Living with the hydrogen of publicity

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The Independent Culture
If by any chance you have time to kill tomorrow, here are some things you could do. You could catch Judi Dench, Donald Sinden and Peter Hall taking part in a midday memorial celebration for the late Michael Denison; you could drop in on the England rugby team as they giggle their way into pink strips and toss pink balls about to promote Breast Cancer Awareness Month; you could glimpse the former Olympic gold medallist Sally Gunnell helping to launch the Toe2Toe baby shoe range at the Baby and Child International Fair; or you could chuckle along with Dickie Bird as he begins to promote the paperback version of his big-selling autobiography.

You won't want to miss the Irish band Ash, who are playing at the Virgin Megastore to launch their new album; and it would be mad not to grab the chance to meet the freedom-fighting MP Martin Bell when he opens an exhibition of maritime paintings (in association with the Sargent Cancer Care for Children); you might be too tired to attend the 75th anniversary concert for Gramophone magazine, but you don't need to be awake to enjoy listening to Howard Marks, who will discuss his life in a radical and rebellious night of chit-chat in Bloomsbury.

I owe this rarefied knowledge to a publication called Advance List, a celebrity-packed guide to forthcoming events published by London At Large. If pictures of any of the above events pop up in your newspaper on Tuesday morning, well, you read it here first. To browse through the list of scheduled events is to marvel at the energy and inventiveness of our publicity industry. Autumn highlights include Vanessa Mae and the Chinese State Circus at a Disney premiere in Leicester Square; the Liverpool Titanic Ball, a period recreation of a typical White Star Gala Nite (complete with the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra), Linford Christie receiving his honorary doctorate from Sheffield Hallam University, and the long-awaited Annual Celebrities Unsung Heroes Awards (starring Barbara Windsor, Vinnie Jones, Paul Daniels, Jimmy White, etc) at the Dorchester Hotel. Apparently, this month will climax with a boo-to-the-monarchy protest march on Buckingham Palace which will feature (whoooh) a "Princess Diana Lookalike stripper".

It is enough to make anyone's head spin. But we all have spinning heads these days. A good deal of what we read in the papers or see on television is the product of busy public relations. We expect nothing more in the fields of entertainment and so on. But now the entire body politic seems infected. The thoroughly modern ways of New Labour are well documented, but it is not a coincidence, for instance, that Tony Blair is going to China next week. It's the Tory Party conference - what a good wheeze to schedule a trip which involves carting an elite task force of political journalists on a jolly foreign trip at precisely that time. Beijing! It's got to be better than Bournemouth. This time last year, as coincidence would have it, he went to Russia.

The trouble with all this publicity is that the more there is, the louder it has to be to make itself heard. The days are gone when a little oxygen was enough: the only thing that will wake us up now is the hydrogen of publicity, and it detonates across our media every day. In a newspaper column last week Douglas Hurd argued that newspapers had given up news ("Could someone somewhere please have another go"), and he had a point. He is this year's chairman of the Booker Prize jury, and in a few weeks time he will no doubt be reminded of the way the simple story (so who won, then?) can be drowned by a wash of snappy opinions and fast judgements.

But the vitality of the publicity drive, as well as a natural desire to be the first with the story, means that newspapers doggedly seek to tell stories even before they have happened. No one wants to interview a celebrity after the event: they wouldn't be "forthcoming". Looking to the future feels sharper and more ahead-of-the-game than mooching about in the past, but it leaves us with promising beginnings, and nothing like an end in sight. Even the half-time breaks in football games are dominated not by an analysis of what has happened so far, but by eager guesses about what the second half holds (though usually, for important TV reasons, it is held to be "nicely poised").

If news is increasingly about the future - about predictions, speculations, pledges, leaks - then even the recent past (yesterday, for example) will be even more thoroughly a foreign country. It doesn't sound too cool, but maybe it is time to be backward looking, to tell it how it was, not how it sounds like it might be (according to the press release).

Oh, I nearly forgot. That Liverpool Titanic Ball - the one with the BBC Philharmonic and the ocean liner decor. It's the launch (ho, ho) party for Titanic, the video. Surely you didn't think it was just for fun.

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