Nothing makes us all philosophers

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"The great philosophical question used to be 'Why is there something rather than nothing?' Today, the real question is `Why is there nothing rather than something?' "

So writes the French philosopher Jean Baudrillard in his most recent book, The Perfect Crime. It's a contentious view obviously, since most of us would probably agree that the great question of today is actually: `Peter Mandelson - why?' But Baudrillard has never shrunk from expressing controversial opinions. In the past he has put forward the thesis that the Gulf war never actually took place, while The Perfect Crime attempts to explain why reality no longer exists.

The world is split on Baudrillard, or at least the tiny proportion of the world that is aware of his existence. He tends to get a hard time from the mainstream intelligentsia (the heavyweight art critic Robert Hughes called his writing "a thick prophylactic against understanding"), whereas he is revered as the high priest of postmodernism by rock critics, professors of communication studies and young, bohemian types.

I spoke to Baudrillard at the Institute of Contemporary Arts, London, where he had arrived from his home in Paris to speak on the subject of the millennium. He's a short, dapper, rather rotund fellow with bushy eyebrows and the kind of Tefal head you would expect to find on the shoulders of one of the world's great thinkers. Healthily tanned, he looks none the worse for 67 years of deep reflection. A former professor of sociology, he no longer teaches but spends his time writing and travelling.

I have to admit I was nervous about this meeting. Having spent several hours attempting to make sense of The Perfect Crime, I'd finally given up in despair. (I think it was when I reached the bit where he writes, "The absolute rule of thought is to give back the world as it was given to us - unintelligible. And, if possible, to render it a little more unintelligible." (He'd certainly succeeded there.) And Baudrillard seemed quite nervous, too, although it has to be said this was probably more to do with a self- consciousness about his halting English than any worries he might have had about locking horns with the intellectual dwarf sitting before him.

I began with the obvious question. Is Jean Baudrillard real? He laughed and took it in his stride. "Maybe I am the artefact of myself," he said and laughed even louder. I think this was a philosophical joke. Then he went on to explain. "Nobody is very identical to himself and neither me, but ... neither you. Ha ha! The worst would be that people become identical to themselves. That would be very catastrophical. It's a perpetual game between absence and presence and so on. Then I am not myself and you are not yourself and the world is not itself and, er ... fortunately."

It was becoming clear that Baudrillard is one of those people who writes in the same way that he speaks. We proceeded to discuss other important matters and I'll just give you the highlights. Reality: "It exists maybe, but I don't believe in it." The Gulf war: "It was a pure technological event, a virtual event ... even if there were many thousands dead and so on." Hypersexual sex: not much fun, apparently. And, of course, the meaning of life: "In itself, life has no sense." Sadly, Monsieur Baudrillard is not familiar enough with the Spice Girls for him to be able to say which one is his favourite - "The Spice Girls? Is it a book?"

And then he was off to address a packed house of young bohemian types, who hung on his every word. And the great philosopher's take on the millennium? "The year 2000 will not take place," he said, "because the history of this century has already come to an end." I suppose in 964 days' time we'll know if he's right.

Something there, if only air

Ten years ago, when Jack Dee was taking his first faltering steps as a stand-up comedian, he went to see Dave Allen performing in the West End. "I can remember sitting up in the gods and watching it and thinking, `This is what I want to do, I want to have my own show in the West End'," he recalls. And tomorrow his dream will come true when he begins a six- week run at the Gielgud Theatre.

Jack recently turned down a reputed pounds 250,000 to make a new series of ads for John Smith's bitter: "I had a really good run with them and I felt with the last lot we made I'd done everything I wanted to do with it," he says. "I think I would have been flogging a dead horse to keep coming out with more of the same." But what about the penguins? "I expect they'll survive without me," he says.

