With his recent appearances on Newsnight and the Million Mask March, Russell Brand is starting conversations, publicising the disillusionment of a nation and bringing people together, much like the beatnik and British New Wave movements of the 50s and 60s. And just like Brand they wanted to change society through highlighting the problems within it. Can Russell Brand's words and actions have the same effect as Kerouac, Sillitoe or Ginsberg?
The literature from the Beat Generation and much of the British New Wave (AKA Angry Young Men, apparently the writers associated with the group hated the phrase) was characterised by its ability to vent the anger and disillusionment of a generation. While Russell Brand may not be writing poetry or novels on the subject, he is broadcasting the feelings of a large chunk of the public. And even those who do not agree with everything he has said have to concede that he is highlighting public disillusionment and provoking important debate.
During his interview on Newsnight, Brand made it very clear that he was not aiming to provide the solution to what he saw as the problems with politics, but he was there to highlight them: "Jeremy, don't ask me to sit here in an interview with you in a bloody hotel room and devise a global utopian system...there are people with alternative ideas that are far better qualified than I am," which seems to be a similar stance to the Beat Generation and the Angry Young Men took.
Back in the 50s the Beat Generation produced some of the most influential literature America has ever seen. On the Road had been released, Junky and Naked Lunch were explicit in their description of drugs and homosexual acts and Howl was, and still is, a work of stunning anger at America - and that included the very direct poem, America.
In Howl, Ginsberg shocked a good number of Americans by bringing taboo subjects and sections of society into the open. For the line, "who let themselves be fucked in the ass by saintly motorcyclists, and screamed with joy" a number of copies of Howl were seized by customs and an obscenity case was brought. And during a time when it was dangerous to sympathise with communists in the US Ginsberg wrote in America that "momma took me to communist cell meetings...everybody was angelic...it was all so sincere you have no idea what a good thing the party was". By publicising these areas he wanted to ridicule public fears and in doing so helped give a voice to largely silent areas of society and a generation of disillusioned Americans.
With the success of the recent Million Masked March, Brand seems to be having a similar effect.
The Beat Generation gained popularity and notoriety. McCarthyism was stilled and America went through some major changes in the 50s and 60s. Some may be dismissive about the Beat Generation's role in helping change a society, and there were certainly other major factors such as Martin Luther King Jr., but with their literature and actions they were able to play a part.
In the UK, the British New Wave including Alan Sillitoe, Stan Barstow, John Osborne and others had a similar effect of bringing the disillusionment of the post war generation to the national view. Their literature showed the way working class England lived. The opening pages of Alan Sillitoe's Saturday Night, Sunday Morning monologues the drone of a nine to five factory week and living for the weekend. The "effect of a week's monotonous graft in the factory was swilled out of your system in a burst of goodwill. You followed the motto of 'be drunk and be happy.'" Sillitoe had grown up near the factories that he wrote about in Saturday Night, Sunday Morning, and had seen the discontentment that the book's protagonist, Arthur Seaton, felt every day.
In an article for the BBC Alan Sillitoe commented on the character of Artur Seaton: "The discontent could sort of be the human condition which I think most of the time is discontent. This discontent often manifests in sort of social ways."
Stan Barstow's Joby and A Kind of Loving, John Osbourne's Look Back In Anger and, although not considered part of the British New Wave but with a strong feeling of discontent, Barry Hines's Kes are also novels that describe the disconted life of the working class family. Most of Barry Hines's Kes is filled with Billy's determination of "not goin' to work down t'pit." Despite his obvious talent for training animals, he seems hopelessly headed for the coal mine, and it is his seeming lack of choice that is infuriating. None of these authors ever tried to plan how a new system should be built, they just felt the need to expose the discontent, disillusion and unfair nature of the current one so that changes could be made.
Brand may not be writing literature like the beatniks or the British New Wave did but, like them, he is delivering the sentiment of a growing majority of the public. He's caused a stir by talking up a revolution and appearing at the Million Masked March. His popularity will only help his words reach further. Is Russell Brand going to lead a revolution and become the next leader of the free world? No: "I don't need to come with ideas we can all participate. I'm happy to be a part of the conversation, if more young people are talking about fracking instead of twerking we're heading in the right direction." But just like the Beatniks and the British New Wave, he is getting people talking, on their feet and through that he will be an important part of any political change in society.