impossible today, because it is now virtually impossible to find such solitude in the field of science.

Collaboration, not individuality, is fetishised today, in business as in science and the arts, but Harris warns that collaboration often results in conformism. In the company of others, most of us succumb to pressure to go with the crowd. Alone, we have more chance to be thoughtful, to see differently, to enter a place where we feel free from the mob to moderate our unique experience of the world. Without solitude, he writes, genius – which ultimately springs from different ways of thinking and seeing – becomes impossible. If Thoreau’s cabin in the woods had had wifi, we would never have got Walden.

Yet it is not only geniuses who have a problem: ordinary minds like yours and mine are threatened by the hypersocial nature of always-on urbanity. A ­civilisation can be judged by the quality of its daydreams, Harris suggests. Who daydreams now? Instead of staring out of the window on a train, heads are buried in smartphones, or wired to the audio of a streaming film. Instead of idling at the bus stop, people are loading up entertainment: mobile games from King, the maker of Candy Crush, were played by 1.6 billion times every day in the first quarter of 2015 alone.

If you’ve ever wondered at the behaviour of those lines of people at the train station or in the street or in the café, heads buried in their phones like zombies, unable or unwilling to look up, Harris confirms your worst fears. The developers of apps and games and social media sites are dedicated to trapping us in what are called ludic loops. These are short cycles of repeated actions which feed our brain’s desire for reward. Every point you score, every candy you crush, every retweet you get gives your brain a dopamine hit that keeps you coming back for more. You’re not having a bit of harmless fun: you are an addict. A tech corporation has taken your solitude and monetised it. It’s not the game that is being played – it’s you.

So, what is to be done about all this? That’s the multibillion-dollar question, but it is one the book cannot answer. Harris spends many pages putting together a case for the importance of solitude and examining the forces that splinter it today. Yet he also seems torn in determining how much of it he wants and can cope with. He can see the damage being done by the always-on world but he lives in the heart of it, all his friends are part of it, and he doesn’t want to stray too far away. He understands the value of being alone but doesn’t like it much, or want to experience it too often. He’ll stop checking his Twitter analytics but he won’t close down his account.

At the end of the book, Harris retreats, Thoreau-like, to a cabin in the woods for a week. As I read this brief last chapter, I found myself wishing it was the first, that he had spent more time in the cabin, that he had been starker and more exploratory, that he had gone further. Who will write a Walden for the Internet Age? This book is thick with fact and argument and some fine writing, but there is a depth that the author seems afraid to plumb. Perhaps he is afraid of what he might find down there.

In the end, Solitude feels a bit like an amiable cop-out. After 200 pages of increasingly disturbing facts about the impact of technology and crowded city living on everything from our reading habits to our ability to form friendships, and after warning us on the very last page that we risk making “an Easter Island of the mind”, the author goes back home to Vancouver, tells his boyfriend that he missed him, and then . . . well, then what? We don’t know. The book just ends. We are left with the impression that the pile-up of evidence leads to a conclusion too vast for the author, and perhaps his readers, to take in, because to do that would be to challenge everything.

In this, Solitude mirrors the structure of many other books of its type: the Non-Fiction Warning Book (NFWB), we might call it. It takes a subject – disappearing childhood; disappearing solitude; disappearing wilderness; disappearing anything, there’s so much to choose from – trots us through several hundred pages of anecdotes, science,
interviews and stories, all of which build up to the inescapable conclusion that everything is screwed . . . and then pulls back. It’s like being teased by an expert hustler. Yes, technology is undermining our sense of self and creating havoc for our relationships with others, but the solution is not to stop using it, just to moderate it. Yes, overcrowded cities are destroying our minds and Planet Earth, but the solution is not to get out of the cities: it’s to moderate them in some way, somehow.

Moderation is always the demand of the NFWB, aimed as it is at mainstream readers who would like things to get better but who don’t really want to change much – or don’t know how to. This is not to condemn Harris, or his argument: most of us don’t want to change much or know how to. What books of this kind are dealing with is the problem of modernity, which is intractable and not open to moderation. Have a week away from your screen if you like, but the theft of human freedom by the machine will continue without you. The poet Robinson Jeffers once wrote about sitting on a mountain and looking down on the lights of a city, and being put in mind of a purse seine net, in which sardines swim unwittingly into a giant bag, which is then drawn tightly around them. “I thought, We have geared the machines and locked all together into interdependence; we have built the great cities; now/There is no escape,” he wrote. “The circle is closed, and the net/Is being hauled in.”

Under the circumstances – and these are our circumstances – the only honest conclusion to draw is that the problem, which is caused primarily by the technological direction of our society, is going to get worse. There is no credible scenario in which we can continue in the same direction and not see the problem of solitude, or lack of it, continue to deepen.

Knowing this, how can Harris just go home after a week away, drop off his bag and settle back into his hyperconnected city life? Does he not have a duty to rebel, and to tell us to rebel? Perhaps. The problem for this author is our shared problem, however, at a time in history when the dystopian predictions of Brave New World are already looking antiquated. Even if Harris wanted to rebel, he wouldn’t know how, because none of us would. Short of a collapse so severe that the electricity goes off permanently, there is no escape from what the tech corporations and their tame hive mind have planned for us. The circle is closed, and the net is being hauled in. May as well play another round of Candy Crush while we wait to be dragged up on to the deck. 

Paul Kingsnorth's latest book, “Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist” (Faber & Faber)

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble

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