Touching the seat of power

Are we getting a little too keen on fame - why should anyone want to sit on a chair once sat on by Gordon Brown?
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The Independent Culture
SO WHERE did you spend "Open Day" last weekend? I can't remember when they started throwing public buildings open to public inspection, but it seems to me a patronising gesture. (What an open society we have become, indeed, when these mystifying thrones of power and majesty can be vouchsafed to our goggling, plebeian eyes!)

It's sometimes hard to see the attraction. Last time I tried an open day, I checked out the Bankside Tate, the former power station that's soon to become an art gallery along the lines of the Musee d'Orsay. We queued for an hour in the rain, signed a book and then shuffled forwards indoors for another hour before being led up some stairs by torchlight, along a gallery and out onto a roof where they let you peek through a broken window at the vista of chains, concrete pillars and the vast, industrial Nagasaki of the interior. As cultural insights go, it was right up there with inspecting a hole in the road.

On Saturday you could have chosen an open day at the Department of Culture, Media and Sport. No, really - for no admission fee, you could nip round to Whitehall, travel up in a glass elevator and see the office where Chris Smith, The Secretary of State for Culture etc., parks his worsted-clad bottom. The very chair from which he regards the paintings by Howard Hodgkin and Craigie Aitchison that are the bonuses of the clued-up, modern arts commissar. Sadly, I couldn't make it. A seasonal flurry of children's parties from Lewisham to Wandsworth prevented me from feasting my eyes on this Treasures-of-Tutankhamen sight. Instead, I fell to wondering: why on earth should anyone want to see Chris Smith's office chair? And are we getting a little too keen on the mythologising of fame?

It starts off as de-mythologising. These auctions of rock star memorabilia at Sotheby's and Christie's are all about ordinariness. We are buying familiarity - with Ginger Spice's dress, which is suddenly ours, or Elton John's jacket, which we can pose in, or Jimi Hendrix's tenth-favourite guitar, on which we can bend notes and try the chords to Voodoo Chile. But below a certain level of idiocy - say, the purchase of Marc Bolan's underpants - the process goes into reverse. You're no longer paying to make the stars come down to earth; instead you're investing the most trivial quotidian things with magic. Suddenly you're bidding pounds 20 for a handkerchief into which Cilla Black once blew her nose, and trying to persuade yourself it's more than a slightly soiled square of cotton. You're queuing up to sit on a ministerial chair once sat on by Gordon Brown.

I'm sure Mr Smith's office is charming. I understand it's a duet of beige and green sofas and chairs with a coffee table, a TV for those unmissable high-culture moments, and several pictures. Delightful. But I cannot fathom what the general public is likely to learn about Mr Smith.

We may infer things about his taste from the pictures on the wall, but you know they're there to symbolise the high office he represents. They all come from the government art collection, a pick `n' mix selection of modern art. Anything that genuinely told you anything about Chris the chap, as opposed to the minister, would have been hoovered out of sight long ago: the scribbled Post-It notes; the new issues of Bizarre and Attitude; the empty carton of Pret a Manger pasta salad; the inter-departmental memos with scribbled afterthoughts; the proudly-displayed photos of Chris with famous friends; Chris with fawning restaurateurs; Chris backstage and awestruck with favourite singing stars ...

It's never too early to start practising for the time when the gasping world will want a piece of your wardrobe or a sample of your handwriting. So next week I'll be throwing open to the world the shed in which I write these words. Admission free. Step right up. Come and marvel at this desk, crammed with newspapers, toothpicks, elastic bands, final demands from Thames Water and threatening letters from Access. Check out the slowly expiring rubber plant, the attractive stains on the rug (small daughter/Ribena interface), the dead wasp suspended in a cobweb over the window. Recoil in amazement from the Jiffy Bag mountain, the rubbish bin overflow of empty Famous Grouse bottles .... Listen to the borborygmic grumblings of the mini-fridge. Note the sad pin-up photo of Diana Rigg in stretchy zip- front leathers, circa 1968. There now. I'll even throw in some used hankies to take with you when you leave.


AT TWO o'clock this afternoon, the final balloon will go up on poor Mr Clinton. The undeleted "raw testimony" of Ms Lewinsky will be revealed to a world already drunk on the rude minutiae of what a powerful man can get up to in stolen moments with a willing staff groupie when he thinks nobody is looking and nobody will ever find out. (But what more can there be, after the telephone sex, plaster frogs, pizza slices, cigars and macadamia nuts? What further furtive indignities can have been visited on the hindquarters of the lovely Monica? Even devoted readers of the Kama Sutra and The Perfumed Garden must be racking their brains. Something involving small, furry, woodland creatures? Some unspeakable liberty with a baseball glove? Don't tell me he got out the presidential saxophone one afternoon and played the "Battle Hymn of the Republic" while Ms Lewinsky clambered onto the other end and ...)

Enough, enough. If God, as Vladimir Nabokov once observed, is in the details, it is the details that will finally sink Mr Clinton. Had he simply gone to bed with the wretched woman and, in the parlance of the locker room, simply given her one - a procedure which did Kennedy, Johnson, Jefferson and countless other previous American presidents no great harm - it would have caused him less trouble. But it's the not-quite-having-sex; the endless foreplay upon which the world is now fixated, and from which he will never be able to dissociate himself. They're now part of a vast global giggle, a lexicon of innuendo as childish but as all-pervading as the Carry On movies. And so we will have the promised spectacle of "the angry Bill Clinton, the trapped Bill Clinton" on newly-public video, twisting and turning as he tried, on 17 August, to evade Kenneth Starr's remorseless questioning. It lends a certain piquancy to historical memories of the former, grandly charming, world-leading, what-a-thrill-to-meet-you Clinton that preceded this nasty witch-hunt.

Take, for instance, the time he met our very own Royal Ballet a couple of years ago, as recorded in the pages of Darcey Bussell's Life in Dance, published next month. The company was touring in Washington, and the Clintons brought their daughter Chelsea to the opening night of Sleeping Beauty. The royal ballerinas now remember how Clinton paused before the most buxom member of the corps de ballet, gazed down at her cavernous decolletage and asked, "What is this, ah, costoome?" ("They're called tits, Mr President").

In Ms Bussell's book, the Prez "seemed very, very big, and good-looking" and she recalls how he paused beside the dancer, Fiona Chadwick, who played the Lilac Fairy. Learning the nature of her role, Clinton said: "Ah could do with a Lilac Fairy at the White House - to put everything right." And, according to Ms Bussell, Fiona replied: "I'll come round any time, with my magic wand."

Whew. No wonder he thought he could get away with it. What passes for flirting among the rest of us must sound like the promise of a Dead Cert to a "very, very big and good-looking" leader of the free world.