Although Horace Greeley founded the New Yorker in 1834 and penned a zillion words, he earned his footnote in history with a single memorable sentence, “Go West, young man, and grow up with the country.”
That advice to the ambitious uttered, he retreated into the shadows and quietly took his place among the eternal host of one-quote wonders – wraiths such as Lord “Absolute power corrupts absolutely” Acton, and Phineas “There’s a sucker born every minute” T Barnum.
But what if Greeley were alive today? The West has long since been won and, if California is anything to go by, lost, and it is no longer acceptable to aim one’s apopthegms at young men alone. What, then, would be the advice of a hoary sage to those of our own time who thirst after success and fame? You could do worse than “Dip your fingers in the till, young person,” or “Go barbecue your granny”.
To a degree perhaps unprecedented, the price of infamy is no longer shame nor censure but a television chat show or a radio contract. When the odious David Mellor commits adultery, gets caught, and shamefully tries to seek absolution through staging photo calls with those he has wronged, the world does not turn its back in disgust, it offers him a weekly phone-in programme on the BBC.
When a 12-year-old girl becomes Britain’s youngest mother, does she hide away? Does she hell. She is paid 5,000 to star in her own phone-in on Talk Radio, with other paid performances planned.
The Duchess of York, whose contribution to public life has been an unrivalled exhibition of greed and freeloading, shot through with a vulgarity that makes Ruby Wax look like Lady Violet Bonham Carter reincarnate, has been rewarded with a television show on the US ABC network.
The oily and venal former Conservative minister Neil Hamilton and his grotesque wife Christine – at once the most ideally matched and least deserving partnership since Burke met Hare – have made their debuts as hosts of a Talk Radio phone-in programme. The only way this sickly stunt could be made acceptable is through sponsorship: “This programme was brought to you by Manilla plc, makers of brown paper envelopes since 1873.”
Something odd and disturbing has happened to a society in which fame, however earned and no matter how deserving, is a marketable asset. How is it that adultery, corruption and most criminal activity short of pederasty have ceased to be barriers to acceptability and have instead become public performing rights?
The answer, of course, is the electronic media, which, in its present competitive abundance, has an insatiable thirst for something – anything – to fill the infinity of listening. It is not society’s curiosity that has changed, as much as the means of satisfying it. When in 1932 Harold Davidson, the Rector of Stiffkey in Norfolk, acquired national renown after it became known that he had a weakness for girls that passed all believing, his congregation swelled to 500. And when he appeared before the Consistory Court in Westminster charged with immoral conduct, including the offence of making improper suggestions to a waitress in Walbrook, his reclame was assured.
The case against him proved, he was “removed, deposed and degraded” by the Bishop of Norfolk and by the demanding standards of the day ought to have retired to obscurity, leaving the pretty waitresses of London to go about their business, their bottoms unpatted, their firm breasts deprived of rectorial approval. But the former incumbent of Stiffkey had tasted the cup of fame and was wont to drink to the lees. For five long years he travelled the land, ostensibly on a campaign to clear his name, but in truth on the heady wave of a collosal ego trip.
Inevitably, the public eventually wearied of the errant clergyman and sought sensation elsewhere. But he would not let go. In 1937 it was announced that he would lecture in a lion’s cage at Skegness. When he arrived, he found there was not one lion in the den, but two, a female and her mate Freddie. Freddie it was who despatched the rector in full view of the August trippers.
In the Thirties they did things so much better. With radio still in its infancy and television barely an embryo, entertainment was live or it was nothing. As the rector’s tale proves, excess and bad behaviour won a huge following in those days, and the shameless and the bold luxuriated in their notoriety no less than now. What makes our age different is the fake immediacy of TV and radio and the lack of man-eating lions.
Who could possibly cavil if, their preening desire for self-indulgence and shameless parading satisfied, the Hamiltons were to be publicly disembowelled and eaten by the heirs and successors of Freddie? But in these mealy-mouthed times, when 400 Labour MPs weep at the plight of the hounded fox, what hope is there for darkest nemesis to come gleefully dressed as red-blooded entertainment? In any case, a public inured to such grisly spectacles as Pets Win Prizes and anything featuring Ruby Wax, is too desensitised to care.