Imagine my excitement. There I was, travelling to the Manchester Literary Festival on an ultra-fast but still delayed Virgin train – the Pennine Piccolino, or whatever it's called, one of those trains on which someone gets trapped in the electronic toilet every 30 seconds – when suddenly I realised I was sitting opposite Vernon from Coronation Street. You know Vernon. The ne'er-do-well drummer with a roving eye and a squishy heart. Liz's bloke. The one she betrayed with a drayman and then wished she hadn't. The one she's marrying on New Year's Eve, assuming she can escape the Coronation Street curse on wedding ceremonies and actually get through it without the groom climbing out of the window or running off with a bridesmaid. Vernon, for Christ's sake!
I didn't let on I recognised him. Had he told me he was an admirer of mine I'd have told him I was an admirer of his. But as he said nothing, I said nothing. I did rap on the table with my fingers, the way he raps on the bar of the Rovers Return, to see whether he might join me in a drumming duet, but he didn't. Probably sick of people doing that whenever they sit opposite him.
And no sooner did I get off the train than I walked into Mike Baldwin. You know Mike Baldwin. From Coronation Street. He owned Underworld, the lingerie factory – if you can call what women squeeze under their dresses in Manchester lingerie. Alma's Bloke. Once Deirdre's bloke. Now nobody's bloke because they killed him off last year. Mike Baldwin, for Christ's sake!
It's what happens when you go to Manchester. You see the entire cast of Coronation Street in a single day. My wife claims she has never once visited Manchester without seeing Albert Tatlock.At the station booking office, strolling through St Anne's Square, waiting for a bus on Market Street, taking tea at the Midland Hotel, rowing on the boating lake in Heaton Park. Albert Tatlock. In fact the actor who played him died more than 20 years ago but that doesn't stop my wife seeing him.
A ghost?Who knows? Could just be the after-image of television. What you see on television stays imprinted on your retina for eternity.
And there's the problem with it. You can't shake off the pictures it delivers. They become a hyper-reality. They are omnivorous. They devour all other images and leave you susceptible only to them. One day we won't acknowledge our own children or recognise the people we love unless we've seen them first on television. No one is to blame for this, it's just the way it is. Hence the allure of celebrity. Celebrities are creatures of that hyper-reality. We think we are excited by their looks, their sex appeal, and their scandals, but in fact all of that is subsidiary to the simple fact of their having wiped out every other image from the screen on which we live our lives. Just as an infant has trouble distinguishing itself from its mother, so are we unable to say where celebrities end and we begin. They don't just eat into our time and savings, they steal our identities. They are our I.
How else am I to explain the joy I felt at seeing Vernon? I don't like Vernon. I don't like Coronation Street. I sit in front of it with one eye averted and the other closed as a favour to my wife who watches every episode in the hope of catching sight of Albert Tatlock. If ever a person should be proof against celebrity it's me. I loathe the cult of fame. I make a point of not knowing who anybody is. I have heard of no popular singer since Al Bowlly and no film star since Clara Bow. The last comedians to amuse me were Wilson, Keppel and Betty. Remember their sand-dance routine? Hilarious. I have never laughed, on principle, since. All this is true – no man has made a greater effort to shut his house against celebrity. Yet still Vernon the drummer finds a way in.
So what chance do you have if you're a school kid with an iPod leaking celeb music in one pocket, a mobile delivering celeb news in the other, and a wall-to-wall telly pumping celeb everything waiting for you when you get home from school? No chance, as has been made clear by the recent publication of two separate reports into the emotional well-being of primary school children in this country. Celebrity isn't their only ailment. They're also insecure, frightened, rudderless, neglected and obese, but celebrity isn't incidental to all this. Because a celebrity is all they want to be, all they see any point in being, it's at the heart of their malaise. Not me saying this. Researchers without an axe to grind saying it.
What then will we do about it? Celebrities themselves are not going to stop being celebrities; it's the only work they know. But is it too much to ask that those who disseminate it should now put their energies into disseminating something else? They could start with the simple things. Like sacking Jonathan Ross. Not only would that save a couple of hundred jobs at the BBC, it would wipe from the retinas of the impressionable – from whom I do not exclude myself – the self-perpetuating moving-picture evidence that celebrity feeds royally on itself, that you can get super rich by being super fatuous in the company of the super famous and thereby become super famous yourself.
"Tell us your dream," they beg the contestants on ITV's The X Factor and BBC2's Classical Star alike. Classical Star, note. They go together, "dream" and "star". They pass over questions of excellence or ambition in a chosen field, passion for the thing itself, love of and in the doing. Those who don't win are seen returning, not to perfect their art, but to the sad nothingness of a life stacking shelves in supermarkets. You're a star or you're a no one. There's celebrity or there's the abyss.
I'd arraign them, myself, those responsible – not for defrauding us of phone-in charges or misleading us about the whereabouts of a mechanical pig, but for the far more serious crime of manufacturing gawdy discontent – filling our heads with dreams not worth the dreaming and never to be fulfilled. "You have conspired in the cultural and emotional dispossession of the young, you have taught them to value fame above achievement, reward above endeavour, you are ruiners of lives, how do you plead?"
But we know what they'd plead. Innocent entertainment. Time to start making the argument that there's no such thing. If this is entertainment, how come we're so bloody miserable?Reuse content