M&M’s and Monopoly: a review of Joel Golby’s essay collection ‘Brilliant, Brilliant, Brilliant Brilliant Brilliant’

As a consumer, I am the disloyal type. I buy own brand, whatever’s cheapest; I latch onto other people’s accounts and do not mourn when I am eventually flicked away by a change of password; I don’t keep up with any TV shows and scale the New Statesman paywall each week via numerous incognito tabs, because I’ll be damned if they’ll make a regular customer of me.

There is, however, one exception to this rule: I am unfailingly loyal, I am an ardent and sincere fan, I am hopelessly devoted to Joel Golby’s London Rental Opportunity of the Week column. I uncoolly snicker my way through it every week, as Golby guides the reader through the very weirdest, grimmest, most ill lit offerings on the London housing market. Laugh out loud! is a naff, adorning-the-poster-of-a-Judd-Apatow film descriptor, but as I read about zone 5 hellholes where your kitchen is also your toilet, flats with too many sinks (or too few), or flats where you, an adult, are expected to sleep in a loft bed and pay for the privilege, I never fail to laugh out loud.

Despite this status as a confirmed fan, I had never really put much thought into the man who writes this column, besides vaguely assuming that he must spend a lot of time on spareroom and as such exist in a constant state of apoplectic, nihilistic rage. It was then from a position of ignorance that, a few weeks back, I happened to see at the bottom of the column that he had written a book. High on life (read: essay completion), on the spur of the moment, and on someone else’s Amazon Prime, I bought it.

There is no real theme, other than that it is all very, very funny

Brilliant is a book of essays on wildly varying topics: camel beauty contests? The ethics of sex robots? The strange, exciting, scary feeling you got as a child when your parents had a party? All of human life is here, in Joel Golby’s book. There is no real theme, other than that it is all very, very funny, and because it’s all so very funny, I will indeed read a long-ish essay on whether or not Golby could personally beat the M&Ms (you know, the strangely Goodfellas-esque, four foot-ish tall mascots for the popular shellac coated candy) in a fight, and yes, I will nearly lose my freshly made cup of tea to the sheer and unadulterated hysterics induced by a short article on chipotle-flavoured Tabasco hot sauce (“I feel like I am among the top ten consumers of this sauce out of everyone currently alive”, Golby informs us solemnly).

As someone who once lost marks on an exam for structuring an entire essay around the premise that Arthur Scargill lost the 1984 miners’ strike because he thought he was in Rocky (where it is possible to win an emotional victory by losing to Apollo Creed) when he was actually in Rocky IV (where only a material victory can defeat the forces of Ivan Drago/ Thatcherism), and is in no way still bitter about this, I also was entirely on board with Golby’s incredibly detailed breakdown of numerous aspects of the Rocky franchise. There are 15 whole pages in this book about the board game “Monopoly”, and its singular capacity to bring out the most rapacious, litigious, avaricious, total and complete piece-of-sh*t side of a person’s character (“Give me Whitechapel”, intones Golby, “or I’ll cut you”); I could have done with 15 more.

Given the book’s scattergun, magpie-like approach to life, leather jackets and everything, it would be possible for it to seem inane, or disconnected, or feckless, but it never does. Brilliant has a current of strangely affecting feeling to it; I’ve found myself thinking, often, in the weeks since I finished it, about the ode to Golby’s hometown of Chesterfield, to walking to the big Tescos as a kid on a summer evening, and about the feeling of home being that of standing underneath a flyover, waiting for the rain to pass.

Maybe writing a book that leaves the reader feeling like the author has been hovering at the edge of their world all along is what it means to capture a zeitgeist, or maybe it’s just a function of good writing.

The overwhelming sense I had when reading this book, despite having laughed (out loud!) all the way through was not of amusement, but of a strange, aggressive familiarity. I put it down and texted a friend: “It’s a weird feeling”, I wrote, “I really enjoyed the book, and I’m quite sure I’ve never met the man who wrote it, but I still can’t quite escape the feeling that I might have called him a pillock once at a house party in London Fields, or maybe Peckham”.

This familiarity makes a certain sense, I suppose; I am a devotee of London Rental Opportunity of the Week because, having spent my entire adult, flat-renting life in London, I want to join Golby as he writhes and seethes at our common enemy. His black mould is my black mould, and the cultural world – more specifically, the London – he occupies and writes about feels like my world: the world where the landlord’s boot will ne’er be lifted from our necks and we will never own houses; the world of bougie London lit woman and late night bagels and slinging the same few posters up on wall after identikit rented wall; a pretentious young professional’s world where everyone reads Mark Fisher and buys aspirational houseplants. But maybe I’m projecting. Maybe writing a book that leaves the reader feeling like the author has been hovering at the edge of their world all along is what it means to capture a zeitgeist, or maybe it’s just a function of good writing. Brilliant is definitely that; in addition to the Rocky/ Arthur Scargill thing, it’s given me something else to be perpetually, low level bitter about – namely, that I can’t write like Joel Golby, which, f**king hell, I wish I could.

I can’t though. I couldn’t beat the M&Ms in a fight either. But I can suggest that you read this book. It will make you laugh.

Image Credit: William Warby (CC 2.0)