Book review: Help by Simon Amstell

When life is poignant and painful, it’s best to laugh


Seeing the comedian Simon Amstell live — particularly in “work-in-progress” try-outs — can be a conflicting experience. He wrings belly laughs from the most harrowing of anecdotes about sexuality, loneliness, relationships, family, frailty and personal discovery.

When he writes, in the introduction to this autobiography, that it is scary telling the truth in a book, he is not underselling the impact of gasp-inducing passages such as the suicide of Freddie. They had met when Amstell was doing a gig in Oxford, where they ended up sat on the bed in Amstell’s room. Amstell wanted sex; Freddie wasn’t sure and there was an awkward parting of the ways.

They later ex-changed texts when Freddie came to London but Amstell eventually stopped replying to his messages. He recalls feeling worse on learning of Freddie’s death than he had when dumped by the first person he had loved. “The point of me, if I’m here for anything, is to help young gay people know that they’re OK.”

He did not want to consider the possibility that Freddie had been in the audience during a segment of a show where Amstell asserts that death can be a lot less bother than life. Dentist appointment? Sorry, dead. See how easy it is.

Help takes Amstell from a shy childhood in Gants Hill wondering at his fascination with the way Leonardo DiCaprio’s hair fell over his eyes to finding contentment with a long-term boyfriend. But the endearing awkwardness remains through to the final passage, where he recounts that the most satisfying part of the orgy he attended in LA was talking to someone with his clothes on who seemed equally ill at ease.

His story is interwoven with extracts from his major shows, to the point where those as familiar with his live act as with his TV work — think acid-tongued Buzzcocks presenter, or his majestic Grandma’s House series — might feel a tad short-changed. Or wonder if their £12.99 might have been better invested in a live DVD.

The counter-argument is the plentiful laugh-out-loud moments from the acute observations contained within those repeated excerpts. As a random example, there is a rumination about not having quite enough friends. Looking at his phone, he sees he has 150 names on it — mind you, not names of people he would suggest lunch with, more those who are listed only because if they call, he knows not to answer.

There are also reflections on his parents’ break-up. Amstell turned up to his dad’s second wedding in a red T-shirt emblazoned with the word “ANTI”.

He also recalls that, when going through a traumatic time after a relationship ended, his father came over to fix his washing machine. In the moment, Amstell was infuriated that his dad could offer no wisdom or nurturing. But he subsequently came to appreciate that the love was in his father doing what he could. “So now when people say to me ‘That’s a nice shirt, Simon. Is it new?’ No. My father loves me.”

Help by Simon Amstell, published by Vinatge/Square Peg

Barry Toberman is the JC’s Community and News Features Editor

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