Watching Russell Brand lean into Jeremy Paxman this time last year and tell him, eyes wild with agitation, that the revolution is coming, I was reminded of the final line of The Sun Also Rises: “Isn’t it pretty to think so?”
If that sounds like I’m trying to patronise the comedian, like old grumpy beard himself was, you’re wrong. I’ve always liked Brand, as a comedian but particularly as a writer. He has a turn of phrase most of the people who criticise him in the press would kill for (if he ever gets a less indulgent editor, we’ll really be in trouble).
Quite the opposite: the appeal of Brand’s rhetoric – and the himself as the vessel for it – strikes me as a very powerful and important thing indeed, no matter how much he gets sneered at by the political elite.
Brand isn’t going to pied-pipe us to a political revolution. He isn’t, as he told Paxman in that famous interview, going to ‘devise a world utopia’. But pointing that out or ridiculing him for having ‘student politics’ somewhat misses the point.
Because what Brand can do – what he is doing – through a irresistible mix of celebrity, scandal, and speaking eloquently about the riots, the political class and voter apathy, is flick on an important switch in people’s minds, the people he rightly identifies as not giving a flying fiddle about Conservative or Labour, Cameron or Ed.
It’s only a hunch, but I can imagine teenagers across the country stumbling across his cock fights with Paxman, or reading his blog about the Woolwich terrorist attack, or hearing him cajoling Peter Hitchens on drug reform on YouTube and experiencing that beautiful moment of political awakening that comes to almost all of us, and almost always by way of charming public figure.
Whether it's the Sex Pistols or Bill Hicks or – as was the case for me – shouty protest band Rage Against The Machine, at some point someone makes politics exciting and entertaining, while at the same time expanding your horizons so that you suddenly see the importance of the wider world and why you better start figuring out where you stand in it.
Chances are you'll outgrow the original message and more than likely the messanger, but it is this epiphany that could set you on the path to career in politics, or just make sure that, years down the line, you’re prepared to play bloody hell with your local council about the potholes on your high street. Either way, it’s important.
This is the audience Brand will find, and the positive effect he can have. He himself might consider this a paltry return for his talents or simply too unambitious, but I don’t.
The group he can join are not the ‘messiahs’ or people who rewrite the system, but they can be the conduits that stop some of the rest of us from slipping into that ever-growing, ominous pile popular discourse has labeled the 'apathetic' of Britain.
Brand has developed the unique ability to saunter onto the sets of the establishment – be it late night political TV shows hosted by sardonic old man or select committees usually only seen on BBC Parliament – and disrupt them with a frantic energy young people raised on the internet can identify with.
What a thrill it must be for them – for all of us – to see him within what he calls the ‘wood paneled walls of power', disrupting those in it with rock star looks, disrespectful humour and those disarming bursts of passion.
Some may call it frivolous behaviour – Paxman certainly did – but for every one person on the inside of that world he makes tut and roll their eyes, someone somewhere on the outside is going to feel a important stir in their stomachs.
It may not be the revolution Russell Brand wants, but it’s a start.
A version of this article first appeared in October 2013.