Saturday, 7 May 2011

That's Entertainment

I’m a bit of a snob when it comes to reading material, but every so often I really fancy a glossy magazine. I’ll buy one, justifying the four quid by telling myself that I don’t do this very often, and binge on the whole thing in a couple of hours. Drink it in and get high off the headlines and shiny pictures of beautiful people, skim over the text, let myself be shocked at the real-life stories, occasionally admire the quality of the investigative pieces. Inevitably, though, and inexplicably, I get to the end and feel like shit, like I’ve just scoffed something hideously unhealthy, like an enormous big mac and fries, with extra mayo. A guilty pleasure? Perhaps. But against my better judgement, I still subscribe with the rest of them to the braying beast that is celebrity worship.

Rationally, I know that people who have glamorous jobs (like, say, movie stars) are still just people doing jobs. When you’re an insider in an industry, it loses its sparkling sheen. Even something super-fun, like going to a party, can become a chore: as soon as something is obligation, it is no longer recreation. As a lowly outsider, though, on the rare occasion that you are granted a golden pass into an unknown and exciting world, it’s a thrilling yet thoroughly weird experience. You think that because the world of celebrity already exists in your imagination, in reality the doors will open up and you will be welcomed into the fold in all its shining glory. But when did reality ever stand up next to imagination and come off favourably?

Once upon a weekday evening, my oldest, wisest and most glamorous friend, the most social butterfly you’ll ever meet, called to tell me that she’d got herself and a plus one onto the guest list for a super-cool, hip film premiere after-party in central London, and did I want to go? I accepted with gusto. ‘I hope it’s not a let-down, but it won’t be what you expect,’ said the friend, who hobnobs and schmoozes with the papped echelons of society on a regular basis. I thought to myself: Of course it won’t be a let down. I mean, how could it be a let down to spend the whole evening schmoozing with glamorous and exciting celebs? Which of course, we will, as they'll all be dying to talk to normal, run-of-the-mill down-to-earth hanger-on types like us. I didn’t say this, though. I said: ‘Of course it won’t be a let down. Even if we catch a sideways glimpse of some celebrity or other, it’ll totally be worth it.’

Weirdly, though, at the venue, the celebs weren’t waiting by the door to welcome us in. It was nearly empty, despite the fact we’d hung around nursing rum-and-cokes in a bar across the square so as not to arrive too early. There was free champagne on the door, though – Piper Heidsieck, no less – so we settled in, found a spot, pretended to chat and generally hung around waiting for the beautiful people to arrive. As the place started to fill up, I became aware of this tense, electrified atmosphere in the place, and no wonder, I was radiating it myself: anticipation. It was weird, though, my friend was right. Imagine the scene: Monday evening, you’re out in Leicester Square drinking free flutes of Piper, and everyone knows you’re really there for some other reason than casually meeting up with your mates. At some point during conversation you might become aware of a fleeting presence, a flitting movement of a beautiful rare celebrity bird on your periphery, moving in and out (mainly out) of your vision.

The evening wore on, and ever so slowly, a tinge of disappointment that the famous people didn't appear to want to say hello began to set in. But my friend is a good friend, and a stellar journalist. She pulled her press card, which bought her a whole half-minute of empty chit-chat from some slick actor or other, while I did absolutely nothing but grin like the village idiot at her side, struck dumb by nothing other than the aura of celebrity. At the time I was gliding along in a haze of bright lights and having a jolly old time but looking back, it’s fair to say that, given my talent for the verbal at most other times, be it idle prattle or thoughtfully-constructed argument, I’m ashamed of myself for allowing myself to be rendered so dumbstruck. Finally, slick actor flitted off into the fray, never to be seen again… well, perhaps glimpsed out of the corner of your eye once more, but this time well and truly off-limits, for once they smell The Press on you, you’re dutifully granted your thirty seconds, and then you’ve had your chance. Time’s up, and they won’t go near you again.

