This month in New York, the fashionable charity named United Cerebral Palsy is having an ‘awards’ event. I think that the winners must have been picked some time ago. The ‘outstanding achievement’ prize goes to General Colin Powell, and will be presented by Barbara Walters. The ‘humanitarian’ award goes to Diana Spencer and will be presented by Henry Kissinger. In other words, a single well-placed grenade could remove the whole beating heart of the international celebrity industry, along with its most servile and deferential interviewer and promoter: Barbara Walters, doyenne of drool and sultana of shlock. But not even this would restore the stolen year; the twelvemonth of trash and false alarms to which we have been subjected. In nominating one’s ‘people of the year’, it is necessary to say a bit about the disqualifications. These must include any propensity to waste time. A true celebrity ‘delivers’. He or she keeps weaving and moving in an effort not to disappoint. Richard Nixon was such a one. Every time a new segment of Watergate tape was released, revealing his Jew-baiting or thuggery or corruption, he would publish a new book on grand strategy or at least fly to Beijing. What a trouper! Such a pro! Say what you like about Dick, there was nothing of the cock-teaser about him. This is more than can be said for United Cerebral Palsy’s two chiefest honorees.
Even though Colin Powell made me some money by deciding not to run, I can’t lightly forgive him the aeons of conversation-time that he greyed out for me; the dinner-parties that turned into unspeakable cafard; the TV and radio chat-shows that went null at the mention of his name. To say nothing of the conscription of the only two industries that I work for – publishing and journalism – into auxiliary volunteer militias. Between them, Harry Evans and Tina Brown raised whole regiments of foot, horse and guns; flooding the bookstores and news-stands with the reassuring visage of the hero of Panama and Vietnam. Not to say an unfeeling thing, but if there were already any symptoms of palsy in the national cerebellum, they were very much intensified during (and by) the Powell flap. What does it say about us, that even our supposedly intellectual classes want a Boulanger or even a more avuncular version of the military solution; a national saviour in a uniform; what Henry Kissinger used to call (referring demurely to himself) ‘the man on the white horse’?
For the Spencer girl, I carry an even sharper blade in my heart. All that rehearsal and all that pre-publicity, with the publicity getting publicity, and then – nada. She revealed that she had been miserable to the point of puking. She disclosed the fact that her husband cherished the leathery but perfectly-formed C. P.-B. She unveiled her adulterous passion with the Hewitt. She took leave to doubt that her ex-husband-elect was fit for the throne. Excuse me, but didn’t I know all this already? Nothing on Carling was offered, or asked for by the fawning Bashir, and nothing on young James Gilbey of the ‘Squidgy’ tapes either. And she got a free pass on the manic telephone calls. I always wanted to know if it was true – as her male relatives went on telly to claim at the time – that she was a virgin when she got married. Nada on that, too. It’s as if Johnnie Cochran were to give an exclusive interview, no holds barred, all cards on the table, and then lean across portentously to whisper that he had believed his client to be totally innocent all along. As my friend and former landlord John O’Sullivan used to be fond of saying (and him a Catholic and all, and editor of the National Review) if the Pope says he believes in God, he’s only doing his job. If he says he doesn’t believe in God, he may be onto something.
And Cochran brings me to the other great – perhaps the great – bore of the year. Let me defer here to Adolph Reed, who is emerging as one of the few black American essayists worth reading in a period of intensifying racism and of stultifying parochial loyalties, and who never lets the pressure of the first move him an inch nearer to the second:
Early in the saga, there was considerable evidence of multiracial fan support for O.J., as there is for any celebrity on the verge of falling from grace. To some extent, it reflects one of the culture’s appropriately perverse accommodations to the kinds of insecurity and hollowed-out lives generated in this era of capitalist social reorganisation – vicarious identification, to the point of artificial personal intimacy, with those on whom the public spotlight shines, especially in tragic circumstances. We’ve seen numerous examples over the past fifteen years: the throngs wailing and waving good-bye outside the funeral of Lisa Steinberg, the celebrated victim of fatal child abuse; the crowds who wanted to do the same for Susan Smith, only to turn instantly into a lynch mob on learning that she killed her children.
‘Vicarious identification’ is just right. You hear bar-room nutters referring confidently to ‘O.J. ’, just as they once dropped the name ‘Ollie’. He’s been by. Stopped over in the living-room. ‘Di’ herself was in the picture just the other night. Quite the lady once you get to know her...
I also like what Reed says about the fickleness of crowds. It was so sweet to see the masses gather under the balcony of Buckingham Palace this summer, yelling for the ‘Queen Mum’. She hasn’t been in such direct personal demand since the summer of 1938, when she and her husband whisked Neville Chamberlain onto the same balcony as soon as he descended from his Munich commuter flight, and thus gave the Munich Agreement the Royal Assent before it even got as far as Westminster. Yet scratch any monarchist and you will hear that the Windsors are cool because of their wartime deportment. I was about to say that reputation is impervious to fact, until it hit me that there’s a royalist mantra I haven’t heard lately. ‘It’s the envy of the world. All the foreigners wish they had it.’ When did that start to die out, I wonder?
‘Gossip’, as now redefined, doesn’t allow for controversies like the above. That’s because nobody is any longer allowed to be first with the news. We all get ladled the same portion of gossip, at the same time (often with several days’ notice) and then fall to, licking the same dish. It’s not, to quote Peter Cook in another connection, enough to keep the mind alive. Perhaps it’s a culture of this sort – simultaneously overfed and undernourished – that leads people into the ghastly habit of using familiar first names to describe celebrities they will never meet. ‘Are you with Charles or Di?’ Can’t say I know them well enough to be sure. Have you conceivably confused me with someone else? Someone who cares?
