Clive James: Save us from celebrity

In this essay from his new collection, the critic and recovering TV personality Clive James calls for the rolling back of celebrity culture: 'We need to get back to a state where fame, if we must have it, is at least dependent on some kind of achievement.'
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The Independent Online

A speech delivered at the Australian Commercial Radio Conference, 16 October 2004

I met Andy Warhol only once, and I wasn't sure it was happening even then. Theoretically he was still alive at the time, but he had the handshake of a ghost. It was beyond limp - just a cellophane sack full of liquid, like the water bombs we traded in school. But the hand was a miracle of vitality compared to his face. Transparent of skin and with the eyes of a salmon on a marble slab, he would have made Lazarus, emerging from the family vault, look more animated than Billy Crystal. Our encounter happened in London, not Palestine, but there was something biblical about the features thinly painted on the front of that balsa skull, under the canopy of stark white fibre-optic hair. There was a post-mortem solemnity there, an intimate knowledge of the world beyond the tomb. Perhaps, after he had been shot a few years earlier by one of his bedraggled platoon of untalented actresses, he had journeyed through the netherworld while on life support. His smile - a computer-generated rearrangement of crumbling tissue - seemed to suggest that he had met me down there, and was as glad as a zombie could be to see me again. It was kind of him, because he had no idea who I was. And of course I wasn't anybody. Everybody Warhol knew was a celebrity. Therefore he did not know me.

For a fleeting moment I felt bad about that. I didn't want it to be such a comedown for the man who had lunch with Jackie O to be having his hand squeezed by Clive Zero. Besides, I quite admired him. I didn't think much of his paintings, which struck me as sheets of stamps designed by the semi-gifted daughter of a Third World despot. I couldn't see why a silk-screen photograph of the electric chair should be more interesting that the actual electric chair, which at least transmits some kind of thrill, even if fatal. But I had been impressed by his much-quoted prediction that everyone in the future would be famous for 15 minutes. The prediction was so obviously already coming true. And he had said it well, and saying something well is almost as good as doing something. Somewhere in what passed for my brain in those days, I was already struggling towards the conclusion that if somebody did something they had a right to be somebody, but merely being somebody meant nothing if being somebody was the only thing that somebody did. I wonder if I've made myself clear. Let me expand on that point, as the bishop said to the actress. No, wait a second, it wasn't what the bishop said to the actress, it was what the governor of Tasmania said to the queen of the Netherlands.

Not long after our encounter, Warhol made another trip to the beyond, and this time to stay. He expired somewhere in the centre of a tangle of plastic tubes, most of them supplying his body with fluids it had never had in the first place. It wasn't the way I want to die - I want to

be knifed to death in an Elle Macpherson lingerie commercial - but as I read the news of his passing I had already achieved my own 15 minutes of fame and had started to wonder whether it was worth the trouble. I wasn't world-famous, which was the only degree of fame that had ever interested Andy. To be world-famous you first have to be famous in America, which I would probably never have managed even had I desired to. Not that I have anything fundamental against America. I have detailed criticisms, but I don't see how you can have those if you hate the whole place: if everything is always wrong, there is nothing they can change. And you have to admire a country so democratic that a mentally handicapped man can become President.

Incidentally, I was in New York the weekend before last, having arrived just in time for the first debate between Bush and Kerry. Watching the debate with a deepening sense of awe, I thought: there is the spectacle of the two most highly qualified men in a great office, and then there is this. It wasn't surprising that Kerry was generally thought to have won the contest. Being more articulate than George W Bush is no challenge. So is my cat. In the debate, Bush once again proved that it is too early in America's history to have a president for whom English is not his first language. Once again you could see the truth of the remark (I think it was my remark but other commentators have been borrowing it) that the British prime minister Tony Blair's great advantage as a world statesman is his gift for putting President Bush's thoughts into words. It's even possible that President Bush has no thoughts at all, only emotions. When he searches for a word, he feels fear, and his face shows it. When he finds one, he feels triumph, and his face shows that. Almost always, the word he finds is the wrong one, but his look of relief arouses sympathy in the audience, as when a child, sent to fetch a spoon from the kitchen drawer, comes back with a fork. I was especially sympathetic when he announced that the "group of folks" , by which he meant the insurgents in Iraq, were fighting us " vociferously": "that's why they're fighting so vociferously". He must have meant "viciously" or perhaps "ferociously", but he could scarcely have meant "vociferously". If all that the insurgents were doing was shouting loudly they would be less of a problem. But Bush's premature senile aphasia wasn't the real story of the debate. The real story was that Kerry, even with his opponent disappearing into a semantic black hole, still managed to win only by a hair. In fact he won only by a hairstyle. Kerry's hairstyle is worth a short digression, because it represents the chief reason why I could never have been famous in America.

