Of all the animals of prey, man is the only sociable one.
Every one of us preys upon his neighbour, and yet we herd together.
The Beggar's Opera: John Gay

Thursday, 14 October 2010

Fame - at any price?

"The time was once when thou, unurged, would'st vow
That never words were pleasing to thine ear,
That never object pleasing to thine eye,
That never touch were welcome to thy hand,
That never meat sweet-savour'd to thy taste
Unless I spake, or looked, or touched, or carved to thee."

The unhappy Adriana, in A Comedy of Errors, describes the all-encompassing love her husband used to profess for her. To modern eyes, the expression may sound rather florid, but the concept is alive and kicking. The British public have an insatiable appetite for the endorsement of the famous - at least if the news media are to be believed.

Consider, for example, the 'Delia Effect', or Jamie Oliver promoting Sainsbury's food, or perhaps the lustre added to perfumes and cosmetics by a smiling celebrity. Even breakfast cereal gets in on the act; no product, it seems, is so mundane that a sprinkle of stardust won't help it sell.

Almost anything the advertising industry tries to sell us has a celebrity on hand, to speak, or look, or touch, or carve for us. And when we're not being enticed to buy, we're bombarded by the media with endless personal information. Even the supposedly highbrow BBC has a good line in celebrity gossip cropping up in unexpected places.

Take for example a series from the news pages in 2006 - linked to in an article about Claire Rayner. Entitled 'Celebrity Health', the features interviewed such diverse characters as Sir Stirling Moss, Rabbi Lionel Blue and Britt Eckland about their health. Now call me a cynic, but are someone's gallstones really more interesting if they have been on TV?

The development of mass media in the 20th century means that many of today's celebrities were born to the purple, children who neither achieved fame nor had it thrust upon them but who were simply born famous. Trying to compete with the offspring of Rod Stewart, Mick Jagger et al drives aspiring youngsters into ever more extreme behaviour to get noticed.

All of this is fed by a public avid for more information, and it's getting nastier, if the covers of the magazines are anything to go by. 'Overdoses!' 'Divorce!' 'Cellulite!' the headlines shriek - human life played out for entertainment to accompany a cup of tea and a chocolate biscuit.

The whole thing reached its apotheosis in 'famous for being famous' - the darlings of the gossip column who enjoy a brief ubiquity with no-one knowing exactly why (although a cynic might make some shrewd guesses).

The unexpected result of this is a generation of schoolchildren whose stated ambition is 'to be famous' - nothing more, not 'famous' for anything - just 'famous'. Ask them to define fame, and - along with a fair few blank stares - you'll get the answer 'it's everybody wanting to know all about you' - a truly horrible concept.

All of which is a long-winded way of getting round to the concept of anonymity; in the days when the Bronte sisters were Acton, Ellis and Currer Bell and books were written by 'A Lady' or under pseudonyms such as 'Saki', 'BB' or 'Sapper', no one seemed to mind that some writers preferred not to be publicly recognised, now it's almost unimaginable.

Don't get me wrong - I'm not suggesting bloggers are the equivalent of the great 19th century novelists, though I bet Mrs Gaskell or Anthony Trollope would have been prolific and entertaining bloggers - but in this fame-obsessed society, Andrew Marr makes the common mistake of attributing a sinister motive to all of us who choose to hide behind a pseudonym, whatever the reason.

(H/T for inspiration to The Appalling Strangeness and The Cynical Tendency)

Fascinating Aida have their own take on fame - though, in the words of Dillie Keane, "Those of a sensitive disposition - leave now."


  1. What I do not like re TV news is the acres of coverage where a celeb is involved in contrast to the many serious things happening we ought to have some mention of.

  2. I agree - in fact, I'd go further and say that 'bread and Rooneys'* provide a useful smokescreen for things someone out there would prefer us not to hear about - look at the distraction created at No 10 by 'Cool Britannia'.

    It certainly seems to be an effective way to stop a large section of the younger population using their brains.

    *Not my own phrase, though I wish it were - I pinched it from NickM at Counting Cats.

  3. Demetrius, I owe you an apology - you fell off the end of the draft in transit, so to speak, and I didn't notice - it was very polite of you not to mention what must look like blatant plagiarism!

    (Though I should perhaps say in my defence that I was working on Comedy of Errors last Friday and the speech has been stuck in my head since then.)