I left Henry Kissinger’s name hanging around up there. It’s true that he seems to have slid down the charts but don’t be fooled. People like him do not just fade away. In the course of the past year, Kissinger has continued to be influential in two areas of foreign policy: China and Bosnia. In the first instance, he has been among those of the permanent Establishment to argue that Washington-Beijing relations are too important to be influenced by sentimental considerations of human rights. In the second case, he has been a sheet-anchor, for once, for the neutralists; for those taking the view that Bosnia is none of our business. Some say that these Kissingerian positions are explicable in terms of the fees paid by Chinese and Serbian interests to the lobbying firm of Kissinger Associates. But I think that’s too simple. There is something about Kissinger that registers a natural affinity with anything cruel or ruthless or atrocious. He may help out as a consultant for a fat fee. But I think he would do it for nothing. He likes to watch. And 1 can imagine a wet grin on his lips as the year draws wheezing to a close and the most successful statesman emerges as – the envelope please – Slobodan Milosevic.
There was a highly revealing background piece in the New York Times last week, about the negotiations in Dayton, Ohio. In the course of their long seclusion with the different Balkan leaders, it emerged, the United States negotiators had found themselves more and more estranged from the ascetic, reserved figure of Alija lzetbegovic, President of Bosnia. He didn’t apparently have much small talk, and when he did speak it tended to be about morals and principles. No good at taking a joke. Whereas old Slobodan ... Hearty appetite, lots of staying-power, always a glad hand and a big smile. In some gruesome variant of the Stockholm syndrome, the Americans found themselves despising the weak and powerless and warming to the strong. (This it turns out is also quite a good negotiating strategy, because you can more easily extort concessions from the weak.) Thus in his speech to the nation about the despatch of troops to Bosnia, President Clinton was able to speak with feeling, and to some effect, about the horrors of rape, torture, mass murder, deportation and ethnic cleansing, while awarding almost half of Bosnia’s territory to those who had acquired it by exactly those means. Slobbo meanwhile looked as though all his birthdays had come at once. For leaving it at that, he got the lifting of sanctions too.
A tiny cloud may interpose itself. The warrant for Ratko Mladic and Radovan Karadzic is still out, and there is some pressure for Milosevic to give one or both of them up to the War Crimes Tribunal in The Hague. (This would promote their immediate deputy, Nikola Koljevic, to be head of the Serbian proxy regime in Bosnia. Everyone says how moderate he is. Why, he’s even written a book on Shakespeare. My answer here – a necessarily provisional one – is that Prince Charles is authoring a book on Shakespeare too, and we have yet to see how ‘moderate’ he is.) Anyway, if either Mladic or Karadzic is hauled before the court, it’s a safe bet that they will be able to produce letters and documents showing that they acted ‘under orders’. The orders, that is, of big Slobodan. How will this make our new friend look? Judge Richard Goldstone, who heads the Bosnia and Rwanda war-crimes inquiry (and who ran the Truth Commission in South Africa and who, on the evidence of one meeting, would be my nominee for man of several years if there was any justice), has recently expressed public ‘disappointment’ at Washington’s refusal to co-operate with the Court. He says that the Administration has satellite evidence about the recent mass murders in Srebrenica, which it is withholding. I think I can guess what the ‘intelligence’ is. When scanned properly, the Srebrenica pictures will show that Mladic’s assault on the ‘safe havens’ received logistical and military support from the Yugoslav National Army. This will be hard to laugh off, and will put a crimp in the Holbrooke plan to get a Nobel Peace Prize for the partition of Bosnia. Meanwhile, though, you just can’t argue with success.
This is probably what Prince Charles reflects gloomily to himself, as he ponders the natural media savvy of the Spencer minx. His Shakespeare studies can only be of limited use to him here, because the fact that there is a crisis of succession and a crisis of legitimacy – a crisis which ought to favour his stance of dour, dutiful responsibility – is actually telling against him.
Whatever happens she has got
Those two small boys
And he has not.
In the pending case of Windsor v. Windsor, the only card the poor sap holds is seniority: the very reason the masses have apparently rallied to the side of his poor, lamblike, innocent airhead of a wife. How simply too exasperating. One of Shakespeare’s beleaguered sovereigns wanted men about him that were fat. He couldn’t have anticipated the tactless cheerleading of Nicholas Soames, who’s been penalised horribly for saying what seems unarguably true. But then, you can’t argue with media burn either. People feel that they know her. They don’t feel they know him. The vicarious identification wins out every time.
I can’t say I know her myself, though I used to know various of her half-brothers. I went to see her at the British Embassy several years ago, when the press was still in its ‘fairy-tale’ mode (which I always thought was exactly the right unconscious term for the royal nuptial), and was quite shocked by how thin and miserable she seemed. He looked like a dog being washed. The next time we ‘met’ was in 1993, at a dinner for the Serpentine Gallery. I couldn’t think of a thing to say, and then thought of something, and then decided I’d only have one chance to say it. ‘We republicans,’ I offered. ‘must stick together.’ She gave a fetching gurgle. (For all that I know, she always does that.) People appeared and demanded to be told what I meant by it. I replied that, well, she’d done far more to undermine the House of Windsor than I could ever hope to do. If this is an instance of ‘the cunning of history’ then at least for once it isn’t at my expense, or the expense of my side.
So I appear to have talked my way into it, in spite of everything and in spite of what I prided myself in thinking of as my sales resistance. By today’s standards, there is no denying the Spencerette her palm-frond as woman of the year. But she still has to share it, as once she had to share the sad, bat-eared man who gave her the big break into show business and the fairy-tale industry. Step forward, ma’am, if that’s what you call yourself. Step forward, Mr Milosevic. It might make a good Xmas panto billing. Slobbo and the Sloane. Jesus.