Fame. It’s an embarrassing thing to talk about, for all that it is a national/global obsession. It is one of the few apparently desirable human qualities that … no, what am I talking about … it is not a quality. It is not like courage, mercy, kindness, strength, beauty or patience; or laziness, dishonesty, greed or cruelty for that matter. What is different about fame, I was going to say, is that it is so contingent. If you are tolerant or strong or wise, you are tolerant and strong and wise wherever you are on the planet that day. You don’t become bigoted, feeble and dim-witted the moment you cross a continent. Famous people however, can become entirely unknown the second they leave their homeland. Only the World Famous are famous everywhere, and there are precious few of them. They used to claim Mohammed Ali was about as well-known as a human could be, the same was said of Charlie Chaplin and Elvis. Who now? Osama bin Laden? Michael Jackson? Robbie Williams can walk around Los Angeles without being recognised and they say Johnny Carson was so surprised/irked/mortified at going unremarked in London whenever he showed up, as he did regularly for Wimbledon Fortnight, that he arranged for British TV to carry his Tonight Show at a reduced rate. Martha Stewart can travel by Tube unspotted, but not by Subway. And so on. As for myself, well, I mean next to nothing in Italy, but seem to strike a chord in Russia. Don’t ask.
Fame has this unusual property. It exists only in the mind of others. It is not an intrinsic characteristic, feature or achievement. Fame is wholly an exterior construct and yet, for all that it is defined by other people’s knowledge of a given person, they cannot dismantle or deactivate the fame that their knowledge engenders. What an ugly sentence. I mean this. We cannot, however much we may want to, make someone unfamous. We can make them infamous, unfashionable, notorious, despised or derided but the more we do so the more we actually increase their level of fame. Fame is a function of memory. I can’t impel you to forget Adam Sandler, for example, any more than I can instruct you to forget Jack the Ripper or the Jolly Green Giant. Indeed, as I’ve suggested, to urge someone to forget is worse than useless. It’s like the well-known procedure of telling someone not to think of something specific and odd, a yellow panda, for example. Go on, do not think of a yellow panda. There, the image of such a being is now in your head. Fame is a great bouncy castle that we have all blown up to its present state by breathing the names of the famous. Simply in mentioning ‘Adam Sandler’ I have inflated his fame by a cubic millimetre. It will only deflate, over time, if his name is never uttered. Given his slate of disgustingly maudlin films over the last five years (with the exception of the wonderful Punch Drunk Love), I can’t help feeling that wouldn’t be a bad idea, but this is an entirely separate argument.
For fame is not the same as reputation. Fame can outstrip reputation, but reputation cannot outstrip fame. For example, while Kipling’s fame has been great since his death, his reputation has wavered, one minute down in the cellar, the next back up to almost the height it attained in his lifetime. Ditto, more or less at random, the pre-Raphaelites, Oliver Wendell Holmes and Bobby Darin. W. B. Yeats is better known these days than Dornford Yates, and that’s likely to remain true till the crack of doom: two generations ago for every person who had heard of W. B. there were a hundred who knew and read Dornford. Am I alone in liking both?
All of which leads me to this obvious point. It is no good everyone repeating that tiresome cliché about x, y and z ‘only being famous for being famous’ – their fame exists in our heads and it is therefore our fault, not theirs, if fault there is. I can’t blame Jade Goody for the fact that I know her name. Many famous people may well be guilty of being ambitious for fame, for ‘hunting after it all their lives’ as in the quotation above, but while I could be guilty of wanting everyone in Britain to send me ten pounds such an ambition is useless unless others are foolish enough to realise it for me. It is our curiosity, admiration, idolatry, envy, rage, resentment or obsession that privileges the famous with their fame and the only way we can take it away from them is by forgetting. Which is hard. And it’s no good saying: “it’s not my fault Abi Titmus is famous … it’s other people who have made her so” – the very act of uttering that sentence has spread the infection, has transmitted the fame meme. Yes the media institutions, the newspapers, television and indeed internet have a part to play as pipelines, but the energy that drives the fame along those pipelines derives more from the receiver than the transmitter, it is more suck than blow.