What's Going On?, By Mark Steel

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What exactly is a midlife crisis? Does everybody have one? And do they do you any good? If my own vague studies of this subject are anything to go by, most victims of this malaise tend to be middle class men in steady jobs who suddenly decide to buy red sports cars. However, Mark Steel is a bit more thoughtful than your average Top Gear-loving middle manager.

A seasoned stand-up comic, Steel is also a prolific columnist, whose breezy, pugnacious satire should be familiar to every reader of this newspaper. He begins this book in his usual chatty, pugilistic style, and at first it has the upbeat air of one of his columns writ large. But a book, unlike a newspaper column, is a marathon not a sprint, and as the author of two previous memoirs (and a book about the French Revolution) Steel knows well enough not to try and sustain this pace throughout.

Instead, he turns his attention to two topics far too complex for a newspaper column: how he split up with the mother of his children, and how he fell out of love with the SWP. Steel's book is subtitled "the meanderings of a comic mind in confusion", which confused me, as he'd always struck me as supremely certain and forthright. This is what makes him such an accomplished columnist: you either want to cheer him on, or chuck his work across the room. But while doubt is a nuisance for a columnist, it's gold dust for a decent author. And as he tiptoes towards an understanding of how he drifted apart from the Socialist Workers Party and his spouse, a more hesitant and intelligent writer emerges.

If Steel had focused solely on these twin topics I think he might have written a modest masterpiece, but the story of these parallel break-ups is frequently eclipsed by familiar polemics about Steel's political and economic bogeymen.

Here, Steel is on much firmer ground – he knows a lot about these subjects, and it shows – but for me, these were the least appealing sections of the book. They feel like arguments he has often aired before, worn smooth with repetition, so there's no real journey of discovery, for the reader or the author.

Steel clearly cares deeply about vulnerable people, but he doesn't seem to consider that his opponents might be equally compassionate and sincere.

What makes his personal revelations so interesting are his tentative attempts to see the other point of view, and his uneven but entertaining book ends on a surprisingly optimistic note.

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