Simon Kelner: Our mundane world will miss that Vidal spark

Kelner's view
  • @Simon_Kelner

What would Gore Vidal have made of the fact that he was trending on Twitter yesterday? He would surely have been rather pleased: as an arch communicator, and the master of the epigram, he would have recognised the power, relevance and reach of Twitter.

Of course, he would have publicly dismissed it as the solipsistic burbling of a million fools, but many of Vidal's more memorable quotes from a lifetime of political and social commentary were within the parameter of 140 characters. One by one, they were quoted on Twitter yesterday.

Every time a friend succeeds, I die a little. The four most beautiful words in our common language: I told you so. I never miss a chance to have sex or appear on television. A good deed never goes unpunished. The more money an American accumulates, the less interesting he becomes. And so on.

Then there were the people who said that they'd been entranced – or insulted – by him, or once had a drunken encounter with him in Ravello, the magnificent hilltop town in southern Italy where he spent his latter years. (I don't think it was that difficult to run into Vidal there. I have only once been to Ravello, and on my first day there, I saw him in the main square having breakfast with the actor Woody Harrelson.)

Following the recent death of the writer and journalist Christopher Hitchens, Vidal's demise means there is now a considerable gap in our cultural landscape. In truth, Vidal had not said anything of real substance or perspicacity for some time, and some of his pronouncements post-September 11 would have registered on the barmy-ometer. But he always demanded attention, largely because his was an unusual voice in an era when so much public discourse is mundane and antiseptic.

Quite simply, we don't seem to breed figures like Vidal any more. Who is the heir to his tradition of trenchant commentary? Who will provide intelligent and acerbic insight into the political mores of the day? Where will the bite come from? There are so few credible anti-establishment figures in our lives – even the editor of Private Eye, a satirical and ostensibly subversive magazine, can be found in the Royal Box at Wimbledon – and should someone in public life make an off-colour remark that can in any way be deemed offensive, then all manner of opprobrium descends on him or her.

Judging by recent events, it won't be long before ill-judged comments or a wild accusation become a matter for the police. In the current climate, Vidal's statement that the Bush administration were in on the September 11 attacks would probably result in a visit from the plods.

In recent years, Hitchens and Vidal, once mutually admiring friends, fell out. Hitchens dismissed him as a crackpot, and Vidal said a few years ago: "Hitchens identified himself for many years as the heir to me... Unfortunately for him, I didn't die." And now they're both dead. I have a feeling that we will search in vain for the pungent combination of fearlessness and erudition they embodied.