No one who had read either or both of Chris Heath's books about the Pet Shop Boys could fail to be excited by the news that he was writing one about Robbie Williams. Having perfectly captured the heady blend of inspired bitchery and urbane ennui which characterises life in the entourage of those canniest of pop sages, what better new challenge could there be for him than a man who tattoos his personal contradictions across his own body in bold black ink?
Yet in the originalFace cover story which was presumably Feel's starting point, Heath seemed a little too in awe of his subject - raising concerns that the obvious benefits of an intimate creative association with such a huge and notoriously capricious star might restrict the author's instinctive acuity. More recently, a rather ponderously framed newspaper extract suggested that the need to emphasise the narrator's role might get in the way of the free flow of amusing and painfully honest revelations of which anyone who has ever seen Robbie Williams in a fly-on-the-wall TV documentary knows him to be capable.
Happily, it takes no more than a few paragraphs for all these reservations to be banished. At a full 422 pages (and barely one of them passing without something that would adorn any self-respecting tabloid front page), Feel is the most lustrous and scrupulously observed anatomy of the full madness of top-flight 21st-century celebrity existence that it has ever been my deep joy to read.
Credit for this must go to Williams as well as Heath. Not just because it says so on the title page of the book (where Robbie asserts his right to be identified as one of the authors), but because his propensity to say whatever is on his mind at any given moment is the perfect foil for Heath's methodology of forensic reportage.
Thus, not only do we get an effectively poker-faced description of the ludicrously competitive games of backgammon Robbie plays with Chris Martin, soon after meeting him for the first time at the 2002 MTV awards in Barcelona; we also share in Robbie's perceptive analysis (as Heath points out, this man has few peers when it comes to the detection of implied slights) of all the ways in which the supposedly benign Coldplay vocalist has tried to hurt his feelings. Last, and best of all, comes Heath's final thought: "On the one hand it was a bit weird, how seriously Chris Martin took the games. On the other hand, Rob only has the luxury of thinking that, and of being able to appear as though he was taking them casually, because he won."
Having actually lived in Robbie Williams' pocket for the best part of a year (rather than merely pretending to, like people writing features for magazines have to), Heath has a wealth of such material to draw upon. He extracts insights on a huge range of issues, from what it feels like to wake up in a European hotel room and not remember who you are until you hear an army of teenage girls outside chanting your name, to the way Robbie's complex relationship with his father - a club comedian who, rather aptly, announced his son's birth on TV's New Faces - was defined by childhood games of table tennis ("I wish he'd just given me a few games").
Williams, Heath argues cogently, "Breaks the rules people use to separate what matters and what doesn't matter", and this book does the same. If a volume containing pretty much every last fascinating detail of Robbie Williams' life initially starts out feeling like a strange platform from which to launch a heartfelt moral attack on our culture's hunger for celebrity gossip, it won't necessarily seem that way by the end.
Finishing Feel is like waking from a dream - a crazy miasma of sex and power and receiving 80,000 Valentine cards but not sending any - and leaves the reader with the same mixture of regret and relief that generally accompanies a return to full consciousness. The fact that the sensation of stepping out of fame's fairground mirror and back into the real world is one Robbie Williams will never know adds an extra frisson. Whether he would swap his lot for ours if a capricious deity gave him the chance is that most tantalising of all forms of celebrity-based speculation: a question to which no one knows the answer.
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