The Legendary Test

Mark Simpson on the (fast dimin­ish­ing) dif­fer­ence between fame and legend

(The Hospital Club magazine, Spring 2010)

Fame The Legendary Test

A recent bloody assas­sin­a­tion attempt on Gore Vidal, the last great American man of let­ters by the English journ­al­ist Christopher Hitchens in the glossy pages of Vanity Fair promp­ted me, and I sus­pect many oth­ers, to pon­der the dif­fer­ence between fame and legend.

Both Vidal and Hitchens are fam­ous of course, but only Vidal is a legend. Hitchens, for all his achieve­ments, for all his impress­ive, furi­ous scrib­bling, con­trarian con­tro­versy, and admir­able G&T habit, is not and never will be legendary.

Not because Vidal has writ­ten many more or bet­ter books than Hitchens.  Not because his essays are wit­tier, his sen­tences more eleg­ant. Not because he knew the Kennedys – and dished the dirt. Not even because Vidal, in a wheel­chair, wizened and enfeebled by war wounds, old age and a lifetime’s booz­ing, is a much greater man than the much younger Hitchens.

No, Vidal is a legend because it is as undeni­able as his own mor­tal­ity that he will live forever. Or at least, as long as people care to remem­ber any­one these days. Should Hitchens be struck down tomor­row by a dodgy canapé or spiked tonic water, after the loud, ful­some eulo­gies have been delivered by his media col­leagues, he would be com­pletely for­got­ten. Hitchens is more aware of this than any­one, hence his entirely under­stand­able yen to liquid­ate his one-time mentor. But pre­cisely because Vidal is a legend the attempt back­fires as hil­ari­ously as Wile E. Coyote’s did on Road Runner.

Admittedly though, there’s less and less interest in any­one who writes.  Unless of course they’ve left nice com­ments on your hil­ari­ous Facebook status update. Everyone is a writer now – or at least a typer.

That said, in a uni­verse increas­ingly crowded with celebrit­ies, apply­ing the legendary test is a use­ful and humane way of thin­ning them out. Annoyed by someone’s ubi­quit­ous­ness? Their suc­cess at mak­ing you see their gurn­ing mug every­where? The way they remind you of your own obscur­ity? Well, ask your­self this: will they be remembered and talked about when they are no longer around to remind us, incess­antly, of their exist­ence? At a stroke, you’ve done away with the vast major­ity of the bastards.

Even though most of them don’t really care about pos­ter­ity  – because they won’t be around to exploit the image rights – it’s a fun game to play.  By this cri­teria, George Best is a legend, David Beckham – much more fam­ous than Best ever was and pos­sibly the most fam­ous per­son in the world today – isn’t.  Paul Newman is, Brad Pitt isn’t (though his six pack might be). Morrissey is, Robbie Williams really, really isn’t. Thatcher is, Blair isn’t. Alan Bennett is, Stephen ‘National Treasure’ Fry isn’t. Julie Burchill is, Katie Price ain’t.  Princess Di is, Madonna prob­ably isn’t. Hockney is, Damian Hirst, even pickled in form­al­de­hyde, isn’t. And so on.

You’ll note that dead legends aren’t in the past tense – this is because legends by defin­i­tion are never past tense. Probably the greatest legend is Elvis Presley. Hence all the repor­ted sight­ings of him on Mars and down the chip shop. The King could never die on his khazi, obese and con­stip­ated. And in many senses Elvis really is alive – it’s just the rest of us I’m not so sure about.

Now, you might object that this is all a very sub­ject­ive busi­ness, that the legendary test is really just a way of being nasty about people I hap­pen not to like and nice about people I do. And you might not be entirely mis­taken. But this isn’t really about who you like – it’s about who will last. Legends aren’t neces­sar­ily good or par­tic­u­larly nice people, either. Hitler and Stalin are legends, and so are Bob Geldof and Mel Gibson.

The 21st Century is not very con­du­cive to legendary status. It’s very, very dif­fi­cult to become one today – and very, very few people even bother to try.  Vidal, for instance, is really a Twentieth Century legend that has sur­vived, much against his bet­ter judge­ment, into the Twenty-First Century – largely as a kind of bad con­science. Princess Di on the other hand is a legend in large part because she man­aged to die just before the end of the Twentieth Century. If she hadn’t, we would have grown very bored with her indeed by now. Katie Price’s fate would prob­ably seem envi­able by comparison.

