I must declare an interest: Rod Liddle gave me a job about 15 years ago. It was when he was editing Radio 4's Today programme, and he engaged me and Freddie Forsyth to deliver short, pithy diatribes on alternating Saturday mornings. Rod's reasoning was that Freddie was the rightwing maverick and I the lefty one. I enjoyed the gig, not least because it meant going into the BBC on Friday afternoons and having a chat with Rod, who I found perfectly simpatico: a somewhat red-faced and fulminating character, with quite wild hair, sporting a psychic if not an actual cravat, while manifesting the kind of déshabillé, coupled with much talk about "needing a glass of wine", that is usually the sequel of radical views. I assumed Rod was on the left but then I would, wouldn't I? And when his appointee, Andrew Gilligan, blew the whistle on the Blair government's warmongering, it confirmed for me that Rod was on the side of truth and justice rather than the American way.
Of course, he'd gone from Today by then, and so had I. Rod quit the BBC after a brouhaha involving conflict of interest and writing for this very newspaper. I was let go, according to Rod, because No 10 objected so stridently to Freddie's incendiary rants that he had to exit, and in order to be impartial it was necessary I lose my bully pulpit as well. Once again, you can understand why this intelligence confirmed my view of Rod as one of us. Over the next few years, I was vaguely aware of his activities I had the impression he was saying and writing rather annoying things, but I didn't pay much attention. The spectacular meltdown of his marriage did impinge: running off from your Malaysian honeymoon to be with your mistress (and colleague on the Spectator) is pretty outre, even for this day and age. Still, I wasn't going to judge him let he who is without sin cast the first stone, and all that jazz.
I did an Any Questions with Rod two or three years back, and more recently we partnered up for an Intelligence Squared debate where we opposed the motion "This House Believes We've Never Had It So Good", roundly trashing its proposers, a posturing Tory MP absurdly dubbed Jesse Norman, and professional sibling-cum-popinjay Rachel Johnson. Rod seemed a little frazzled to me, but he spoke well and passionately about the parlous condition of a society that knows the price of everything and the value of nothing, and as ever I warmed to him. When I got home I mentioned to my wife how sharp and amusing Rod had been, and she said, "Maybe," but that she thought he was a racist.
I suppose I should have been reading Liddle's Spectator columns or his writing for the Sun and the Sunday Times I could have dipped into the work of fiction he published a few years ago, or watched one of the TV documentaries he's made. I certainly should have appreciated the gravamen of the case brought against the Spectator after Liddle an associate editor, no less wrote a piece for it stating that the defendants in the Stephen Lawrence murder case were unlikely to receive a fair trial, after all this was Big News, much bigger than the inflammatory bollocks he'd written about Harriet Harman, or the twaddle it turns out he's posted on Millwall fans' message boards. But I didn't, I had to wait for Selfish, Whining Monkeys to make an informed judgment about the state of the Liddle brain and soul.
I'm glad I waited: it's so much more authoritative to hear a man condemned out of his own mouth over 200-plus pages than it is to assay him on the basis of newspaper columns, which, by and large, favour polarised views tendentiously expressed. On the R question (I won't type the full epithet for reasons that will become clear), I think he is one. He tries to say the right things about race, religion and ethnicity, but he can't help reverting to type. Six lines from the end of the book, after page upon page of contemporary critique inflected by a sort of bilious nostalgia, he writes: "Undoubtedly, there are things we do better now: we are more tolerant of diversity, there is far less discrimination against people from ethnic minorities, women, disabled people, homosexuals and those who are transgendered. This, I think, is a good thing." This, I think Rod thinks he believes, but throughout the book he notes people's ethnicity or religion or sexuality where it isn't necessary, and he uses descriptors that verge on the pejorative: "hard-faced post-Soviet babe", "spastically useless", "tribe" (with reference to the Muslim community), which he presumably imagines can be passed off as some sort of jeu d'esprit, intended to twit what he terms the "faux-left metropolitan liberal elite".
