Selfish, Whining Monkeys by Rod Liddle, book review: Riotous rants of a grumpy old man


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The Independent Culture

A book aiming to explain why we've become "greedy, narcissistic and unhappy" poses a challenge to a reader who wouldn't identify as any of the above.

But Rod Liddle lured me in with his riotously entertaining take on everything from attitudes towards obesity to what he calls our "respec" culture. He's admirably self-deprecating and happy to take his share of the blame for the problems he identifies. And he makes some interesting points, such as how our understanding of a home – not just as somewhere we live but a means of collateral to be traded upwards – has eroded our sense of belonging to a community.

But his affable manner soon tips over into angry rant. His relentlessly pessimistic view of society becomes unpleasant and his admission that the book is drawn from anecdotal evidence rather than scientific enquiry doesn't excuse the holes that open up in his arguments.

"It is undoubtedly true that as orthodox religious belief has retreated," he states, "so we have become... more inclined to be immune to the needs and requirements of our fellow men". I assume by "fellow men" he's not talking about the needs of, say, gay people, or women for that matter, both of whom have not always been serviced by religion. Likewise, he can't think of anyone who benefitted from the Divorce Reform Act of 1971 other than women in physically abusive relationships.

Well, he's obviously never met a woman in a psychologically abusive relationship, or a woman who's simply fallen out of love with her husband. No, according to Liddle, people like this are enticed out of their marriages by the "glamour" of divorce. However, it was his discussion of society's dwindling sense of community that provoked my strongest objection. Here he focuses on a purely geographical community that seems to me to fundamentally misunderstand the way we interact as a society in 2014. He says we're "more estranged, physically and metaphorically, from one another than ever before" – this after repeatedly mocking our newfound desire to discuss the way we "feel".

Once Liddle's arguments fall down, what's left is the undeniable entertainment value but also a slight pointlessness. I might hear the same kind of arguments on the proverbial night down the pub – and join in too. But come to think of it, is Liddle the kind of bloke I'd chat to in the pub? I'm not so sure. He can't resist talking about a "gay cabin steward" and the "homosexual historian David Starkey" when the sexuality of both is entirely irrelevant to the point he's making. And he struggles to stop himself commenting on how attractive women are; Carol Vorderman is described as "arsetastic" and au pairs hired by the middle-classes as "probably quite fit" when the fitness of neither is under discussion.

He redeems himself towards the end by finally expressing some feelings of his own – in this case his fear of ageing, which he admits may have stripped him of optimism. And, although he concedes that it's a good thing that our society is now more tolerant of diversity, he adds that "the sacking of the old order has left us fraught and unhappy, isolated and averse". Which brings me back to where I started – I still don't feel included by his "us". Rather, I feel horrified by the old world he looks back on with such nostalgia – and thankful I was born into a society that has allowed me to feel the exact opposite of the way he describes.

Matt Cain's 'Shot Through the Heart' is published by Macmillan