Tales of the City: I'm not a celebrity, get them away from me

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I can't take much more of this celebrity stuff. It's not just the prospect of having a fresh wave of Pop Idol nincompoops splashed all over the tabloids, or the appearance of Closer, Emap's £10m new celebrity-gossip magazine. Now Granta, that classy digest of cutting-edge writing, devotes its latest issue to investigating the intersection of fame and ordinary life. Good God, a magazine like Granta shouldn't even recognise the word "celebrity", let alone write about the likes of Lena Zavaroni...

I can't take much more of this celebrity stuff. It's not just the prospect of having a fresh wave of Pop Idol nincompoops splashed all over the tabloids, or the appearance of Closer, Emap's £10m new celebrity-gossip magazine. Now Granta, that classy digest of cutting-edge writing, devotes its latest issue to investigating the intersection of fame and ordinary life. Good God, a magazine like Granta shouldn't even recognise the word "celebrity", let alone write about the likes of Lena Zavaroni...

It's all gone too far. There are now more celebrities in our lives than at any period in history. There used to be one celebrity for every 5,000 people in the UK; now there's one for every 27 people. OK, I invented the statistic, but that's how it feels. Like the zombies at the end of Night of the Living Dead, there's just too many of the buggers around, closing in on us, wanting to be feted and admired. There should be a horror film called Invasion of the Adventitiously Famous People, starring Christine Hamilton.

How can you escape their clutches? I took the family to Corfu, a place where no celebrity would, I hoped, ever set foot. I must have been mad. At the airport, the travel-company lady approached us. "Where are you staying? – The Villa Mangana? It's delightful. So large, such a lovely view, so popular. You know," she beamed encouragingly, "It's where George Best always stays when he comes to Corfu." The villa turned out not to be submerged beneath an avalanche of empty Stolichnaya bottles, as I'd feared, but I felt a strange unease in the place, as if I didn't really belong there, breathing the same rarified Greek oxygen as Georgie-boy.

Down at the paper-shop, three Greek ladies in black shawls were full of chat about two English people called Jack and Kym – he an EastEnders actor, she a former chanteuse. They'd spent their honeymoon on the island. "And they've gone now?" I asked cautiously. Oh yes, said the ladies, either she had a terrible tummy bug or they were having a terrible row. I regarded the women coldly. They were supposed to be Mediterranean matrons, upholders of the culture of Homer, and here they were talking like subscribers to Heat. At least we'd successfully dodged Jack and Kym as well as Mr Best...

For dinner on the second evening, we took a water-taxi to the island's famous Top Taverna. The first person I saw there had a pointy beard, a white pompadour and the confiding-but-faintly-irritating manner of a game-show host. It was Noel Edmonds, at the head of a party of 14 wives, children, amazingly pretty girls and cigar-smoking young men who'd clearly come straight from boy-band rehearsals.

"Do not make a fuss," I told the children sternly. "We do not get excited by celebrities in this family." But it was hard to ignore Noel. Through some celebrity radar, he spotted the diners who were most anxious to meet him, and was soon being photographed with his arm around the palpitating wife. He was, I noted crossly, quite charming, but had that look of chronic hilarity that celebrities affect, that makes you want to sock them in the kisser.

We got home without having to pose for Noel-snaps, and I sighed with relief. But I sighed too soon. Wherever we went in the next fortnight, Noel went too – the Aqualand Water Park, the beach, posh tavernas all over the island. If I drove down tiny, goat-track roads in search of deserted little bays that were unfeatured in the guidebooks, I'd find a pointy beard, a snowy pompadour and a cheery TV grin 100 yards away.

On our last evening, he was back in the Top Taverna, holding court as before. He had obviously spent two weeks following me every- where, waiting for me to crack and start talking with animation about Crinkley Bottom and Mr Blobby. But I didn't. Then my son (resplendent in his new flame-effect Mambo shirt) went to the bathroom and came back in a state of high excitement. "I could hear Noel outside in the queue saying, 'What a terrible queue, me first,' then he suddenly opened the door and said, 'Oh no, it's occupied. And by the way, you're on fire.'" Max looked down at the painted flames on his chemise. "It's the weirdest thing that's ever happened to me," he breathed.

I could have warned him. These days, you don't have to express much interest in celebrity culture to connect with it. It will damn well come and find you, wherever you're hiding.

Wanted: hermit to inhabit wilderness for weekend. No time-wasters, please

Anna Douglas is a Staffordshire artist and curator who has stumbled on a global obsession. As part of a Heritage Week arts project, designed to interest lazy urbanites in the riches to be found on large estates, she decided to recruit a hermit to spend a weekend in the "wilderness" end of the grounds of Shugborough Hall, home of the Queen's camera-toting cousin Lord Lichfield.

The advertisement (placed in The Guardian, The Stage, the London Review of Books and the Staffordshire Newsletter) read: "RESIDENT HERMIT required for Great Haywood Cliffs, County of Staffordshire, to perform the role of resident hermit 20-22 September 2002. Wilderness and stipend provided."

It's a throwback to the 18th century, when estate owners had their grounds landscaped by Capability Brown and his ilk, when high society was fascinated by "the picturesque" and gardens were routinely filled with grottoes, follies, man-made caves and Roman and Gothic temples, and people were employed to sit around impersonating hermits and milkmaids, like living, breathing garden gnomes.

If you're wondering what a real hermit would be doing reading The Guardian or The Stage, I can only say that your objection has been anticipated. In Tom Stoppard's Arcadia, the lady seeking an occupant for her hermitage says, "But surely a hermit who takes a national newspaper is not a hermit in whom one could repose absolute trust?" But what has shocked Ms Douglas is the profusion of replies she received from around the world.

"After Reuters picked it up and syndicated the story, I had letters and e-mails from America, Pakistan, Sweden, Australia and Canada, among others," she told me. "My favourite letter was from a man in Poona, India, who'd read about it in his local newspaper." Where the 18th-century landowners drew up elaborate contracts with their hermits, insisting they walked and dressed and even fed in a certain way, and forbidding them ever to shave, Ms Douglas merely asked each applicant to say why he wanted to be a hermit for a weekend. The replies were hearteningly high-minded. "Many said they were at a crossroads in their life, and needed to make a big decision. Lots were young graduates who didn't know where to turn. Large numbers of people were into spiritual retreat, and some were just actors who liked the part. All I set out to do," said Ms Douglas modestly, "was see if anybody was interested in reinventing the art of solitude. It seems very much so."

Indeed. I'm fascinated by the actors who applied for the job. Did they really think that becoming a hermit was a stepping-stone on the path to the celebrity-gameshow circuit?

The ultimate accessory – your very own alter ego

While we're talking classified advertisements, I was intrigued to read this one, in last week's Spectator: "Cultured, presentable man, mid-forties, to act as author of literary work in meetings with agencies/publishers if writer wishes to remain anonymous. Please write with photograph to Box No..." You have to admire the cultured fellow's chutzpah, to offer himself as a plausible (and bankable) front man for an author too shy, too boring or too ill-favoured by nature to play celebrity-circuit games or to negotiate with his agent or publisher. The request that interested authors write to him sending a photograph is really taking cheek a bit far. But does he realise that the arrangement suggested by his small ad is the premise of at least two modern novels: Zelda's Cut by Philippa Gregory and Going Loco by Lynne Truss, both of which feature modest lady writers who have to invent brashly glamorous alter egos to handle all the display and publicity. Is this the final frontier – when a chap advertises to become the handsome, grinning, acceptable celebrity in your own life?

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