Books: The Blaze of Obscurity — Introduction |
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The Blaze of Obscurity — Introduction


With this fifth volume of my memoirs I begin the story of what happened to me when I left Fleet Street in 1982 and went into television as the main way of earning my bread. The effect on my literary reputation was immediate. It was thoroughly compromised, and even now, after a quarter of a century, it has only just begun to recover. After the calamitous reception of my Charles Charming show in the West End — the disaster is only partly evoked in the final chapters of my previous volume, because so many of the details remain too humiliating to write down — I regained the will to live by painting bicycles for my children. This creative upsurge extended itself to the construction of a novel, Brilliant Creatures. Overly decorated with flash, filigree and would-be-satirical pseudo-scholarship, the book nevertheless achieved the approval of the public. It even hung up there near the top of the bestseller list for a little while, like a parachute flare with delusions of stardom. I had to admit that the change of title might have helped. My original title had been Tactical Voting in the Eurovision Song Contest.

The book even got some favourable reviews, but the unfavourable ones were a clear indication of which way the wind would blow. My Sunday night television show about television — an early instance of the medium consuming itself — was pulling about ten million viewers, and my hostile literary critics drew the conclusion that to them seemed necessary. Nobody getting so famous for being so frivolous could possibly be serious. I wasn’t that famous — Britain, after all, was no longer the whole world — but it was true that I had got into a different area of experience. It must have seemed obvious, therefore, that I had yielded up my claims to the area in which I had begun. Useless to protest that I thought all the different media were the one field. For one thing, I had not yet thought it. But I had always felt it, and indeed my Observer television column, which had been the real backbone of my career as a writer, was based on just that feeling.

Much later on, the next generation of savage young critics would embarrassingly confer on me the title of Premature Postmodernist, a title that they meant as praise, even when they bestowed it with the back of the hand. But in the early eighties and for some time forward, the savage young critics that I had to deal with were of my own generation, steadily getting less young and therefore even more critical of any of their number who showed signs of selling out. Though it was no fun to be told that I had sacrificed my gravitas on the altar of popular success, I tried not to let it bother me. The kind of television entertainment that I wanted to do could not be done without seriousness for bedrock, and I had large plans for pursuing my literary career in any spare time that I might happen to get. There was also a potential plus. Writing during my weeks off — they soon turned out to be days off, and then hours — I would have something extra to write about: personal experience of how the big-budget mass entertainment gets done. Going in, I had already guessed that it could never be done in solitude. Thus I would be safe from the ivory tower, an ambience to which I was suited by a reclusive, nose-picking nature, but in which my writing was always fated not to flourish. Left to myself, I would have no direct experience to report on except my own interior workings, which consisted of not much more than a couple of cog wheels, a few rusty springs and some loose screws. In broadcasting, a more richly populated territory beckoned. Really there was no choice, and not just because the work would be well rewarded. The dough was a factor, but not decisive. What mattered was the adventure.

To go on being a writer in solitude would have felt like defeat, because it would have too well served a sense of superiority that I knew to be fatal. Having dedicated my television column to the principle that mass entertainment would be a bad thing only if such a thing as a mass existed, I was now in a position to prove that I could get into mass entertainment myself, and play a full part as one of those countless individual people. They might well be viewed by political theorists as an abstract conglomerate, but they would never do any viewing themselves except one at a time. To hold their attention, you had to be one of them. It was equality; the new equality; the only real equality that there had ever been. When Tocqueville, visiting America in the early nineteenth century, said that the new democracy was imaginary, he didn’t mean that it was illusory: he meant that for the first time in history the haves and the have-nots could share the same condition, even if only in their minds. Since then, the imaginary democracy had spread to the whole Western world, and in Britain it was a continuing tendency that not even Mrs Thatcher could put into reverse. How could she? She was a product of it. Though I was still trying to get all this straight in my head as a prelude to getting it down on paper, here is the story of how I made a beginning on the second stage of my long voyage, to a destination which would yield nothing more than a view of the world, though nothing less either. I had my trepidations on setting out, but I was confident enough, although even I wondered if I were wise to navigate by limelight.

In the long run, the limelight gave me a whole new subject: the celebrity culture. During my television career I was able to take my first crack at analysing it, with an ambitious but sadly doomed series called Fame in the Twentieth Century, and after I retired at the turn of the millennium I had time to explore it in greater depth as part of the basket-work of themes that formed my books The Meaning of Recognition and Cultural Amnesia. But neither early nor late would I have been able to write with any force on the subject if I had not known something about what it was like to inhabit the strange world where everybody knows your face while you hardly ever know theirs. Since there are no deep instincts for coping with it, this condition is fundamentally unsettling, as I shall try to describe. Scrambled brains heat your forehead. In Cat Ballou, somebody says to the permanently hung-over gunfighter played by Lee Marvin: ‘Your eyes are so red.’ Marvin replies: ‘You ought to see them from my side.’ Marvin got a Best Actor Oscar for saying that, but there should have been a trophy for the writer, because it was a profound insight.

There is no substitute for actually visiting the foreign country. In the course of twenty years I visited dozens of foreign countries, but the most foreign was, and was increasingly, the realm of celebrity. I discovered it to be a floating world all by itself, like the Yoshiwara district of old Tokyo, or Swift’s Laputa. One of its driving forces was the desire to create envy, and the subservient readiness to be envious. I can give myself credit for staying out of all that from the jump. I never lived high, and even today I have few toys apart from my website, which I can recommend as an example of how an otherwise ungovernable ego can possibly be put to lasting use.

In the real, non-virtual world, of course, the ego is subject to the rules of time: hence the hair-transplants and the facelifts, which admit the inevitable by the blatancy with which they deny it. I never did any of that stuff either, but I certainly had the urge to save something from the wreck. These later books of memoirs arise from that same impulse, and I suppose the earlier ones did too. I just didn’t know it yet. Not knowing things yet, and finding them out after reflecting on experience, has been the continuing story of my life, and will probably go on being so right to the end, or as near to the end as I can get with my memory still in some kind of working order. In my last volume, which will probably be the one after this, I will undoubtedly be tempted to try summing up a lifetime of reflections on my own existence. Socrates, after all, said that the unexamined life was not worth living. He might have added, however, that continual self-examination would leave us no time to live. The moribund, who don’t get out much, have the privilege of preparing each of their few remaining actions with due thought. In the period I recount here, I was as busy as a fundamentally slothful man can ever be, and scarcely thought at all. Readers who find it a strange spectacle ought to see it from my side.