Review: ‘Riding the Elephant’ by Craig Ferguson

Riding the Elephant: A Memoir of Altercations, Humiliations, Hallucinations, and Observations by Craig Ferguson

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I didn’t expect much from “Riding the Elephant,” a collection of short essays by comedian/former talk show host/Secretariat pal Craig Ferguson. These books tend to be entertaining and jokey, but rather forgettable, a 250-page substitute for hanging around with your celebrity author.

Not so in Ferguson’s case. Entertaining and jokey, yes – but oftentimes thoughtful, and occasionally transcendent.

I should have known Ferguson was capable of so much more than I expected. After all, this is a guy who very publicly talked about his alcoholism on his show; whose monologues were genuine monologues – personal storytelling adventures – not a list of strung-together jokes; who called himself “TV’s Craig Ferguson,” sending himself up in a phrase; who confessed sympathy for various celebrities – seeing them as people – while they were usually the butt of dark jokes everywhere else.

He also created a manic character named Bing Hitler, a name that always makes me laugh with its absurdity. (If I believe Wiki, the name was suggested by actor and friend Peter Capaldi, then the lead singer of Ferguson’s band Dreamboys. Hats off to you, Peter Capaldi, and please don’t curse at me like my beloved Malcolm Tucker.)

“Riding the Elephant” roams widely through Ferguson’s life. He talks about his childhood in the planned city of Cumbernauld, near Glasgow, one that was full of fights, with Ferguson usually on the losing end. It skips through his punk-rock days and his boozing days and his marriage days. Every unknown woman is named Margaret; every bit of navel-gazing is couched in embarrassment. What sets the book apart are the nuggets of truth and empathy that make you stop and think (and, occasionally, laugh):

“When I hear people today saying the latest cat meme or Super Bowl commercial gives them ‘the feels,’ I want to vomit and then punch them.

“It was a tiny apartment, even by New York standards. It had a stove and a shower, no air conditioner, and a shockingly vulgar green shag carpet. There was enough room for two people if they liked each other and had only hand luggage.”

“Old age was a gift Alison never got. I never saw her again. She died almost a year later. Gillian and I were thinking about getting engaged, but we never did. We made the choice to move on in different directions, but Alison didn’t move on; she stopped right there in that shitty town.”

This isn’t celebrity essay writing. This is storytelling, with well-chosen words and shape and color. I could usually hear the essays in Ferguson’s voice, that wonderful Scottish burr that casually swooped around the curves in his monologues, but there’s a deliberateness, too, that shows he pays attention to language. I’m sure he always did; it’s just that you forget about it when you’re watching a TV talk show at 12:30 a.m. (or, more commonly, catching clips on YouTube).

Best of all is the penultimate essay, “Millport.” Millport is a resort town on a small Scottish coastal island that Ferguson visited as a child and where he got his first job, overseeing a swingboat ride (essentially an oblong swing with a person on either end). Ferguson was 14; he worked a 10-hour day for a pound sixty-five. He loved it unreservedly.

Years later, he’s fresh out of rehab and visiting Millport with a fellow comedian. He decides to go for a run. Headphones on, focused on the Brian Eno in his head, he nearly runs into a oystercatcher’s nest and is soon swatted – hard – by the mother bird. (“I don’t know if it was with her beak or the billy club she kept hidden under her feathers,” he writes.) His Discman (this is 1992) and Eno CD are damaged beyond repair, so after depositing them in the trash, he runs on, now very much in the world. And what he feels is: gratitude.

I won’t give away the last paragraph, but it makes a sudden swerve into the present day, and I was carried along with the same wonder and joy he was trying to convey.

What more can you ask of a storyteller than that?

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