Bonfire of the vanities: Russell Brand joins protesters in London during the Million Mask March on 5 November. Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Tom Wolfe always cuts through modish nonsense. I wonder what he’d make of Russell Brand?

Ed Smith’s Left Field. 

The idea that writing should primarily entertain – the pleasure principle – is the bane of all literary theorists. As Philip Larkin put it, “Life and literature is a question of what one thrills to and further than that no man shall ever go without putting his foot in a turd.”

We all know the difference between a worthy book and one that makes you almost grimace with delight. Listen to your body. The way you lean forward in your chair, your back suddenly straighter, your toes tapping on the floor. The sleepy, dutiful weight of earnest texts that ought to be read, the measuring out of the morning in coffee cups and errands, the glancing at your watch, wondering if it’s too early for lunch – all forgotten. Your expression tells the story: the half-smile of expectation at hearing a mischievous and authentic voice, the heady oxygenation of eager anticipation, like an animal following a scent. You are sure, quite sure, that you are about to be entertained.

What had done this to me? Beginning research on a new project, I noticed, listed in a bibliography of minor relevance, a reference to Tom Wolfe’s essay “Mauve Gloves & Madmen, Clutter & Vine”. An excuse! A legitimate excuse! If I could find my copy, I could reread his essays. Furnished with my self-justification, I settled in for the morning, reacquainting myself with Wolfe. Only it lasted for days, not hours.

I had a ball. So I feel obliged, especially as his reputation has suffered a decline recently, to describe what exactly made my toes tap and my back straighten and my mouth turn up at the corners.

Wolfe’s gift, his satirist’s sensibility, is the combination of sublime confidence and raw courage. He makes you confront modish nonsense, snapping you back to your senses. More simply, he has an unfailing nose for bullshit. I find myself yearning to know what he would make of Russell Brand.

Here is Wolfe on the 1970s fad of “anti-fashion”, from his essay “Funky Chic”: “Terrific. Right away anti-fashion itself became the most raving fashion imaginable . . . also known as Funky Chic. Everybody had sworn off fashion, but somehow nobody moved to Cincinnati to work among the poor. Instead, everyone stayed put and imported the poor to the fashion pages.”

But should a serious writer “descend” to the level of describing fashion at all? “Writers seem to find the courage to write about society, in the sense of fashionable society, only from a great distance – either from across an ocean or across a gulf of a century or more in time, and preferably both.” Stop holding your nose, Wolfe is saying. Status – who’s up, who’s down; am I rising or drowning? – is central to the human condition.

He never expressed that argument better than in “My Three Stooges”, a retort to critics of A Man in Full. With the novel a success, Norman Mailer, John Updike and John Irving joined forces to denounce it as mere attention-seeking. “Does that make you feel bad?” an interviewer asked Wolfe. “Bad? Why should I feel bad? Now I’ve got all three . . . Larry, Curly and Moe. Updike, Mailer and Irving. My three stooges.”

Given Updike’s reputation as the great man of American letters, it was an attack of thrilling bravery. Wolfe is contemptuous of Updike’s suggestion that there aren’t enough intelligent readers to sustain “literary” writing. “The novel is dying,” Wolfe replied, “not of obsolescence, but of anorexia. It needs . . . food . . . The revolution of the 21st century, if the arts are to survive, will have a name to which no ism can be easily attached. It will be called ‘content’.”

But how good are the novels? I greatly enjoyed The Bonfire of the Vanities, though something about it made me feel uncomfortable – was Wolfe beginning to be too dazzled by the extravagant worldly success he once satirised? That strand, an ageing man’s obsession with Nietzschean power, expands to fill the still marvellously entertaining A Man in Full.