"Hollywood permits itself only one bald male star in a generation. Telly Savalas drew the lucky card. Exercising his sexual privilege to the full, he died with a gleam on his lips, and I hope to do the same"

How did Kerry's hair get like that? We must presume that it is real, or the Bush campaign would already have suggested that he received it as a bribe from Kim Jong Il. And, indeed, Kim's bouffant coiffure must be some kind of technological creation, separated from his elevator shoes by the length of a short lunatic. Kerry's hairstyle, on the other hand, almost certainly started its life on top of his own head, instead of in the same laboratory that refines the uranium for North Korea's atomic bombs. But Kerry's hair would be far less frightening if it were fake. As all you women in the audience know, the amount of hair on top of a mature man's head is governed by the amount of testosterone he secretes, but the proportion is not direct. The proportion is inverse. Testosterone attacks the hair follicles. It fries and shrivels them like noodles in a wok of acid. As a potent man comes to maturity, the testosterone begins to kill off the hair on top of his head. As he advances into vigorous middle age, his head rises through his remaining hair like a shining symbol of his virility. Meanwhile the displaced hair-growing capacity moves steadily down his body, cropping up, if that's the appropriate phrase, in the strangest places, for which a healthily curious woman is glad to search. As a result, nothing excites an adventurous woman more than a bald man. Tom Jones may be pelted with women's underwear, but the women's underwear that used to be thrown at the bald actor Telly Savalas still had the women inside it. The American entertainment industry permits itself only one bald male star in a generation, and Telly Savalas drew the lucky card. Exercising the resulting sexual privilege to the full, he died with a gleam on his lips, and I hope to do the same. Ladies, I'll be ready to discuss this theme in more detail later on, up in my hotel room with a bottle of Roederer Cristal and mixed sandwiches, but for now let's just agree that Senator Kerry's luxuriant hairstyle is incontrovertible proof that he doesn't have a drop of testosterone in his body.

Does the American army really want a man like that leading them into battle against millions of vociferous religious extremists? President Bush may be without a brain, but Senator Kerry lacks a gland that most men would agree is even more vital to existence. The only other possible explanation is that he has had a transplant. Perhaps the first plugs of extra hair were inserted during the Vietnam war, when he made his mystery trip into Cambodia. Somewhere beyond the Mekong delta, a communist hair-scientist was waiting for him, ready to do a deal if he would go home and oppose the war. But the job could have been done in America, bit by bit, over the course of all those years when we weren't hearing a lot about him. What was he doing? He was growing younger.

American cosmetic technology can restore to an ageing man everything he ever had, except credibility. In a recent issue of Vanity Fair there was a two-page spread devoted to Ralph Lauren products which featured a photograph of Ralph Lauren himself. A man of a certain age, he could be said to be wearing well. An Egyptian mummy wearing that well would still be walking. His hairstyle, an extravaganza in spun silver, looked as if it had been lowered onto his head by a crane. It reflected the light, and looked as if it could reflect bullets. The message being that if you buy clothes with his label on them you will look as casually stylish as he does. You and I might think that Ralph's stylishness looks no more casual than that of Louis XV dressed for his coronation, but clearly the American consumers are convinced. Very thin American men, frantic with worry because their latest boardroom embezzlement is about to be discovered, wear Ralph Lauren clothes on the weekend in order to seem relaxed, just as very fat American men who can swallow a Big Mac like a canapé wear shorts and trainer-shoes in order to seem athletic. Since their only conceivable means of rapid unassisted locomotion would be to roll downhill, the trainer shoes are purely symbolic.

Why do the Americans find the incredible plausible? Sufficient to answer that they do. In the society that began the dubious work of raising the cult of celebrity to a world-conquering ideology, the intention is taken for the deed. It's the nicest thing about America, even if it is also the most dangerous. America is the most ritualistic society since Japan was ruled by the Tokugawa shoguns. In America, every event is a ceremony, nobody is allowed to be alone, and everyone thinks that a heart worn on the sleeve must be more sincere instead of less. The result is a superabundance of courtesy. When Americans are not busy bombing the wrong village, shooting down the wrong airliner or wiping out their allies with friendly fire, they are busy being polite. The waiter really does feel it incumbent upon him, when he delivers your main course, to issue the instruction: "Enjoy your meal". My sincere answer to that would be "Only if it's good", but he would call the manager if I said so. Ritual must be observed. Worse, it has only to be observed in order to be taken as truly meant. To finish with the hair theme for the moment, take the case of that great actor William Shatner. In real life, William Shatner is a smart, funny and delightfully ironic man. But his real life is not his public life. The public William Shatner, after he left Star Trek, found that the hair on his head was growing thin. Instead of sensibly concluding that his abundance of testosterone was eating into his thatch, he must have decided that it was being eroded for another reason, perhaps because the stimulating effect of warp engine radiation had been switched off. Whatever his reasoning, when he came back to the screen as TJ Hooker he was wearing on top of his head what is known in America as a "piece". Three times as big as any natural hairstyle he had ever had, the piece looked as if a live dog had been nailed to his skull. You could have thrown chunks of raw meat to that thing. Yet somewhere underneath that ludicrous construction, he still had the same sharp brain. He must have known that he looked like a man crushed by a falling fox terrier. But he also knew that he was in America, where it is sufficient to make the claim in order to fulfil the expectation. Even unto death, an abundant head of hair is a requirement, along with a set of perfect teeth. If the hair is taken from an animal, even if it is the whole animal, and if the perfect teeth are blatantly a set of caps that jar with the tucked face like two roses of white plastic tombstones in the graveyard of a ruined church, still the requirements have been met. They are the requirements of celebrity, and to that extent millions of anonymous Americans behave as if they were famous. We must not let this happen to us.