So I got to thinking… mass entertainment. What an industry. I think I’d find it exhausting. It’s exhausting when you’re riding the wave, and it’s heartbreaking when you come down off it and realise that normal life is waiting for you to stop your silly daydreaming. You might get lucky one night and find yourself at an event where they dish out Piper Heidsieck to their guests, but you still have to run to make the last tube home. The further down the Northern line we ricketed, and the more I fell back into my own hum-drum life, the more I felt it all enveloping me like an old, moth-eaten and holey, but ultimately comfortable and familiar blankie (curled up on the sofa with a bowl of cereal and the Saturday morning cartoons). I began to think that I’d rather live a boring old life that meant something to me than a rockstar lifestyle devoted to giving other people little invented snapshots of yourself that require little to no effort, and around twenty seconds, to digest.

But the purists such as myself are always moaning about how these days everything is geared now towards our goldfish-bowl attention spans. We want everything bigger-better-faster-brighter at our fingertips, infinite choices and opportunities, the ability to skip from this thing to that thing at the touch of a screen or a moment’s thought, and we’re losing the ability to engage with things properly. And by ‘things’ I don’t mean 'content' – it drives me so mad, that phrase engaging with content. Do you digital wizards even know what those words mean? In reality, they just mean “looking at a screen”. Don’t you ever find yourself bemused, watching someone engaging with content on the train, and wondering how a person can become so completely vacant and devoid of all expression, utterly transfixed and transported by his little screen? I know I’m, like, seriously behind the times and more than a little snobbish (and of course I have double standards - I also wrote this on a screen) but I just find it all so funny and bizarre, and sad. We don’t even read properly any more – we look at gadgets. As Nicole Krauss brilliantly put it this interview, we don’t even turn the pages. We press a button which turns the page for us, and now all that’s left of the simple experience of turning the page is a little mechanical noise.

I didn’t really mean to veer off on a tangent of the anti-revolution there, but it probably all adds up to the same thing. I’m not very modern; I’m staid, a traditionalist – some might say boring. I didn’t mean to, and I definitely didn’t set out to, but I soon found myself making comparisons between that celebrity encounter and the kind of events that I usually find myself at on weeknights. Literary salons, book launches, Q&A sessions. All pretty bog-standard for somebody who works in publishing, but I genuinely love this kind of stuff. It doesn’t have to be dull. I’ve seen Alan Bennett reading onstage in Trafalgar Square, and heard Philip Pullman doing the voices of Lyra and the armoured bear. I’ve heard the first three pages of the new (unpublished) Bridget Jones straight from the author’s mouth, and had a conversation about book covers with Geoff Dyer. I’m not saying it’s better, it’s just a totally different world. It might not be superficially as satisfying as coming face to face with someone you’ve seen eight feet tall on the silver screen, but I find I am much more impressed on a deeper level by celebrity of the literary kind. I might get all flustered when confronted with someone off the telly, but I’m truly awestruck when I meet a writer I like. It’s brilliant, there’s nothing like it, and the main reason for this is (and I realised this had bugged me all along about the fame racket) that you can actually talk to these people. You don’t get fobbed off with some cover story, something someone’s made up so that they make a good impression when you write about them. You’re allowed to have opinions, share ideas, or just chit-chat and get along, and when a writer you love listens to something you’ve said and reacts (either positively or negatively), it’s gratifying on such a different level to the temporary high you get from coming into contact with the stars.

But let me just get down off my high horse for a minute – because let’s face it, there’s literary snobbery around in spades. These days I seem to move in circles where people say things like: ‘There’s something so cool about realising you’re at a party snorting coke with Bret Easton Ellis.’ I mean, really? God forbid I’ll ever be impressed by that kind of talk. You get used to your circle, though, and probably become impervious to its flashier sides – the flip side of doing coke with Bret Easton Ellis is proof-reading his novels for grammatical errors, I suppose, or losing your job if you don’t sell enough of his books. My glamorous celebrity-spotting friend is really an award-winning young journalist who happens to work for a glossy magazine, so the kind of celebrity event that would get a pleb like me all hot under the collar, she takes in her stride all as part of a day’s work. A few months ago, I hadn’t seen her for a while and suggested we meet up that weekend, to which she replied that she couldn’t, she had to work. On a Sunday, I protested? Yeah, she said, I have to go and cover the BAFTAs. Sorry – can’t really get out of it.

The BAFTAs? What a nause.