The average mid-life crisis ends in a red sports car, but mine landed in a caravan. I bought it during a fearful rainstorm 18 months ago and moved my fishing rod in the following day. There are two bottles of whisky here and a pot of soup on the hob; there’s a jar of pencils, an old typewriter, and a nice edition of The Mill on the Floss, which contains the best written account of a British flood that presently exists. As I write, and look out at the Clyde Firth, I fear that George Eliot’s coagulated waters might be about to overtop Ailsa Craig, the craggy rock in the middle of the sea that in my childhood was called Paddy’s Milestone.
It takes about a year to publish a book now, what with the festivals, the hairdos, the film producers and the jetlag. At the Jaipur Literary Festival earlier this year, I was happy to see the Indian schoolchildren out in force, ready – as nowhere else – with their autograph books and stubby pencils, keen to capture a signature just in case the author turned out to be famous. The children of Jaipur seem to imagine that anyone placed before a microphone is a possible celebrity. But, more than that, they have watched the talent shows over the last few years, and they know the difference between a common clerk and a monster celebrity is merely a matter of time and a little exposure to the public vote. It was nice, though, to see how open they were to the notion that writers stood a chance, as opposed to the average Joe mangling a Whitney Houston song.
It's nice to see Marilyn liked pot. It's so much more sociable than Nembutal, Seconal, Dalmane and Quaaludes, the stuff she took on her own. Somebody at Twentieth Century Fox told me the summer before last that she liked weed: the grips on her films were always happy to dole it out. When I heard that, I immediately pictured her sitting with her dog Maf in Forest Lawn, puffing her face off.
A strange thing can happen to film directors with a genuine style. It doesn’t always happen, but it often does: their life begins to impersonate their films. It is more typical to think of the process happening the other way round: John Ford is a drunken Irish brawler at heart, so he makes pictures imbued with the experience of hard-nosed pugilists transplanted from the poteen-stills of County Galway. But I’m just as interested in how artists can be shaped by the things they make: Orson Welles becomes a version of Charles Foster Kane; Visconti becomes a victim of betrayal; and Werner Herzog turns year by year into a grizzly Nosferatu who is totally creepy but also cuddly. To whatever extent Roman Polanski has his own filmic style, his life has impersonated it surreally.
People in England found it very easy to love the Queen Mother. She was, it seemed, a perfect repository of the national theme, Past Caring. She stayed in London during the Blitz, she didn't like foreigners – especially foreign women, especially Wallis Simpson – and she drank like a fish. She liked a party, loved a wheeze, adored a jape, and not far into William Shawcross's very admiring official biography, published this week, we find Elizabeth Bowes Lyon kicking up her heels in Paris in 1924. Elizabeth was assuredly a bit of a one. Apart from shopping, there was tea at the Ritz and dinner at the British Embassy. They also visited the Casino de Paris, 'where for the first time in my life I saw ladies with very little on, & somehow it was not in the least indecent'.
The trouble with living a bizarre life is that you've got a lot to live up to when you're no longer living. In that sense, Michael Jackson has got off to quite a good start. First, he dies at home surrounded by strange medical equipment and children's toys. Second, there's a doctor standing nearby. Most people, if they're in danger of dying, wouldn't mind having a doctor to hand, but in the case of bizarre celebrities the presence of a doctor doesn't always guarantee their safety. The opposite, in fact. The doctor is very often there, allegedly, to aid the process of premature oblivion. Let's face it: Michael was never going to fall asleep one day in the TV room of the Sunshine Inn, after a few years of forgetfulness and a dinner of prunes. I always thought it more likely he would die in outer space, or underwater, in a restless bid to discover Atlantis.
It turns out the Cold War did not end with either a bang or a whimper in Europe, but with a series of feeble melodies that come invested with the strongest doses of motherland prejudice and rivalry. Those who doubt it have not been paying attention to the Eurovision Song Contest, now in its 54th year, a competition whose chief virtue is to demonstrate the standard failure of political philosophy to rival sequins and bad music as an indicator of the moral outlook of nations. Forget Machiavelli, Edmund Burke, Voltaire, Marx, Lenin or Ortega y Gasset. The world-dominating perspectives of Italy, Ireland, France, Germany, Russia and Spain – to name but six of this year's 42 participating countries – are to be represented by assorted ragamuffins with plentiful false eyelashes and voices as dainty as a fortnight of shelling in Dubrovnik. Every year it gets madder, but 2009, which is being hosted by Russia, must surely be the biggest, campest carnival yet, with nations threatening by the half-hour to storm off or to scratch out the eyes of their neighbours, all in the name of peace, understanding and postwar unification.