But it is happening to us, through the worldwide spread of reality television. Reality television actually started in Britain, when a series called Sylvania Waters elevated an otherwise painfully ordinary Australian family to tabloid fame. But now the Americans are doing it too, and when America does something everybody does it. One of the many nice things about being at this radio conference is that it's much harder to do reality television on radio. I believe in popular culture, and I even believe that beyond a certain point it is useless to argue with public taste. Popular culture is one of the key transmitters of ethics to the young. After the school playground and the influence of parents, if they have any, children get their principles from popular culture. Hence the importance of keeping it within the bounds of civilised decency. Even when it has a foul mouth, it should not be allowed to speak evil.

On a flight across the Atlantic last week, I was characteristically unable to operate the in-flight entertainment system, and got stuck with a screening of the latest Harry Potter movie. I hadn't seen the previous ones because Monica Bellucci wasn't in them, and I expected to be bored. But I was thrilled. It was terrific: inventive, complex, witty and, in the best sense, fantastic. No wonder the kids love it, and play scenes from it to each other, and can recite every word. But imagine if such a mind-forming creation were preaching, say, racism. In Britain it has been black commentators, not white ones, who have been vocally worried about how so many hip-hop lyrics preach gun-nut violence, so I can safely say that anyone who is unworried about the effect of popular culture when it turns sour is living in a dream. But television is not as toxic as all that. Most of the people who appear on it seem to have the same problems with verbal communication as George W Bush, but the relationships they form between themselves are often quite human and sometimes even touching. On a recent instalment of Britain's biggest reality television show, called Big Brother, a young woman who in all her life had read nothing but magazines met a young man who had actually read a book. The look of wondering admiration in her eyes is with me yet. Her life was changing right there, and only a snob would begrudge the transformation.

But the downside can be depressing. Just before I caught the plane here, the British tabloids were front-paging a story about two unfortunate young celebrities whose marriage was breaking up. The two young celebrities were identified by their first name - I think they were called Jane and Wayne but it could have been Jean and Dean. They had met as participants on one of those reality TV shows in which a houseful of people chosen for their psychological disorders vote each week to expel one of their number. Basically the format is a re-run of a Nazi atrocity but without the machine-gunners waiting outside. In the future, and probably the near future, the machine-gunners will be waiting outside, but we haven't quite reached that point yet, although if the current contestants only knew it, the newspaper editors and book publishers waiting outside will have exactly the same effect as a belt-fed MG-42 manned by the Waffen-SS. Anyway, Jane and Wayne, or Jean and Dean, were either the first to be ejected or the last, I forget which. Perhaps one of them was the first and the other was the last. Whether in disappointment or triumph, however, they had cemented the profound relationship they had formed on the show by getting married immediately afterwards. Now the marriage was over. Since the whole of the front page was occupied by their photographs - she looking as if her car had been stolen, he looking as if he had stolen it - I had to turn to pages two, three, four and five to get the facts, which were scattered in tiny gobbets of prose among yet more photographs of the two quondam lovers in their chosen setting, a house whose decor aspired to the taste of Donald Trump, plus overtones of one of Saddam Hussein's palaces as yet unlooted, with all its gold bathroom fittings still in place. This was the paradise they had built for themselves, and from which they would now be cast out. Apparently the pressure of fame had been too much for them. You could hardly get a more poignant case of people who had done nothing believing they were somebody. The only element of reality was the bit about the pressure of fame. They had certainly felt that.

