Thursday 21 February 2008
Brian Viner: If Gordon's in the South Seas, could his bubble burst?
A few days before it was announced that Fidel Castro was stepping down as the President of Cuba, a gigantic image of Gordon Brown, with a red flower jauntily tucked behind his right ear, was projected on to the side of the Houses of Parliament.
These two occurrences were in no way connected, although to the casual observer it might have seemed as if Brown was making a direct bid to succeed Castro as the world's premier political narcissist. At any rate, vast images of political leaders projected on to government buildings, especially with red flowers in their hair, are surely more compatible with Communist dictatorships than parliamentary democracies. Private Eye's spoof, which has Brown issuing anti-capitalist decrees "From the Desk of the Supreme Leader", suddenly seemed eerily prescient.
Far from this strange business smacking of Communism, however, it turned out to be a striking example of rampant commercialism. The Fiji Visitors Bureau has paid for an advertising campaign in which famous Westerners who might currently have a good reason to get away from it all, ideally to an exotic South Sea island, are pictured on the sides of well-known landmarks, along with the bureau's website address, fijime.com.
Apparently, several famously beleaguered Westerners, among them the Duke of Edinburgh and the French rogue trader Jerome Kerviel, were asked if their images could be used in the campaign. They declined. Yet Downing Street said yes, on condition that there was nothing derogatory about it, and that the Prime Minister did not appear to be endorsing the islands in any way.
Short of using his speech at the next Labour Party conference to announce that the Fijian archipelago is quite the loveliest place he has ever visited, with a superb climate, wonderful food and a gorgeous 23-year-old masseuse called Lala, I am struggling to think of ways in which the Prime Minister might more blatantly endorse Fiji than by grinning out from the Houses of Parliament above the words fijime.com, but maybe that's just me.
I suppose it might also be construed as insulting by an electorate that didn't actually elect him that Gordon now wants to escape to the South Seas – or more accurately, doesn't mind an advertising agency pretending that he wants to escape to the South Seas – but maybe I'm just being touchy. Astonishing lack of judgement or storm in a coco-nut shell? You decide.
Either way, I can't find any evidence that Brown has ever holidayed in Fiji, although there's every chance that, as a son of the manse, he feels a vague spiritual affinity with the South Pacific.
I once knew a senior Fijian diplomat, a huge man who in a previous life had been a Fijian rugby international. During a posting in London, he joined a golf club and one day surprised the secretary by asking if he could play for Scotland in the annual match between English and Scottish members. The secretary pointed out that proper lineage was required. "But there is some Scottish blood in me," the diplomat explained. "I'm told that my great-great grandfather ate a missionary from Dundee."
That story could not be related here, of course, were it anyone but the diplomat himself suggesting that he might be descended from cannibals.
A related phenomenon was the way everyone laughed when Barack Obama, asked whether Bill Clinton had effectively been the first "black" US president, said that he'd have to see him dance before he could determine whether Bill was really "a brother". Had it been a white guy asserting that the measure of a man's blackness is his ability to dance, all hell would have broken loose.
I bring up Obama because he is relevant to the story of Gordon Brown and the Fijian advertising campaign. It seems possible, given no other earthly explanation, that Downing Street advisers thought the Prime Minister's dour image might just be brightened by a flower in his hair and an association, however superficial or fleeting, with a South Seas paradise.
After all, politicians have always sought to make political capital out of their holiday destinations: Harold Wilson went patriotically to the Scilly Isles, and Margaret Thatcher to Cornwall, while Tony Blair selflessly mixed business with pleasure by discussing matters of global importance in Silvio Berlusconi's Sardinian swimming pool.
Obama doesn't need to do any of that. He's already a native of Hawaii, and a surf dude since childhood. If he ever wears a flower behind his right ear to a summit with Gordon Brown, it will at least be for real.
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