Television Review

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The Independent Culture
IN THEORY, what you think of a book should have nothing whatsoever to do with your opinion of the writer personally. In real life, the two things have a vast amount to do with one another, which is why books always carry flattering photographs of their authors and cvs emphasising the unconscionable number of way-out, dead-end jobs they have held down; and why books pages bother with interviews and author profiles.

This side of the writing game was to the fore in Close Up (BBC2) last night. "First Writes" - marks lost for the crummy title, by the way - looked at the gruelling business of getting a first novel into print. Vic Mirauer had written Lenny, the story of an adolescent boy whose mother has left and whose father has fallen in love with a junkie: "quite real, sort of harsh", as Vic told an agent when she finally got one on the phone. Mostly, though, she spent the day listening to engaged tones and answerphone messages, and by the end had still not found anyone to represent her.

Mark Tyler Edwards was doing a little better. Having dealt with dozens of rejection letters from agents ("far too contrived and laboured... didn't care sufficiently about any of the characters..."), he finally got accepted by one; but all this meant was that he could start dealing with rejection letters from publishers ("lacks... clarity, real coherence, and that page-turning momentum that marks out a winner."). Actually, most of the rejections were startlingly polite and apologetic - picking out the book's positive qualities, reassuring the writer that the agent's opinion was purely subjective, explaining that rejection was not so much a comment on the work as on the awfulness of modern publishers.

But however nice the letters, their message was still that Mark was a loser. Jake Arnott, on the other hand, was a winner: The Long Firm - a story about a Sixties East End gay gangster - had sold for pounds 100,000, and now he moved in a world of fawning interviews in Soho restaurants, photo-shoots taken against grimy industrial brickwork, and his name piled 12-deep at Books Etc. And, of course, a cv courtesy of his publisher's press office listing his wacky variety of jobs (mortuary technician, mummy in the new film of The Mummy...).

His editor talked in glowing terms of the book, but added: "It certainly would have knocked quite a few thousand pounds off if Jake had been a different sort of person." That is, if he hadn't been young, tall, good-looking - "Those eyes", gasped The Guardian, and "Part brute, part boy" - and at ease in front of a microphone. At the book's launch party, he was introduced as "a very camera- and publicity-shy young man", to loud guffaws from the assembled crowd.

A huge publicity machine had been revved up to make him, as much as his book, seem likeable. Here, it came close to making him seem thoroughly hateful. But Arnott had a saving sense of irony: at one point he explained that he was quite a private person, really, then collapsed into giggles as he realised the absurdity of saying this while being followed around by a television crew. At this point, I caught myself thinking that I really ought to buy his book. Damn, damn, damn.

But you can take the separation of the artist from the human being too far. Living with the Enemy (BBC2) sent Charles Bone, a watercolourist, and his wife Sheila Mitchell, a portrait sculptor, to stay at the East End abode of Sue Webster and Tim Noble, enfants terribles of conceptual art. Charles and Sheila's take on modern art was essentially philistine, as they demonstrated when they tried to produce their own conceptual piece, a slab of clay which Sheila had punched several times.

But the arguments seemed irrelevant next to Sue and Tim's really vile attitude, their apparent belief that being artists freed them of the normal obligations to behave well to other people. They greeted Charles and Sheila with sullen, gum-chewing silence, kept them awake by partying until three in the morning, and finally sneered and swore at them in a fashion calculated to appal; this is not how you treat elderly guests. Living with the Enemy is supposed to be about ideological confrontation. But so far, the ideology has been drowned out by shitty behaviour; all that has been demonstrated is that too many people have no idea of ordinary kindness. It is getting too depressing to watch.

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