They had become famous for having met each other on screen and fallen in love. This event was agreed by both themselves and the press to have been some kind of miracle - a conjunction, defying the laws of chance, of two soulmates who might otherwise never have found each other. Actually nothing could have been more ordinary, because each of them meets someone exactly like the other every day of the week. It would be impossible for them not to. By now, in the Britain that Tony Blair inherited from Margaret Thatcher and has somehow managed to make worse, there are millions of young people who, without qualifications for attaining the luxurious life of which they dream, nevertheless believe, and it is the only belief they have, that if they could find their way to the right tree, it would have money growing on it.

Money and celebrity. The press, keen to supply them with both those things, closed in. The pair of helpless young inadequates soon found that the press, once it closes in, is slow to go away until there is nothing left drifting down through the pink water except bones. The likelihood that married bliss would be temporary was intensified by the attentions of friends, acquaintances and the general public, Jane and Wayne, to the extent that they had ever had lives, now found that their lives were not their own. Even the closest friends became enemies, because fame breeds envy the more it is unearned, and if you have done nothing at all to earn it, absolutely everybody is dying to see it taken from you. Nobody looks at a photograph of Jesus Christ on the cross and asks "Why not me?", because they know the answer: you haven't been crucified. Every one of Jean and Dean's friends looked at their photographs and thought, correctly, that they could have been famous too. Thus the friends became betrayers, the acquaintances became informers, and the general public became delighted ghouls at the scene of the inevitable disaster. The only remarkable thing was that the classic dynamics of celebrity were being applied to absolute nonentities.

Perhaps it was a good thing, a necessary sacrifice. Because Andy Warhol understated the case. He should have said that in the future everyone will not be famous for 15 minutes, they will be famous all the time. And indeed fame is, by now, not only what almost everybody wants, it is what almost anybody can get. If you want to be famous, urinate on the shoe of someone who is already famous. You will be given your own television series. In Britain at the moment there is a famous couple you may have heard of called David and Victoria Beckham, David plays football very well some of the time and Victoria sings very bravely all of the time, but there is some reason for their celebrity. There is no reason for the celebrity of a young woman called Rebecca Loos except that she managed to sleep with David. By all accounts this feat is rather less taxing than to square the circle, but Rebecca has the plus value of looking rather more upmarket than Victoria. She might look it, but Victoria, were the positions reversed, might have been less likely to sell her story to the press. Rebecca sold her story, and is now a TV star.

The historian George Grote brought his monumental, multi-volume history of Greece to an end at the point when, as he explained, the Greeks no longer realised that they were slaves. We may have reached the point when people who sell the story of their love-lives no longer realise that they are nonentities. Having come into close contact with the famous, they convince themselves that they have caught fame, as they might catch crabs.

The age we live in is the apotheosis of the parasite. So far there are few formal studies of this phenomenon, but let me recommend Bob Dylan's fascinating new autobiography, which will soon be published. Judging by the extracts I have seen, it is the work of a master deceiver. He would have us believe that in order to escape the pressure of fame, he made bad albums deliberately. He would have us believe that his early songs were never meant to lead his listeners on the path of social rebellion, and that he was appalled when they did. I suppose that's why he wrote the song with that haunting refrain, "The times they are a-changing, more's the pity" . But the stuff about how being one of the world's biggest celebrities turned his private life into a misery is obviously all too true.

It isn't a matter of celebrity getting out of control. Celebrity is out of control by its nature. Everyone who becomes famous is convinced beforehand that his fame will be different. All of them find out that it is bound to be the same, because no human being is naturally supplied with the defence mechanisms that can ward off universal attention. Every beautiful woman who becomes famous, for example, acquires at least one stalker. If we think some of them don't, it's only because they have so far managed to avoid having to take out a restraining order. We found out about Nicole Kidman's poet when she went to court to get rid of him, or anyway try to. At the moment he is defending his human rights in the Hague, one of his human rights being the right to make Nicole Kidman admit that she is in love with him. In reality, she awaits his inevitable reappearance with dread. She could put up with the poems he sent her, although if you read a few of them you wonder how she did. She could even put up with his haunting her doorstep with a new bunch of fresh roses every morning. But when he offered to take her children to school in his car, she had to call in the cops. You might have thought that she already had her work cut out, being married to a miniature Scientologist. Incidentally, in her latest movie she mistakes a 10-year-old boy for her late husband. It makes you wonder if she ever mistook Tom Cruise for a 10-year-old boy. But being married to a fellow celebrity was something she chose. She did not choose her stalker. Her stalker chose her. And there is a stalker for almost every celebrity: for all the women and even for most of the men.

