Review of 'Vive la Revolution: A Stand-Up History of the French Revolution', Mark Steel, Simon and Schuster £10.99
If you're a stand-up comic you have to be constantly aware of your audience, ensuring that they are amused. That means that every assertion you make needs to have appended to it a joke or amusing ditty. If you don't feed them in this way or your jokes or ditties are not up to scratch, you lose your audience. If you succeed you can get over serious ideas while they think they're simply having fun. Mark Steel is a stand-up comic, and this book's title says it is a stand-up history of the French Revolution. It could indeed easily be transferred lock, stock and barrel to the stage, and the audience would enjoy themselves hugely, and get a good, thorough history of this great revolution to boot - from the sans-culottes' (or rank and filers') point of view.
Mark Steel uses his huge fund of jokes and amusing stories combined with every historical fact to try and give the reader the feel of what making history - whether you knew you were making it or not - was like. And because the reader will feel and understand through his or her current circumstances, most of the references are contemporary. As an example, after the storming of the Bastille in 1789 the revolutionaries demanded that the king, Louis XVI, returned to Paris from Versailles to face the music. A contingent of women raided the town hall for weapons, and by the time they set off from Paris on the 15-mile walk to Versailles they had become a crowd of around 10,000. 'The king [was] forced to march back to the capital surrounded by the poorest women of Paris, but he was made to carry out the whole journey wearing a fresh cap of liberty [replacing the one he had the previous night trampled underfoot]. Which must have been like making Peter Mandelson walk from Hartlepool to London selling copies of Socialist Worker.'
The use of contemporary illustrations turned into jokes fulfils another function which is of cardinal importance for the history. The references are not only contemporary, but are taken from Mark Steel's own point of view, as an ordinary rank and file human being - a hater of privilege and a socialist. The result is that the episodes of the revolution are seen through the eyes of ordinary people, in particular the sans-culottes - the poorest and, for the five revolutionary years the most radical and active of the revolutionaries. An example: in 1792, suffering a food shortage , 'residents of Saint Marceau forced open a warehouse, and the sugar hoarded there was sold at 21 sous per livre. All those who took it paid for it faithfully. That must have been the politest looting in the world. Maybe they even introduced a special offer - pay for two bags, steal one free.'
The way he describes, in his typically comic style, the awakening of the people out of their feudal narrow-mindedness, the rise of their consciousness - both political and cultural - and their consequent steadfast, uncompromising struggle for the ideas they developed, is beautiful.
The history of the revolution, told in this manner, is different from the usual story told. The time distance ceases to be an alienating factor, and the revolution can be understood by ordinary people in a manner that can inform and inspire to action today, but it is unique in its style and in the down to earth, rank and file viewpoint from which it looks at the period. And Mark Steel's combative and irreverent hilarity makes absorbing its serious subject matter a pleasure.
The book is, in fact, an exhaustive, detailed history of the revolution.