Jack's a great student of life as it's lived so I wondered if he could help me with the great question of today: Why is there nothing rather than something? "Oh, I see what you mean," he says, making a surprisingly confident start. "Er ... Well I suppose that you would have to say that nothing is a kind of human expression of a failure to perceive something rather than an entity in its own right." Not a bad start. Go on. "Um ... When you say there's nothing, what you mean is `I can see nothing' or `I perceive nothing', whereas in actual fact the truth is that there probably is something there even if it's only air."

Phew. So that's that sorted then.

Leaping through spacetime

Matt Coulter, aka The Kangaroo Kid, is an amiable Aussie stunt entertainer who specialises in leaping over immovable objects on a quad motorbike. He's jumped over cars and lorries and even a Phantom jet fighter (it was on the ground at the time). Unfortunately, five years ago he made the mistake of jumping straight into a paddle steamer at a fun park in Cornwall rather than jumping over it. "I virtually ripped my left leg off from the knee joint," says Matt in a matter-of-fact way. It's left him with a paralysed left foot, but he carries on regardless. He'll be appearing all over Britain this summer and in August he'll be attempting a new world record by jumping over 12 trucks.

So what does Matt reckon to Jean Baudrillard's theory that reality doesn't exist? "That's very interesting, because I've said that to people before," he says. "People always ask me how I can do what I do and I tell them I change the molecular structure of my physical being and create a rift in the spacetime continuum and sort of cruise on through. Reality is what each individual person wants it to be. You never know, we may just be some sort of little experiment on someone's desk somewhere. There was a Star Trek episode that was like that."

All in the best possible taste

Next week sees the opening of Sir Terence Conran's latest culinary extravaganza in London, the Bluebird Gastrodrome. On the site of the old Bluebird Garage on the King's Road, where Sir Malcolm Campbell's record-breaking cars were assembled, this new foodie emporium will incorporate a 240-seaterrestaurant, a cafe and a large food market.

As it happens, the Bluebird is only yards away from the original location of one of Sir Terence's very first restaurants, The Orrery, which opened in 1956. Since then, it seems as if half of London has been turned into a Conran eaterie of one kind or another. The secret of his success, he reckons, is that his restaurants offer a haven from the tyranny of the cathode-ray tube. "We're locked into technology when we're working and even when we're not working," he says. "You have a screen in front of your face for virtually the whole of your waking days." This is exactly the same thing that Jean Baudrillard likes to talk about. Information overload! Hyper-reality!

"My philosophy is to eat food that is simply prepared and full of flavour," he says. "The really important thing about food is its flavour, and that's something that's largely been lost."

Old fox caught by young blood

One of the lasting images of the election was the sight of 24-year-old Christopher Leslie shaking the hand of the rather bemused 69-year-old Sir Marcus Fox, the Tory grandee he had just deposed as honourable member for Shipley. "I don't think he was very keen on me," Leslie says, "but these things happen, don't they? He's got plenty to do in his retirement. The truth is, I was kind of expecting to win, but I kept trying to persuade myself not to get carried away. But he was very complacent and he said himself that he only realised he'd lost 10 minutes before the result."

Asked at the time, what he was going to do next, Parliament's youngest MP suggested he would buy a train ticket and make his way to Westminster.

"And that's pretty much what I did. Bought a ticket and off I went." He spent last week coming to terms with the more immediate problems of his new job - like getting himself an office, finding a secretary and sorting through a mountain of post. "I can't wait until I get sworn in on Tuesday," he says. "I just want to get in there and get going."

Born and raised in his constituency, Leslie has degrees in parliamentary studies and industrial and labour studies. He worked briefly as a researcher for Gordon Brown and has served on the local council. He's determined to be a good constituency MP and says he wants to make sure that people continue to see him locally.

So who's his favourite philosopher? He toys with the idea of Hume before plumping for a more contemporary thinker. "Actually I've been reading a lot of Tony Blair recently," he says, "and he reads very differently to how he speaks. If you read it, it is incredibly philosophical. I'm really warming to a lot of his writing."

He'll go far.

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