The penny dropped for Bob Dylan when he realised that not only was he himself incurably famous, the weirdo who was cataloguing his garbage had become famous too. Dylan's garbage-collector was sorting the garbage in order to write a book about Dylan, and then somebody wrote a book about the garbage collector. Jodie Foster won't allow interviewers to question her about the man who shot Ronald Reagan in order to impress her. But all her interviewers mention that they are not allowed to mention it, and here I am mentioning it now. Something she never did is stuck to her for life, and the achievement of a serious artist is ineradicably branded with the action of a psychotic. The Jodie Foster jokes will always be there. In 1982, some comedian said that Ariel Sharon invaded the Lebanon to impress Jodie Foster. It was a good joke, but it was on her. The stalker never goes away. Yoko Ono is not a woman high in my affections. I listened to one of her songs once and suffered irreversible damage not only to my hearing but to my left foot, because the radio was beside the bath and I tried to turn down the volume with my toes. But Yoko Ono is currently living with the knowledge that the man who shot her husband is scheduled to be set free on parole. No doubt the prospect has already encouraged her to rethink her original position on the coercive power of the state. I truly sympathise with her, but her best chance of life resides in the fact that the man who shot her husband is now world-famous himself, and thus quite likely to inspire an assassin of his own, in the way that Lee Harvey Oswald was the inspiration for Jack Ruby.

But the chance of getting murdered is only the most spectacular question of life and death that fame raises. Leaving out the malevolence of the mentally disturbed, and the professional cynicism of the press, there is quite enough extreme behaviour from ordinary people to make the everyday life of someone famous scarcely worth living. This is the main reason why the famous actually need the biggest income that they can get, because they will have to spend a large part of it on protection from people who are otherwise clinically sane, but who, faced with the dazzle of someone they admire, temporarily lose all conception of the privacy of others. Julia Roberts needs her $20m a picture because she needs $19m-worth of perimeter defence in order to stop the fans entering her house and sitting down with her to dinner, each of them convinced that she is as lucky to meet them as they are to meet her. And of course she would have the same chance of dining undisturbed in a public restaurant as Napoleon had of successfully invading Russia. That was why he invaded Russia, in fact: to get away from the press. On the island of Elba, he spent most of his time giving interviews. And that's a true story. When he got tired of giving interviews in exile he would reappear in Europe to fight yet another last battle. It was like Cher's farewell tour, but with fewer lighting effects.

Unwanted attention is the real reason why stars isolate themselves, and by doing so they pay another penalty. At any big premiere, or even in any small nightclub, there is a special roped-off area reserved for stars. It isn't just so that they can meet their next wife, or so that their current wife can meet Salman Rushdie, it's so that they won't be talked to death by normal people like you and me. Each of us has something interesting to say, but the stars can't afford to listen or they will be worn out. Nor can they sign every autograph they are asked for, or carpal tunnel syndrome will end their careers early.



The late George Harrison, when asked for his autograph, used to say: "I can't. It's Tuesday". On Wednesday he would say: "It's Wednesday". It was years before anyone noticed that he never gave his autograph. He had the technique worked out for remaining reasonably private in public, although those techniques availed him nothing when a screwball got into his kitchen. The British comedian Eric Morecambe, one of the best-loved faces in the country, was woken up on the stretcher after his first heart attack by one of the stretcher-bearers, who said his daughter would never forgive him if he didn't get an autograph. And these are ordinary people whose obtuseness should be forgiven because for them the encounter with the famous one is unique, and it never occurs to them that for the famous one it would happen a thousand times a day if there were no haven. Yet the cost of being in the roped-off area is that the press will hate you, and so a new layer of harassment is added, by which people who have been raised up by fame are given the reputation of being above themselves.

The natural result of this inexorable process is a well-founded wariness, which is bound to look like aloofness when seen from the distance at which they must keep the rest of us if they are to survive. Even the most magnanimous and naturally gregarious celebrities are bound to ration their supply of bonhomie if they are to get through the day, and, if we catch them at it, we are equally bound to think that they are putting on airs. And of course some of them really are. In many cases, talent arises from an unstable personality, and if the talent brings fame then the instability is less likely to be assuaged than exacerbated. But even the most normal artist can be forgiven for enforcing the contract to the letter. Robbed of everyday life, you don't want to be robbed in your professional life as well. One of the many nice things about Mel Gibson is that he can laugh at the hoo-hah: he has retained a degree of Aussie dinkumness that armours him against the hype. While filming a television special about him in Los Angeles, I went with him to a TV show on which he was promoting one of his movies, and I was pleased at the way he laughed at the outrageous size of the fruit-basket that had been put in his dressing room. For most stars, the fruit-basket can never be big enough. But if there had been a small fruit-basket, we would have seen The Passion of the Mel. When I was doing my first TV-series at Granada television in Manchester, Robert Wagner and Natalie Wood were both there to tape a production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. Their lawyer measured the dressing room that had been provided for them and it turned out to be two feet narrower than the width specified in the contract. The builders were called in, and for several days rehearsals were interrupted by the uproar of pneumatic drills. When I was introducing a Frank Sinatra concert for the opening of Sanctuary Cove, Sinatra's lawyers went down on the floor with a tape measure to make sure that the fasteners holding down the red carpet were no more than the specified 18in apart. I have seen these things happen with my own eyes. And these are the sane people.

