Life, art and a thug called James

Did those responsible for Fat Les sense that there were homicidal maniacs just looking for a tune to march to?
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The Independent Culture
After a week of recriminations about the England football supporters misbehaving on the streets of Marseilles, one small point seems to have been overlooked: the significance of the video for Vindaloo, that enragingly silly song that's been relayed in and out of the nation's drawing rooms for the last two weeks. It features a drum- beaten procession of wacky, zany fans and assorted grotesques parading through the streets in an aggressive triumphal march, cheer-led by a grimacing Keith Allen, that's oddly reminiscent of a lynch-mob descending on a courthouse in Plains, Georgia. Nothing wrong with that, of course; I expect some elderly milord will pop up to tell us that Old Harrovians look very similar when they're on their way to a hockey fixture.

What took my eye, however, was Fat Les, the song's supposed performer, a chap in an advanced state of hyper-obesity who wobbles his horrible dugs through the street, smiling beatifically, his face painted with the obligatory flag of St George.

Has nobody else spotted the spooky resemblance between him and Mr James Shayler, the huge Northamptonshire fan whose terrifying acres of flesh were all over the British papers when he was arrested and bunged in le slammeur for two months?

For anyone in arty circles, from spittle-flecked tabloid pundit to writhing cultural analyst, it surely inspires questions about the relation between Life and Art. Did Fat Les inspire James Shayler? Or did Mr Allen, Damien Hirst and the others responsible for the video just intuit that there were vast, fat, half-naked, smiling, homicidal renegades lurking in the English zeitgeist just waiting for a decent tune to march to?

I WAS invited to the local prep school the other day to talk about journalism to a gang of 13-year-old schoolboys. It was part of a post- Common Entrance Exam program of cultural treats, involving visits to the Bank of England, the House of Lords and the Imperial War Museum, careers lectures (from doctors, actors, bankers, et moi) and manly bits of advice about Relationships and Controlled Substances.

As I arrived in the Music School, the Deputy Head, a rather thrilling brunette called Mrs Hill, was telling the boys, "and Class 8a will have Drugs at 11 o'clock." Humph. In my day, we thought ourselves damned lucky to get milk. I suppose 8a will be having Sex at 12 and toying with Bondage after lunch.

Anyway, I brought all the morning's papers along, explained about the broadsheets and the tabloids, and the echoing chasm of taste, subtlety, ethics and intellectual rigour that lay between them. I pointed out the misguided folly of the general public, who regularly put journalists at the bottom of those league tables of Respected Professions, slightly behind Iraqi torturers, Colombian drug barons, retired Gestapo officers and people who talk loudly into mobile phones in your train carriage.

I explained the wonders of the printed word, the joy of communication, the global family of hacks, news-gatherers and feature writers. I banged on about the magazine explosion and how mags are what the British do best, along with rock music and potato-based snacks. I fulminated about journalistic integrity. I ranted about the sanctity of facts. I went on and on about the Holy Grail of The Scoop. Take it from me, boys, this is the noblest profession of all.

Then I asked for questions. "Do you mind ruining people's lives?" asked a cool pubescent in the third row. "Or do you just learn to live with it?" Strewth. I said I wasn't aware of a responsible paper ruining the life of anyone who didn't deserve it. This was not enough for the cynics in the back row.

"Which papers use paparazzi pictures?" they asked. "How do you justify invading people's privacy?" "Why can't you leave people alone when they ask you to?" It looked as if the death of the Princess was still an open wound, even among these youthful subjects, but I sneakily moved the argument along until it was about invading the privacy of Stan Collymore in a Paris bar brawl.

They wanted to know what I earned, what time I had to get up, who was the weirdest person I'd ever interviewed. The most impertinent question was a subtle one: "Do you have to be quite eccentric to be a journalist?" The best came from a Tintin-faced innocent called Tom who asked, "Do many journalists go on to become anthropologists?" Why should they? "Because of their interest in people and how people behave." No Tom, I said, not as a rule. Anthropologists don't earn enough. But some newspaper personnel become soi-disant anthropologists, without the need for special training, degrees, diplomas or any of that malarkey. They're called Style Editors.

HEAVEN KNOWS what the Dulwich College Prep crowd would make of American journalism, which has suffered two recent blows to its collective dignity. Last month, the Washington-based political weekly, New Republic, fired its chief reporter Stephen Glass and has just published an apology to its readers: it says, in a tone of slight amazement, that of Mr Glass's 41 pieces for the magazine, six "could be considered entirely or nearly entirely made up", and another 18 were partly fictitious. The enterprising Glass, 25, invented real-sounding organisations, churches and lobby groups and faked websites for non-existent societies and committees. If he required, for an article, the existence of a parachutist's magazine, he simply invented "a sky-diving industry newsletter" called Jump Now.

His fictional skill also turned up in George, the magazine owned by John Kennedy Jnr, where Glass made up quotations in a profile of Bill Clinton's adviser, Vernon Jordan. But he and his lively imagination aren't alone in Hackland.

On Saturday, we learned about Patricia Smith, a prize-winning Boston Globe columnist, who's just been fired for fabricating quotations and inventing people in her articles. "From time to time in my Metro column," she wrote in a final sign-off last Thursday, "to create the desired impact or slam home a salient point, I attributed quotes to people who didn't exist. I could give them names, even occupations, but I couldn't give them what they needed most - a heartbeat."

I'm not sure if Ms Smith is saying she had to make them up or sorry she didn't do it more plausibly, but I feel sorry for her. British journalism doesn't stand for wholesale fabricators like Mr Glass, but it allows a little more leeway than the Americans when it comes to the strategic quote from the handy passer-by at the crash.

Tom Driberg, in his gossip-column days, used to fill The Express with revelations about shocking but non-existent social gadabouts. A friend of mine routinely writes about clubs where he "overhears" people conversing in a "typical" fashion. ("The archdeacon is absolutely furious to hear Jeremy Paxman's been blackballed again," said the MP at the next table to mine in the Athenaeum dining room.)

The secret, of course, is not to get caught - and not to go around thinking that real life has to be made more exciting than it is, or that picturesque mendacity is any substitute for The Truth. Luckily, there's no shortage of perfectly genuine thrills in my vibrant social whirl.

Now if you'll excuse me, I must get back to my next major Independent feature: "What Pol Pot told me about his showbiz ambitions and his long- standing affair with Betty Boothroyd."

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