Russell Brand is pressed against a table, almost forced back on top of a cake featuring a silhouette of his own face in cream icing. Hundreds of fans have blocked the narrow corridors of Hoxton Docks, clamouring to get close, screaming Brand’s name. He has nowhere to go. It takes close to an hour to move 50 feet.
Brand has become familiar with this sort of reception. Already an arena-filling comedian and chart-topping author, he is repositioning himself as a leading voice of Britain’s disenfranchised – the spokesman and de facto leader of a generation isolated from mainstream politics.
We’re gathered here tonight for the launch of his fourth book – Revolution. A manifesto for radical social change. Like any good political agitator the 39-year-old said he wanted to team up with The Big Issue, inviting us along as media partner.
“I love The Big Issue,” he said. “It’s a cool magazine that you feel better after you’ve read. Unlike Razzle or Vogue. Where you feel guilty or fat.”
How could we refuse?
The urban Hoxton setting, an old gas and coal warehouse turned landmark of the east London art scene – first commissioned by King George III, Brand might tell you – is adorned with power-to-the-people, Viva la Revolution signs and banners. The event has been dubbed an “anarchic fayre”, featuring yoga sessions, live music, performance art and a book reading from Brand. Of course, The Big Issue is there, with vendors on hand to talk to and buy magazines off, and other local and national organisations are also represented.
Given where we are, and the people around, it feels more boutique festival than anti-establishment rabble. It is rumoured that Brand, the showman, will stage a unique arrival on a barge on Regent’s Canal. Sadly, there is no walking on water. Instead, he strolls in through the front door, relaxed and smiling alongside his family and close friends.
It’s about people being involved, having autonomy and control. It’s very similar to the model you have at The Big Issue
Even when it all gets a little manic, as security struggle to stop Brand from being squeezed against the tray of cakes (provided by the Dalston branch of the Women’s Institute), he grabs hold of outstretched hands, kissing the heads of children before eventually reaching a table of Hare Krishna devotees, where he stops to serve food and drinks.
His last tour was called Messiah Complex. He is not scared of such rich symbolism. This is Jesus with selfies – lots and lots of selfies, including one with our vendors Paul and Terry. Brand makes a point of picking the pair out among the crowd to say hello.
For me, it’s about people being involved, having autonomy and control. It’s very similar to the model you have at The Big Issue
Brand also wanted to sit with Big Issue founder John Bird to shoot the breeze and answer our questions. Here’s what happened when Bird and Brand talked votes, change and John Lydon.
So, Russell, describe your revolution…
A lot of it’s visible tonight. You see kids in there talking about democracy and whether or not there’s a value to voting. There’s Hare Krishna devotees cheerfully giving away food, there’s the Woman’s Institute with a delightful array of cakes, and hundreds and hundreds of people in a chilly warehouse in east London talking about democracy and politics. It’s unusual. I don’t see this amount of people come together that often – from young Muslim lads to working-class women from the New Era estate around the road.
For me, it’s about people being involved, having autonomy and control. It’s very similar to the model you have at The Big Issue. You’ve got people on the street, they are lost, begging, and you provide them with a service. A term like homeless seems like a full-stop on the end of ‘thinking’ but these are just men and women that have had a rough ride. We live in such prescriptive parameters – it’s all ‘these people are homeless’ or ‘these people are junkies’ – and it stops people having to think. Today I’ve heard children telling me why they think they should or shouldn’t vote, Muslims saying that it’s nice to talk about Islam in a way that isn’t incendiary or provocative, working-class people that are getting turfed out their flats talking about learning how to collectivise and organise – and for me it’s about that.
What comes next? The call to revolution is attractive but what is the new order to replace the old?
It’s about whatever anyone wants to do. For me, I’m helping the women on the New Era estate [protesting at proposals to raise their rent to market rates] that are facing closure because of the Benyon brothers that own their property, and the development firm Westbrook, so that they’re keeping rents at social rates, that they won’t have their rents raised to market rates – and I’ll be continuing to do the stuff that I do. I’m starting a social enterprise for drug addicts. It’s about what you want to do.
Words are a manifestation of thoughts, mate, and then they become matter. The Bible is just words. The application of effort and belief is extremely significant and you have to be very careful about the role we play applying cynicism and undercutting and undermining stuff because that’s how things stay the same. People that want stuff to change won’t believe it’s possible.
Last year you said that abstaining from voting was the way forward. This year, nearly 85 per cent of people eligible voted in the Scottish Referendum. This brought a massive public debate. Were you wrong to encourage abstaining?
No, mate, because that isn’t what I said. It’s really interesting that when someone says ‘don’t vote, it’s pointless’, the part of the sentence that people focus on is ‘don’t vote’, not ‘it’s pointless’, which is the crucial part.
So do you mean ‘don’t vote pointlessly’?
I backed the Yes campaign in Scotland so you know your question is a mad question.
But you’re shrewd enough to know people are always going to see you saying the words ‘don’t vote’.
No, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no. I say ‘don’t vote, it’s pointless’ and then the media says, ‘He just said don’t vote.’ Why? Because then they can focus on me as a personality instead of the fact that we live in a corrupt, pointless, undemocratic system where people are not represented.
When John Lydon calls you out… [Lydon said Brand will “make you all homeless” and that his refusal to vote was “the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard”.]
John Lydon ain’t said nothing worthwhile since 1980. I ain’t listened to him since 1980, mate.
John Lydon ain’t said nothing worthwhile since 1980
Did it upset you that it was Lydon?
I dunno. Maybe if it had been 1980.
When The Big Issue came along it was revolutionary. We gave the poorest in society the means to get out and passed the problem back to the people. You have a fantastic opportunity here. People believe in you, Big Issue vendors believe in you.
At the end of the book I talk about collectivism and co-operatives, and it’s already happening. Look at Suma Wholefoods in the north of this country. People are using all sorts of democratic models, people are collectivising their workplaces, people are aware that it’s possible to close down corporations through revoking corporate charters. The ideas are there. All that’s needed is the will.
I read your book and a number of the people you back – like Chomsky – spend a lot of time defining the problem but they don’t give any answers. Can we expect more from you?
You’re right in that there does need to be the machinery but another thing that’s important is you don’t need heroic individuals to stand up the front. My mug’s on the front of my book because, you know, it’s my book but it’s about the empowerment of people. The same way as your idea, your motive, your system for The Big Issue was about empowering the vendors to create a brand that gives people their power back, and that’s what this is as well. What I can do, I can amplify – but I can’t design social systems. The answers are already there. The biggest myth that’s out there is that change isn’t possible. The biggest myth is that there ain’t no alternatives.
Revolution is out now in hardback (Cornerstone, £20). Read Russell Brand’s ‘trews‘ (true news) online…