Luciano Pavarotti is sane too: the most delightful group of men you could hope to meet. But he has his requirements. When he guested on my New Year's Eve show in England, he had to be flown in from Italy on a private jet, and the private jet had to be big. It wasn't precisely a Boeing 747, but it was big enough to carry a football team. Luciano was a gifted footballer in his early days, by the way, and you kind of wonder why later on the Italian team didn't ask him to keep goal. They would have been impossible to defeat. The car we sent to meet Luciano at the airport had to be a BMW 8 Series because, although he can fit into a 7 Series, he doesn't want to be seen struggling to get out of it. All this was understandable, as was his refusal to descend the stairs on our set. Since the set would obviously have descended with him, we went along with his requirement to walk on from the side. But he also refuses to sit down on set without a table in front of him. When we tried to cheat and put in a table made of glass, the lawyers arrived. Luciano sincerely believes that if the set is correctly arranged, he will look as thin as a reed. He has been encouraged in this belief by his entourage.

The entourage for Diana Ross looks like the remaining brothers of Malcolm X. They are there to ensure that Miss Ross will not be expected to do anything not specified in the contract, which includes singing. Instead, she mimes to playback. Not even one improvised musical phrase during a conversation is permitted. I could go on about Barbra Streisand for the rest of the night. I could go on for as long as she kept me waiting, which was five hours. Fame has turned her into a monster of control. Fame has convinced Bono that he is soma kind of economist. But these are talented people, and talent should be forgiven anything. And yet it is sad to see how the fame earned by talent can affect the personality. Robert Redford is always, on principle, an hour late for any meeting with anybody. If he ever has a cardiac arrest from the accumulated strain of having his facelifts lifted, he had better hope that the doctors in the emergency unit aren't working to the same timetable as he is.

Did my own small measure of fame affect my personality? I don't think so. I was always paranoid. I was paranoid in Class 1B at Kogarah Infants School, when I won the spelling bee but Laurie Ryan was still given the first early mark just because he had kacked his pants earlier in the day. Next day I beat him to it. But my own small measure of fame did affect my expectations, especially when I travelled. When I went into the aircraft, I got far too used to turning left. At the destination, I got far too used to looking for the limo driver holding a card with my name on it. I got far too used to never booking my own tickets, to being greeted by the hotel manager as if I had just arrived from Stockholm after receiving the Nobel prize for physics, to getting the suite instead of a room, to the bathroom with enough towels for a symphony orchestra. But above all I got far too used to being recognised until one day, far too late but better late than never, it occurred to me that being recognised is not the same as recognition. In that regard, television ruins everyone who appears on it. You get used to so many people wanting to say hello. Some of them are cuckoo, but most of them are friendly at the very least. And that, I finally realised, is what's wrong. It's a too-easy familiarity. You are being hailed for being somebody, even when you have done nothing.

So a few years ago I fired myself from the small screen and tried to find the path back to normality. I don't claim sainthood for this, and I suppose it could be said that I want it both ways. I want to be well-known enough to be asked to an event like this one tonight, and I want to be anonymous enough to disappear back into the crowd I came from. The two desires are incompatible: I realise that. But I think it's a conflict we're all going to have to face, because we can't go on like this.

Our best hope is that the celebrity culture is already discrediting itself. We should help it on its way downhill, and do our best to get back to a state where fame, if we have to have it, is at least dependent on some kind of achievement. If people want to be somebody, they should do something first. There is no excuse for my generation of Australians not knowing the difference, because our early youth was spent in a land without television, and the sharp division between earned fame and pointless celebrity could be heard, if not seen, every week. It could be heard on the radio.

For me it was the difference between Bob Dyer and Jack Davey. Bob Dyer was the Americanised host of Pick a Box and my mother and I were agreed that he didn't do very much except shout. Actually it is no cinch to run any kind of game show and in retrospect I can see that Bob Dyer was quite skilful at marshalling the human traffic, but it's equally certain that he had no particular verbal prowess beyond yelling "Happy motoring, customers", and cranking up the tension as he gave the quaking punter the tantalising choice between the money or the box. "The money... or the box?," shouted Bob Dyer. Then he would whisper it. "The money... or... the box? " The box could have the big prize in it: a Westinghouse refrigerator, a Lotusland inner-spring mattress, or a diamond-encrusted J Farren-Price wristlet watch from Proud's. Or the box could have the booby-prize in it: a packet of Bonnington's Irish Moss gum jubes, containing petroloxymel of garagene, from a rare seaweed washed up on the coast of Ireland. But both my mother and I were agreed that for a real booby prize, the box should have had Bob Dyer in it. We were Jack Davey fans and that was that. It was because Jack Davey did something. He made the language live.