I abandoned the 2004 novel I Am Charlotte Simmons, bludgeoned and bored by the relentless, detailed descriptions of loveless humping by college sports stars at frat parties, the “rutrutrutrutrutrutrutrut” (I think that is roughly the right amount of rutting; I haven’t counted the syllables) of “two-backed beats herkyjerky humping bang-bangbang”. Instead of the authentic voice of the locker room – which I know better than Wolfe – I was hearing the fantasies of an old man, lived through two-dimensional “studs”. And I have scrupulously avoided 2012’s Back to Blood, lest it contaminate my affection for Wolfe’s early work.

Instead of begrudging a career that trails off, however, we should give thanks for the good times. (Even Evelyn Waugh’s reputation collapsed in the last decade of his life.) Wolfe’s central insight was to distrust what intellectuals said about taste.

Writers should not speak only to themselves, in self-congratulatory riddles. A lifetime of reading, Nick Hornby once said, made him trust “readers’ books” over “writers’ books”.

Wolfe’s attacks on the liberal elite explain why admiring him has always carried some reputational risk. Once, staying in New York as a house guest of friends who possess modernist tastes, I made the mistake of reading out a mischievous passage in From Bauhaus to Our House, Wolfe’s attack on brutalist architecture. For a while, it was touch and go: would I be tipped out on to the street?

Fifteen years later, for all my awareness of his flaws, I’m still at it, on the phone, reading out Wolfe to my friends, smiling at the guts and the gusto, wishing he was on top form now, poking his stick at hypocrisies waved through on the nod of fashion, stirring the hornet’s nest. 

Ed Smith’s latest book is “Luck: a Fresh Look at Fortune” (Bloomsbury, £8.99)

Ed Smith is a journalist and author, most recently of Luck. He is a former professional cricketer and played for both Middlesex and England.

This article first appeared in the 13 November 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Nigel Farage: The Arsonist

Getty
Show Hide image

The radio station where the loyal listeners are chickens

Emma Hills, the head chicken trainer at Giffords Circus, knows what gets them clucking.

“The music is for the chickens, because of course on the night the music is very loud, and so it needs to be a part of their environment from the very start.” Emma Hills, the head chicken trainer at Giffords Circus, is standing in the sawdusty ring under a big top in a field outside Stroud as several rare-breed chickens wander freely around boxes and down ramps. They are the comic stars of the summer 2017 show, and Emma is coaxing them to walk insouciantly around the ring while she plays the early-morning show on Radio 1.

It’s the chickens’ favourite station. There seems to be something about its longueurs, combined with the playlist, that gets them going – if that’s the word. They really do respond to the voices and songs. “It’s a bit painful, training,” Emma observes, as she moves a little tray of worms into position as a lure. “It’s a bit like watching paint dry sometimes. It’s all about repetition.”

Beyond the big top, a valley folds into limestone hills covered in wild parsley and the beginnings of elderblossom. Over the radio, Adele Roberts (weekdays, from 4am) hails her listeners countrywide. “Hello to Denzel, the happy trucker going north on the M6. And van driver Niki on the way from Norwich to Coventry, delivering all the things.” Pecking and quivering, the chickens are rather elegant, each with its fluffy, caramel-coloured legs and explosive feather bouffant, like a hat Elizabeth Taylor might have worn on her way to Gstaad in the 1970s.

Despite a spell of ennui during the new Harry Styles single, enthusiasm resumes as Adele bids “hello to Simon from Bournemouth on the M3 – he’s on his way to Stevenage delivering meat”. I don’t imagine Radio 1 could hope for a better review: to these pretty creatures, its spiel is as thrilling as opening night at the circus. Greasepaint, swags of velvet, acrobats limbering up with their proud, ironic grace. Gasps from beholders rippling wonder across the stalls.

Emma muses that her pupils learn fast. Like camels, a chicken never forgets.

“I’ve actually given up eating them,” she admits. “Last year I had only two weeks to train and it was like, ‘If they pull this off I won’t eat chicken ever again.’ And they did. So I didn’t.” 

Antonia Quirke is an author and journalist. She is a presenter on The Film Programme and Pick of the Week (Radio 4) and Film 2015 and The One Show (BBC 1). She writes a column on radio for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

0800 7318496