Saturday, 10 December 2011

Book review: the musings of a monkey

I started reading the blog 'The Enemies of Reason' when it was still written by Anton Vowl, in 2009. I think I found it the day the Jan Moir/Stephen Gately scandal broke, and the world of media blogs opened up to me, including Tabloid Watch, No Sleep til Brooklands, Five Chinese Crackers and Angry Mob. Enemies of Reason quickly became one of my favourite blogs - funny, perceptive, honest and articulating everything about the lies in the press that I had always suspected, but had hitherto been unable to concretely prove.

Via Twitter and the blogosphere, Anton (as he was then known) and I became online friends (I hope!) and when I had my first brush with the press telling lies about me, he was one of the people I turned to for advice on how to tackle it. Eventually Anton revealed his true identity as Steve Baxter in a column on Comment is Free, and was quickly snapped up to write for the New Statesman, commenting on media behaviour.

In 'Musings of a Monkey', Steve has brought together some of his favourite blogposts from Enemies of Reason, Farewell Prozac and Warm Cherryade. I had only read Enemies of Reason online, so not only was I happy to re-visit old favourite and un-remembered gems, but I was also pleased to have the chance to read Steve's writing on other subjects, particularly on mental illness, depression and anti-depressants.

The book opens with blogs taken from Enemies of Reason. From insightful comment on news stories of the day (B&B couple banning gay people, and Daily Mail reaction), to how the media works and what it reports (sports personalities' sexual proclivities) and political questions (why we shouldn't wish Thatcher dead); this section meanders into delightful ponderings on what biscuits are best (Viscounts) to the best animals beginning with 'o' (otters. obviously). The joy in revisiting these blogposts is in Steve's writing. His style is very honest, and witty, sometimes sarcastic but never nasty or aggressive, sincere and clear. Sometimes the posts are written in an analytical way, as he takes us through a breakdown of a news story or item. Sometimes he writes very amusing satires of articles. And other times they're just musings of his own, that thanks to his fantastic writing ability and clear voice, never fail to entertain.

Truly in my mind Steve is one of the best writers composing blogs on the internet at the moment, and has been for as long as I have been reading his words.

It is hard to pick a favourite post in the opening of the book, but I do love and always have loved his 'What about the men' piece. Whilst I wrote four sides of A4 trying to explain just how angry I was with Giles Coren and the like, his short and criticial piece on what-about-ery summed it all up neatly and with humour. He manages to pinpoint exactly what it is about the argument that makes it so ludicrious - whether it's what about the men or Daily Mail hate - and quickly and clearly shows off the ridiculousness of it all, without falling into traps of being rude, aggressive or snide. Other favourites include his Lefty baiting: an idiots guide and The A-Z of Internet Commenting. The post on why we shouldn't wish Thatcher dead is also a stand out moment to me. Again, this post expresses the anger at Thatcher's legacy in a way that is clear sighted and meaningful without descending into cliche.

Warm Cherryade is rather a move away from the politics and media commentary and lists of Enemies of Reason. This was a side to Steve's writing that I hadn't really encountered before; observations, memories, short and delicate pieces of prose that capture every day moments, such as giving a spider a lift to work. Odes to cultural icons like Teletext. And reflections on blogging, fear and hope. It's hard to capture the section because there is this diversity there, but it all felt quite personal and quiet - in good ways. I love the idea of giving the spider a lift to work. It is such a lovely observation of something that is otherwise quite inconsequential.

Moving on to Farewell Prozac. In some ways I found this the hardest, but also the most inspiring, section of the book. It is very honest. Like Steve's writing on other subjects, the honesty is what makes it so absorbing and refreshing to read. We learn about triggers and making peace with those moments, those places that threaten to kick off episodes. The physical feeling of depression as well as the emotional feelings. The difficulties of coming off anti-depressants, and the sometimes need to go back on them is conveyed simply and carefully. The importance of recognising that going back on to medication is not a 'fail', but just something that needs to continue for a while, is dealt with in a clear sighted and accepting way. It made me think a lot about my own period of depression and mental unwell-ness (as I call it). It made me wonder how I would feel about writing about it. I don't know if I can. I talk a little bit about it in my book, in my chapter of The Light Bulb Moment. But I don't know if I can write more about it yet. Still, reading the Farewell Prozac posts, especially the one (that actually appears on Enemies of Reason) about how it does get better, reading these makes me think that maybe one day I will try and write about my own fairly minor experiences. I'm just not sure if I'm quite ready to yet. It's kind of all in the fiction posts on this blog anyway. It is helpful and also deeply moving to read about depression written in such a matter of fact and open way. Mental illness is still so hidden often, and so lonely. To have a space online where these experiences are shared in an honest fashion is really important and I hope other readers find Steve's words as valuable as I did.

The book moves on to reflect on journalism as a career, the state of the UK's newspapers, and, in the 'hastily cobbled together chapter on phone hacking', on whether the public can or will trust newspapers again. He writes about reading When Fleet Street Calls by JC Cannell as a teen and being inspired to be a hack, the changing world of journalism since then, and its potential future. His writing on 'prolls' (professional trolls) and how the ways in which the mainstream media whips up outrage and hate isn't without consequence is insightful, intelligent and spot-on. When you read Steve's writing, it feels like everything becomes clear. He has a way of communicating that makes sense of the lies and information overload of the MSM, cutting through the nonsense to bring to his readers an honest perspective that is often very amusing to boot.

On the back of the book, Steve describes himself as having been a 'mediocre journalist'. There is nothing mediocre about his writing. One of the best writers online today, no arguments. I would definitely recommend his book and I look forward to the next one.

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