Sitting in front of our Stromberg Carlson radio set, which was bigger than the Kosi stove, I was introduced by Jack Davey to the concept of wordplay, which is essentially the interplay of the expected and the unexpected, and therefore a matter of construction far more complex than a mere pun. Almost anyone can make a pun, which is why we flee those who do. Hardly anyone can do wordplay. Jack Davey's writers could, and he knew exactly how to deliver it. In the show's tightly written script, it was established that the woman who lived next door was seeking Jack Davey's affections. It was further established that she was large and powerfully built. In one programme, she said to him, "I'm going to chuck you under the chin". This announcement was followed by a sound-effect of a body whistling through the air and landing heavily at some distance, with a clattering of tin cans. "Strewth," said Davey, "she chucked me under the house." It might not sound like a great joke now, but my mother and I laughed for a week. I had no idea how he did it. I presumed that he had written the line himself. Actually he hadn't, but he easily could have. Jack Davey could think like lightning on his feet. Later on, in another programme, he introduced me to the concept of the educated joke - the joke that depends on a certain cultural sophistication in the audience. This time it was a quiz show, and Davey was improvising, picking up on unexpected things, a knack that can't be scripted. You can script the link material, but to interact verbally with the contestant you have to look up from the page and snatch the opportunity out of the air. In the final, hard round of the quiz, Davey asked a contestant the name of the supporting actress in a certain film, and the contestant gave the wrong answer - a name that could not have been on Davey's script of questions and right answers. The contestant said, " Mercedes McCambridge". There was the briefest pause before Davey said: "Mercedes McCambridge? Sounds like a well-educated Scotsman in a sports car." My mother and I laughed for another week, and when I look back on it, I realise that it was then that I discovered my stock in trade. Actually I hadn't really understood the joke at the time. It had gone over my head like a frisbee. But I had been delighted by its flight. That was the thing I would do, if I could.

I would like to think that it was the thing I did on television, some of the time anyway. But most of the credit I got was just for having my face there. It was never much of a face in the first place, and as you can see, it has by now achieved the same condition as Pompeii. To pay myself what compliments for realism I can muster, I never tried to spruce it up. I never had my eyes enlarged or my teeth replaced, and above all, to use precisely the right phrase, I never tried to conceal the ravages of my excess testosterone. One of my producers had a wig designed for me but I never wore it. Later on it was given its own talk-show, which is still running. But my face got famous anyway, just for being there, and I finally realised that there was something wrong with that. By that measure, anyone can be famous, and that's madness. We have to get back to sanity. It will be a battle, but Australia is probably the best place to fight it.

Australia, partly by geographical luck and partly because of the much-underestimated collective wisdom of its poetical class, has so far managed to avoid both the worst excesses of Britain's uniformly squalid tabloid press and America's demented obeisance before anyone who claims to be unique. Australia, considered as a culture, is held together more by radio than TV, and radio has much less of this madness about glamour. Whatever you might think of John Howard's policies, the population that elected him proved by their votes that they had not yet succumbed to the delusion that a politician should look like a film star. Among Australia's flourishing community of left-wing commentators, there is even a rumour that the young John Howard looked like Ben Affleck, but the Liberal Party's cosmetic surgeons went to work on him to make him more electable. If that proves to be a fact, we should rejoice in it. We should rejoice that ordinary Australian people can still pay heartfelt respect to those who have done something, and grant them a further existence beyond the necessarily brief period of their initial glory.

In Adelaide this year I was invited to tea by the governor of South Australia, Marjorie Jackson-Nelson. It pleased me that the Lithgow Flash had been granted lasting recognition for her achievements. To respect achievement is the only antidote for being poisoned by glamour. But the antidote must be taken before the poison. People should do something before they're allowed to be somebody. Getting back to that reality will be a struggle, but we should make a start, while we're still sane enough to see our world is going mad. The prize is a life that our children will find worth living. For that we must fight, and, for once, an adverb by George Bush applies exactly. We must fight vociferously.