Today’s infra­struc­ture of fame is designed to dis­cour­age legends. The more medi­ated, the more wired the world becomes, the more people can become fam­ous, more quickly – and the more people are inter­ested in fame. But as oth­ers have poin­ted out, fame has to be more dis­pos­able. More fame and more fam­ous people requires a much higher turnover. Legends, in other words, spoil the celebrity eco­sys­tem because they refuse to be recycled and hog fame resources forever. Put another way, legendary status is ana­logue, not digital.

Impatience is another factor. In a wired world, even if people wanted legends, or at least some­times felt nos­tal­gic about them, no one could be bothered with wait­ing for someone to become one. So instead the media, MSM and non-MSM, cre­ates ‘instant legends’, which are in some ways even more dis­pos­able than common-or-garden celebs.

Barack Obama is a recent example of an instant legend. A very pop­u­lar 1960s trib­ute act of HOPE and CHANGE dur­ing the Primaries, when he was inaug­ur­ated as President last year the media – and the Nobel Peace Prize Committee – behaved as if both JFK and MLK were being sworn in after their assas­sin­a­tions. Lately the same media have been talk­ing about the epoch-making Obama as a one-term President. He may yet achieve real legendary status, but if he does it will be in spite of his instant legend.

Osama Bin Laden is one of the very few people to have already achieved true legendary status in the 21st Century – along with, I sus­pect, Lady Gaga. Which sort of proves the rule.

© Mark Simpson 2010

Edmund White’s Vulgar Fag-ism

I’ve always liked Edmund White’s refusal to get with the con­tem­por­ary gay hypo­crisy pro­gram and shrew­ishly con­demn promis­cu­ity in the hope that this will deliver lots and lots of wed­ding presents.

In con­trast to that pas­teur­ised movie Milk, which lied shame­lessly about gay men’s sex lives in the 1970s to make it easier for them to lie about their sex lives today, White, a vet­eran gay-libber who first star­ted lib­bing around that time – in bath-houses, back rooms and along the piers – insists on telling it as it was, gen­ital warts and all.

That said, I’ve fre­quently found his work to be insuf­fer­ably gay­ist. Edmund is a five star, old school gay chau­vin­ist – so lit­er­ally fuck­ing proud to be gay and so obsessed with ‘com­ing out’ (and attack­ing those that refuse to join his party) that some­times I just want to slap him.

Which is why I laughed out loud when frail old Gore Vidal, vet­eran dis­senter from the ortho­dox­ies of sexual iden­tity polit­ics, recently reached out of his wheel­chair and did just that, repeatedly, in The London Times. Asked about White’s fic­tion­al­ised por­trayal of Vidal’s letter-writing rela­tion­ship with the Oklahoma bomber Timothy McVeigh in the play ‘Terre Haute’, The Gore lam­basted White for por­tray­ing him as ‘another queen’, only writ­ing about how ‘being a fag is the greatest thing on Earth’ and – in a fant­astic phrase that will stay with White forever, like an immor­tal red hand­print on the side of his face  – “vul­gar fag-ism”.

Probably it was the ‘vul­gar’ part that stung White most (his prose, espe­cially the earlier efforts, some­times looks as if it’s been fis­ted by a thesaurus) and pro­voked the bitchy response in an inter­view in Salon this week (‘Edmund White comes out swinging’).  Ed describes Gore as a ‘nasty, awful man’, claims sor­row­fully to have tried to help him in the past by invit­ing him to din­ner to intro­duce him to ‘cute boys’, very kindly reminds us of his great age, the fact that he’s wheelchair-bound, his alco­hol­ism, his loss a few years ago of his life-long com­pan­ion. Practically spelling it out for us in a campy stage whis­per: Bitter. Old. Queen.

But appar­ently this isn’t enough. He also tells us that Vidal is a ‘com­plete lun­atic’ and that ‘it doesn’t bother me what he says about me.’ Yes, dear, but if it doesn’t, why go on so? And on, and on….

I don’t know what he’s fam­ous for any­where, really, because I think those his­tor­ical nov­els are com­plete works of taxi­dermy. Nobody can read those. “Myra Breckinridge” was funny but light. The essays are what every­body defends — but a friend of mine who did a volume of the best essays of the 20th cen­tury said they’re all so top­ical that they’ve all aged ter­ribly. I don’t know where his work is.’