Liddle should be aware of the anecdote Martin Amis once told about his father. Bamboozled by Kingsley's shameless antisemitism, son asked father what it was like to be such a creature, and the Great Bigot answered: "When the titles come up at the end of a film, you just sort of notice them." It's this "noticing them" that marks Liddle out as a bigot, and like all bigots his prejudice is rooted in fear. It's conceivably a dereliction of the reviewer's duty to concentrate so much on this issue, but if you want to know what Selfish, Whining Monkeys is like, and if you should dob up 15 quid to immerse yourself in Liddle's spleen, then it is fairly important. There's much to enjoy in this book: Liddle's heart is indeed in the right place when it comes to the poxes of neoliberalism, democratic emasculation, commodity fetishism and globalisation on our body politic. For a work of straitlaced commentary, Liddle's prose style is in a teasing state of dishevelment; his favoured words being F-ones: "fatuous" and "faux" adjectivally, and "####" in all its forms. I counted up to four "####s" on a single page, and while the use of the epithet is entirely literarily defensible if, for example your fictional character is of the ####ing-this and ####ing-that persuasion its presence in a social commentator's first-person diatribe rather raises the questions: what is he so ####ing angry about, and why?
As I indicated above: he's angry because he's fearful, and he's fearful because well, he thinks he's angry because "large-scale immigration has made life worse for a sizable proportion of the indigenous population"; and that in a Britain populated by the eponymous monkeys, it's only stalwart fellows such as Liddle who dare to state this, yet when he does he's immediately "silenced by the massed ovine bleat from the liberal elite rrrraaaaacccist". This vicious and unjust slur is handed down from on high by a back-slapping quangocracy that's "in agreement about everything". The Liddle cosmology is thus a Manichean one: on the one side are decent working- and lower-middle-class white Britons who have been robbed of their birthright, and on the other are a "tribe" of Shami Chakrabatis who are shamelessly exploiting positive discrimination in order to control the commanding heights of the economy, the culture and society overall. If you think I'm exaggerating I'm not. Perhaps the saddest and most telling example of Liddle's ulterior state of mind comes when he feels he has to point out that one of his "really good" friends the BBC journalist Samir Shah is actually, gulp, a British Asian; but that while he may well be part of the hated liberal elite it's all OK because Shah in a rather English debunking sort of a way observes: "I'm a high-achieving liberal BBC Asian. They can't get enough of me."
I agree with Liddle that there is a faux-liberal elite in this country; I agree with him also that the only thing that isn't faux about their liberalism is its neo-bent: they love house-flipping and buying-to-let, and while they may protest about the ever-widening wealth gap, there's bugger all they are actually prepared to do in order to fill it in except for generously supporting Red Nose Day. I also agree with Liddle that there have been downsides to many of the large-scale social changes that have occurred during the postwar era, from deindustrialisation, to the decline of the nuclear family, to the impact of global capital flows, to even gulp! our abandonment of Christian ethics. What I don't share is his strange paranoia, worthy of a conspiracy theorist: Liddle thinks he's attacked when he shoots off his mouth because of a cabal of power-mongers who shop at Conran, but he should ask himself if his remarks on black and brown and female and gay Britons are offensive to these people, not the BBC Trust or the editorial board of the Guardian.
The thing people like Rod Liddle or Nigel Farage for that matter don't understand is that racism is a functional attribute of social systems: it's the way they work. That's why we talk in terms of "institutional racism"; but because racists are essentialists believing there are such things as racial characteristics and that they are innate they cannot grasp that with changing social systems come changing attitudes and vice versa. A major strand in this book is of the fings-ain't-what-they-used-to-be variety: Liddle is teary-eyed at the thought of the parsimonious, stoical and patriotic lives his lower-middle-class parents led; he feels that we (and he includes himself) have squandered our inheritance, both moral and financial. But what's most significant about his parents and he identifies this on page one is that they were racists, and perhaps he should face facts: sometimes the "indigenous" baby needs to be chucked out with the dirty-minded bathwater.
As to why Liddle is so feared up, a whole gamut of possibilities suggests itself: he provides enough personal information in this book to keep a gang of Hampstead psychotherapists hard at it for years. But on balance I'd opt for a Marxist perspective, purely on the basis that it will wind him up the most: Liddle is a typical petit bourgeois, afraid of either being absorbed into the proletariat he champions, or destroyed by the capitalist bogeyman he excoriates but depends on for his wonga. The cultural cringing of the squeezed intellectual middle is creased into every line of this baggy diatribe, in the form of scores of French loan words, pasquinades poorly aimed at intellectuals he regards as pretentious, and of course that plethora of ####s. The peculiar thing is that I can't find it in my heart of hearts to dislike the man, I think there's good in him and that he can change his bilious complexion whereas it's altogether impossible for people to change the colour of their skins.
Will Self's new novel, Shark, will be published by Viking in September. To order Selfish, Whining Monkeys for £11.99 with free UK p&p call Guardian book service on 0330 333 6846 or go to guardianbookshop.co.uk.