Postscript

My audience for this speech on the Gold Coast consisted entirely of people working in Australian commercial radio. Most of them were still in shock from Howard's election victory. If they had been working for the ABC, the country's public service broadcasting network, it wouldn't have been a matter of "most". It would have been all of them. Australian media personnel, like the intelligentsia as a whole, tended to believe that Howard could have won only by fooling the electorate, and that the electorate, therefore, had become increasingly easy to fool. These were not opinions I shared, but I was there to entertain, rather than to argue, so I thought it best to steer clear of the subject. I also tried to keep an even hand on the question of the forthcoming presidential election in America. Once again, it was believed that a consensus of the publicly concerned would determine the outcome, and that George W Bush was therefore doomed to defeat. I didn't share that opinion either, but I could lampoon the incumbent with a whole heart, because I thought that, unlike Howard, Bush deserved to be consigned to oblivion if only it could be arranged. Howard, though the Australian progressive consensus would rather be hanged than grant him any mental quality beyond a certain low cunning, is more than clever enough to be a fit prime minister. Bush is not a fit president, and as the leader of the Free World he is a liability, not least because he is so ignorant that he can inadvertently insult even his allies. A man who believes that the Second World War began with Pearl Harbor should not be delivering a State of the Union address. He should be delivering pizza. Going on what I had seen of the presidential debates, however, I saw no reason to believe that Senator Kerry would easily defeat him.

Luckily I wasn't called upon to make a political prediction. My nominated subject was the so-called celebrity culture, and I felt justified in sticking to that. The subject is quite political enough, and would go on being so whoever occupied the highest office in Australia, Britain or the United States. Fast food doesn't necessarily drive out slow food - for every new branch of McDonald's, a good ethnic restaurant opens somewhere - but it certainly increases the weight of people who eat nothing else, and sooner or later, if you do a lot of travelling, you will find yourself sitting between a couple of them on an aircraft. Similarly, there are alternatives to reality television, but anyone who believes that it doesn't increase the total stupidity in a given culture is simply dreaming. President Bush can't see that the privatisation of the benefits system will turn life insurance into a lottery, but that is because he is too obtuse to know the difference.

Intelligent people, and intellectuals above all, should realise that the celebrity culture is the free market run rampant, and if they can't see how it can be curbed without infringing liberty, should at least think how it can be offset by argument, so as to provide their fellow consumers with a less debilitating ideal. Satire is one way, but the satirists become celebrities too. I don't pretend to know the answer, but I can honestly report that when I delivered this address I got a thoughtful response for having asked the question. The jokes, when successful, might even have helped in this: people are often ready for a new thought after they laugh, just as they are ready for a fresh breath after they sneeze. The joke about the retiring governor of Tasmania depended on the knowledge being fresh in everyone's memory that he had been a diplomatic catastrophe. William Shatner's hairpiece, however, was a hit even with those who had never seen it. The image has been passed down through the generations. It's no bad thing: the iconography of showbusiness is a frame of reference, and there is virtue in being able to name all the actors who played The Magnificent Seven. I even know which one of them saved Frank Sinatra from drowning. (It was Brad Dexter.) But when the ice-skater Tonya Harding started showing up on television to explain her motivation for taking out a contract on her rival's kneecap, it was time to wonder, and if Lynndie England gets a book deal it will be time to panic.

The word "book", however, reminds me to be honest, even if it hurts. When it comes to the less popular arts, a high media profile pays off. Unless you can wangle a subsidy, you need publicity. My books of essays would be less likely to earn out their advances if I were not a recognisable name on television and radio. In the US I am not that, and they don't. In the US a writer can be a recluse, but he has to be a famous recluse - Thomas Pynchon, JD Salinger - if his books are to stay in print. In Britain and Australia, a writer, no matter how talented, can't be a recluse for long, or he will lose his publisher. Now that I have enough free time to attend the festivals when invited, I attend then all, and do my best to put on a show, as well as hit all the associated radio and television shows that my publisher can arrange. Except in rare cases, I find it excruciating to sit for newspaper profiles, but my publisher would suffer worse pain if I turned them all down. In addition, when there is a new book to push, I accept guest spots on any talk shows that don't require me to wear a funny hat or discuss the uses of a motorised pink dildo with a man who streaks his hair. I would like to think that my book of collected poems, The Book of My Enemy, would have paid its way unassisted. But it didn't hurt to recite a poem on air to Richard and Judy, and another poem to Posh Spice and David Bowie on Parkinson.

So it could be said that I am against the celebrity culture for everyone except myself. But I still prefer to think that if I had only myself to promote, and not a body of work, I would have no excuse for being in the limelight. There was a day, admittedly, when I sought the limelight for its own sake. But I was young at the time, and there were far fewer crazy people doing the same thing. A brief way of putting it, and perhaps a fitting conclusion, is that I care enough about writing poems and essays to want other people to read them. They aren't private forms, although any writer who believes they are will have no trouble demonstrating his conviction.

Extracted from 'The Meaning of Recognition: New Essays 2001-2005' by Clive James, published by Picador, priced £14.99. To order at the special price of £13.99 (p&p free), call Independent Books Direct on 08700 798 897

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