Ed, sweetie. Even if everything that you and your ter­ribly import­ant lit­er­ary friends have to say about that ‘nasty awful man’ were true, bit­ter old alco­holic crippled Gore would still be ten times the writer you are.

And, oh, about 100 times the man.

Gore Vidal Takes on The World — Again

Gore Old Gore Vidal Takes on The World   Again

God, I can’t help but love the old bas­tard.  Another tour-de-force from Gore Vidal (inter­viewed by Tim Teeman) appeared in The London Times last week, in which, as usual, he said so many things, so very loudly that so many people know to be true but daren’t begin to mumble.

This frail, crippled, dia­betic, alco­holic, eighty-three-year-old man repeatedly and ener­get­ic­ally Gores Obama, for his ‘dread­ful’ per­form­ance as President, decries how he has ‘fucked up’ health­care, and most par­tic­u­larly how he has allowed him­self to be rail­roaded by the mil­it­ary into con­tinu­ing the American Imperialist pro­ject, some­thing Vidal has hero­ic­ally ded­ic­ated his life to attack­ing. He also expresses his deep regret over dump­ing feisty Hillary, his first choice, for this smooth-talking ingénue dur­ing the Democratic Primaries:

Hillary knows more about the world and what to do with the gen­er­als. History has proven when the girls get involved, they’re good at it. Elizabeth I knew Raleigh would be a good man to give a ship to.”

Vidal sug­gests that he was beguiled — as many clearly were in the Democratic Party — by the his­toric if not actu­ally romantic appeal of a black man as President of the United States.  Particularly one that was much more intel­li­gent than his white pre­de­cessor; but seems to have been dis­ap­poin­ted even in that department.

Vidal ori­gin­ally became pro-Obama because he grew up in “a black city” (mean­ing Washington), as well as being impressed by Obama’s intel­li­gence. “But he believes the gen­er­als. Even Bush knew the way to win a gen­eral was to give him another star”.

He also dis­cusses, or rather, disses, gay mar­riage — a sub­ject I wasn’t alas able to cover when I inter­viewed him earlier this year for Arena Hommes Plus. When Teeman asks, ‘Has love been import­ant to him?’ he responds blisteringly:

Don’t make the error that school­teacher idi­ots make by think­ing that gay men’s rela­tion­ships are like het­ero­sexual ones. They’re not.”

This one, simple, obvi­ously true state­ment is of course com­plete heresy for mod­ern American gays — who aren’t listen­ing any­way since most of them prob­ably don’t even know who Gore Vidal is.  Which is in itself damning enough.

Vidal puts on a scorn­ful, campy voice. “People ask {of he and Austen, his life-long com­pan­ion who died last year}, ‘How did you live together so long?’ The only rule was no sex. They can’t believe that.…

No, because if you wish to pre­tend that two men liv­ing together is just like a man and woman liv­ing together you have to pre­tend to the same lies and illu­sions het­ero­sexu­als do.

He is single now. “I’m not into part­ner­ships,” he says dis­missively. I don’t even know what it means.” He “couldn’t care less” about gay mar­riage. “Does any­one care what Americans think? They’re the worst-educated people in the First World. They don’t have any thoughts, they have emo­tional responses, which good advert­isers know how to pro­voke.” You could have been the first gay pres­id­ent, I say. “No, I would have mar­ried and had nine chil­dren,” he replies quickly and ser­i­ously. “I don’t believe in these exclus­ive terms.”

They cer­tainly don’t make ‘em like that any more.

Little Britain Touches Up Uncle Sam

little britain usa  999487c Little Britain Touches Up Uncle Sam

By Mark Simpson (Guardian, 20 October, 2008)

What other cul­ture could have pro­duced someone like Ernest Hemingway,’ waspish bisexual American exile Gore Vidal once asked of America’s favour­ite so-butch-he’s-camp writer, ‘and not seen the joke?’. The answer, was, of course, that only a cul­ture that couldn’t see the joke could pro­duce a Hemingway.

I don’t know whether Matt Lucas and David Walliams read Vidal or Hemingway, but in Little Britain USA, the recently launched HBO spin-off of their hit UK TV com­edy sketch series (which is also air­ing on BBC1), they seem to be pos­ing that ques­tion again — though this time the answer has some bear­ing on the like­li­hood of Stateside suc­cess of their show. In Little Britain USA ‘Our Boys’ (as a cheer-leading UK media seem to have tagged the camp duo) have put their prob­ing fin­ger on one of the most tick­lish fault-lines of US cul­ture: how ‘gay’ big butch God-fearing America can seem — and how com­ic­ally in denial of this Americans can be.

