DJ Taylor: The art of self-promotion

Compare and contrast Lord Mandelson's bells-and-whistles publicity drive with the no-fuss approach to stardom shown by movie actress Penelope Cruz

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The funniest TV advert I spotted all week was the one for Lord Mandelson's memoirs.

It turned up on Sky Sports. This is not the incongruity it sounds, as Lord M's publishers, HarperCollins, are another fiefdom of the Murdoch empire. The ad featured the proud author, looking rather like Vlad the Impaler just back from a night's recreation among the Transylvanian graveyards, sitting by a low fire with the darling work on his knee.

The Third Man has, alas, been roundly criticised for its vanity, its deviousness and its score-settling. But its greatest failing is arguably more symbolic, for what it represents, with its carefully chosen publication date, its publicity blitz and its choice pre-release morsels dropped into the beaks of waiting journalists, is the celebritification of the political memoir.

As a fan of the genre, I have a couple of shelves-worth of these things in the downstairs bookcase. They are, by and large, staid and occasionally somewhat garrulous items, issued not in the bitter aftermath of a lost election, but from the Olympian crag of benign old age. Certainly, they canvass deeply felt beliefs and opinions, but the points made are usually advertised with a kind of Delphic irony.

In James Callaghan's Time and Chance (1987), for example, I found the following description of Mrs Barbara Castle: "She was a great propagandist for the party, and I admired her courage and her daunting persistence in overcoming obstacles. She has great intelligence and is one of those rare people who can immediately go to the heart of an argument."

To anyone who remembers the absolutely corking rows Jim had with Mrs Castle over the ill-fated In Place of Strife initiative on trade union reform in the late 1960s all this is horribly funny. So, too, is all the stuff about placing Mrs Shirley Williams ("who is a warm-hearted soul") next to Tony Benn at Cabinet meetings ("Tony can be extremely amusing and sometimes enlivened Cabinet with genuine flashes of wit").

Callaghan, in fact, was such a past master of the delicate hint and the game not given away that the charm of his recollections lay in their artistry, in what one could infer rather than in what was savagely asserted. Lord Mandelson, you feel, is really only engaged in an exercise of self-promotion, with all the incidental horrors that this entails.

***

So much printers' ink has already been expended on the moral atmosphere surrounding Roman Polanski's release from house arrest in Switzerland that it is probably not worth adding to. You would have thought that, here in the 21st century, we might have moved on from the "benefit of clergy" line, by which proficiency in one branch of life is used to cancel out conspicuous failings in another. But no, a group of actors and screenwriters continues to insist that Polanski's achievements as a celebrated film director are somehow more important than the rape of a 13-year-old girl.

The really interesting thing about the Polanski case, perhaps, is not its moral evasions but its exposure of the equally ancient principle of craft solidarity, the habit of the members of nearly every profession or artistic group to close ranks if they feel that one of the gang is under threat.

I first became aware of this working in the PR office of a City accountancy firm where one of my weekly duties was to browse through UK Press Gazette. Much of the trade paper's editorial energy was taken up in defending journalists accused of sharp practice, and its guiding principle was that the journalist – a titanic figure, ranging purposefully through the wreckage of a corrupt civilisation – could do no wrong. The man (or woman) in question might be a Shumble, a Whelper or a Pigge (the three foreign correspondents in Scoop of whom Evelyn Waugh says "they had loitered together on many a doorstep and forced an entry into many a stricken home"), but in all cases mitigating circumstances could be found.

It is the same with the Professional Footballers' Association, whose chief executive, Gordon Taylor, is permanently on hand to excuse some Premier League behemoth's use of "industrial" language to referees (the lad's under a lot of pressure, you see) or telephone number salaries (they've got to save for their old age, you see). Possibly the most heartening thing about the World Cup fallout was David Beckham's insistence that England's failure was – would you believe it? – the players' fault. In the film industry, with a few gallant examples, the usual squalid solidarity prevails.

***

The book I most enjoyed reading lastweek was Adam Sisman's exceptionally astute biography of Hugh Trevor-Roper. The Regius Professor of History at Oxford from 1957 to 1980 was remembered by the wider world as the man who gave his imprimatur to the faked Hitler diaries before their April 1983 publication in The Sunday Times – an episode from which Trevor-Roper emerges badly, but Rupert Murdoch and some of his henchmen even worse. I can remember seeing Trevor-Roper lecture at Oxford, where he seemed rather more interested in ticking off the members of his audience who turned up minus their gowns than telling us about Gibbon.

Scanning Sisman's reviews one notes a tendency to acknowledge that his subject was, at times, an appalling old monster while suggesting that, in his absence, we inhabit a more anodyne and less entertaining world. Writing in The Spectator, the Oxford don Eric Christiansen judged the book deserved parity of esteem with Leslie Mitchell's recent life of Maurice Bowra, "another sacred monster who made Oxford life more interesting than it seems to be now".

I am just about old enough to remember some of the "sacred monsters" of the Trevor-Roper vintage. I can assure anyone who wasn't there that, almost without exception, they were a collection of deeply tedious self-advertisers. With the greatest respect to Mr Christiansen, whose erudition I have always admired, Oxford is not there to be "interesting": it is there to teach young people how to think and write.

***

There was great excitement in the world's press lastThursday over Penelope Cruz's "secret" marriage to her fellow Spaniard and thespian Javier Bardem. Ms Cruz is thought to have travelled to a friend's house in the Bahamas earlier this month with a John Galliano gown concealed in her suitcase. The couple's PR representative has since confirmed that rumours of the marriage are "entirely accurate", a statement which, according to one newspaper report "only deepened the air of suave elusiveness around the duo, who go straight to the top of the league table of Hollywood's most fashionable married couples".

Hardened old cynic that I am, I couldn't help suspecting that this is an A-grade example of the celebrity habit of having your cake and eating it too, that is, of attracting more attention by appearing to want less.

The whole episode is uncannily reminiscent of some of the character sketches in C S Lewis's The Screwtape Letters. In particular, the resolutely unselfish woman who makes such a to-do about only wanting the tiniest piece of toast for her breakfast that an entire household's routine is thrown out of kilter. As Ms Cruz's elaborate subterfuge seems to show, some of the most tremendous fusses are the result of not making a fuss.

***

As worsening economic news coincides with the onset of the summer holidays, the newspapers have been full of articles about the advantages of the "staycation" and the possibility of enjoying oneself without booking a flight to far-flung climes. As a child whose summers were spent on the back seat of a Citroen Ami 8 as my father tried to goad its 602cc engine up some dizzying Lakeland incline as the rain drummed insistently on the roof and the sheep looked disbelievingly on, I know all about staycations. On the other hand, there is a more appetising staycation prospect even than this, which is to remain obdurately in one's own home when everyone else has gone away.

All last week, in fact, with two children and their mother on scout camp and a third child sunning himself in Carcasonne, I have been here on my own. It has all been shockingly self-indulgent: the Steely Dan LPs blaring out as I do the washing-up; the frugal suppers eaten before DVDs no one else in the family will watch; the long hours of solitary typing. From Dorset comes news of high-pitched gales, wrecked tents and blown-over Portaloos, but these are vague stirrings from a world long since quit. The best holidays can be taken in your own armchair.

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