Tuesday 10 August 2010

Who really deserves to be famous?

Last week, as every week, the front pages of our national newspapers were dominated by pictures of attractive women. Two in particular caught my eye.

The first was the “supermodel” Naomi Campbell, tragically inconvenienced by being summoned to the International Criminal Court to reveal her mind-numbing ignorance of Liberia, its president and the appearance of uncut diamonds.

The second was the British doctor Karen Woo, cruelly murdered as she went about her selfless work of helping the sick in one of the most godforsaken corners of Afghanistan.

Now, which of those two was more deserving of public recognition and reward? The question is surely a “no brainer” – or a “Naomi”, as I have just decided to rebrand it. But that is not how our system works.

We are told that most of the young these days aspire above all to be famous. Not famous for anything in particular, just a celebrity of some sort. And to think that, in my day, most schoolboys had no higher ambition than to be an engine driver. I certainly didn’t.

If fame is your desire, it is entirely logical to seek it by, say, taking your clothes off, caterwauling or kicking a ball about. Because, let’s face it, the people who try to do some good in the world are only going to make major headlines if they get killed or screw up in some important respect that can be presented as a “scandal”.

This is not the fault of the media, incidentally. They are merely in the business of selling newspapers or TV advertising by giving us, the public, what we want. Which is, apparently, a steady supply of people whose minimal talents we can relate to. We enjoy sharing their early triumphs, then usually turn ever so slightly jealous when they rub our noses in their wealth and reveal how wearisome they actually find us through their attitude to photographers and autograph hunters.

Next comes the best bit: revelling in their inevitable downfalls as they succumb to drink, drugs, financial overstretch, marital disagreements or what the tabloids like to call “The Big C” (which they always pledge to beat, but so rarely do).

None of this is new. It was going on when I was a lad. It was just that the sums to be reaped from attaining celebrity status were massively smaller - but then so were the rewards for being a chief executive or a successful banker.

In the olden days, they had local celebrities to keep them entertained; they sat on a gate in a smock with a straw in their mouth and were known as the village idiot. At the top end of the scale, one fool with a bladder on a stick might rise to the dizzy heights of court jester.

All are dust and ashes now – forgotten as surely as most of the front page celebrities of today will be in 30 years’ time.

I cannot really lecture on this, having done remarkably little good in my own life and clearly hankering after some public recognition by writing a newspaper column. But I would strongly urge the young to consider that their lives are going to be short and uncertain; that they only get one chance at them, so far as we know; and that it might, on the whole, be better to focus on leaving the world a better place than on winning a contract with Simon Cowell.

For as Lord Byron put it, “What is fame? The advantage of being known by people of whom you yourself know nothing, and for whom you care as little.” And, as one of the most notoriously scandalous mega-celebrities of his day, he surely knew what he was talking about.

Or, if you insist, follow the fine example of Naomi and simply wonder “Who’s Lord Byron?”

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

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