There cer­tainly seems to be a bit of Hemingway, who loved his guns, in the mous­ta­chioed cop (played by Walliams) who gets a vis­ible hard-on while demon­strat­ing his impress­ive col­lec­tion of weapons to his fel­low officers. But it’s in the steroid-scary shape of the towel-snapping ‘Gym Buddies’, Tom and Mark, who like to take long showers together after pump­ing iron, and graph­ic­ally re-enacting what they did to the ‘pussy’ they pulled last night — with each other’s huge latex bubble-butts and tiny pen­ises — that the so-butch-it’s-camp not-so-hidden secret of American cul­ture is graph­ic­ally outed by Little Britain USA.

Along with patho­lo­gical denial. In last week’s epis­ode, when an alarmed bystander glances nervously at them hump­ing naked in the locker room they retort: ‘Whaddyou lookin at? Are you A FAG??’  Walliams, who is so camp he’s almost butch (a ladies’ man off-screen he has been described repeatedly by the UK press as ‘the ulti­mate met­ro­sexual’), seems espe­cially proud of the Gym Buddies sketch — describ­ing it as ‘pos­sibly the most out­rageous we’ve ever done’. Certainly it’s drawn most fire from crit­ics in the US, who have given the series very mixed reviews.

Lucas and Walliam’s glee­fully amoral queer sens­ib­il­ity — they’re basic­ally drag queens on a revenge trip, espe­cially when they dress up as men — was always going to be dif­fi­cult for America to swal­low. But touch­ing Uncle Sam up in the locker room may well make it a lot harder… er, I mean, more dif­fi­cult. America, even that part of it that watches HBO, may not want to get that joke. Especially when made by a couple of faggy Brits. And by the way, while we over here might think American butch­ness tres gay — e.g. the locker-room and volley-ball scenes in Top Gun — all Europeans look ‘faggy’ to Americans, espe­cially us Brits. The sketch fea­tur­ing Walliams as a flam­ing Brit Prime Minister try­ing to get into the straight black US President’s pants prob­ably won’t offend as much as Walliams hopes since most Americans thought Tony Blair was gay anyway.

Rather sweetly, com­pared to the UK, America is a coun­try where mas­culin­ity and mach­ismo is still sac­red — des­pite hav­ing done more than any other coun­try to make it obsol­ete by invent­ing men’s shop­ping magazines. In the US of A, it seems, any­thing mas­cu­line can’t be gay and vice versa. Hence Hummersexual Tom and Mark. Hence ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’. And hence all that fuss the US made over that mediocre gay cow­boy movie Brokeback Mountain which, when it arrived in the UK, promptly bored every­one senseless.

America’s love of the mas­cu­line body, is glor­i­ously ‘gay’ — or, more accur­ately, homo­erotic.  But alas, until now Uncle Sam has been ter­ribly ashamed of his nat­ural, red-blooded and blatantly bloody obvi­ous bi-responsiveness.

Only America, God Bless, could have pro­duced UFC, a hugely pop­u­lar pay-per-view ‘full-contact-sport’ that involves two young muscled men in shorts try­ing to get each other’s legs around their ears (Tom and Mark prob­ably watch it together — in their UFC shorts). Only America could pro­duce a best-selling men’s workout magazine like Men’s Health, put men’s pumped tits and abs on the cover every month and strenu­ously main­tain the pre­tence that none of its read­ers are gay or bisexual — or even met­ro­sexual. Only America could pro­duce a film like last year’s ‘300′, essen­tially a toga-themed Chippendale flick for teen boys — but because it was made for American teen boys its denial was even more pre­pos­ter­ous than its pec­tor­als: the bad­die had to be a big black club queen in a spangly Speedo.

Mind you, ‘300′ had at least one vir­tue, albeit unin­ten­tional: it was rather fun­nier than Little Britain USA. Perhaps the biggest prob­lem Walliams and Lucas face in ram­ming their sens­ib­il­ity down Uncle Sam’s throat isn’t America’s gay denial or gag­ging reluct­ance to see the camp joke, but simply the fact that, on the basis of the first couple of shows, their American ‘out­ing’just isn’t very funny.

Either side of the pond.