May 13, 2008

There’s nothing like a bookshop, I always say, for giving you the opportunity to feel superior to your fellow man. We English-speakers here in Brussels are spoiled in that regard, since the bookshops we have are still occupied with the sale of books, while sundries are limited to cards, books-on-tape, diaries, bookmarks, ex-libris stickers and Moleskine notebooks – all of which are either book-related or at least made out of paper. The last time I visited the land of my fathers you’d have had a hard time finding a book among the CDs, DVDs and Harry Potter merchandise; and if you did succeed it would inevitably be some rubbish by Lynne Truss, or something unspeakable about or by Dan Brown.

The other day I had the chance – not one that comes along often in real life anymore – to look down my nose at someone. I was in one of our city-centre bookshops whose name I’m not allowed to mention, as it might make you think of a kind of silver. There in front of me was a bloke in a corduroy suit chatting up the young woman behind the desk, in itself no reprehensible thing, except not only had he tied his hair into a wispy sort of ponytail, and not only was he boasting of having gone to university with Richard Hill, he’d also come to pick up books by AN Wilson and Alan Bennett.

If you want to make a good impression on a bookseller, I reflected, make sure you’re buying the right kind of books, and nothing says Stud less than either Wilson or Bennett. Psychologists have done the definitive study, and told us what we already knew: books are far more important as accessories than they could ever be as cultural artifacts or, in this electronic age, as repositories of information. What that means is this: you need to be very careful when you’re planning on buying a book, and more careful still if you’re planning on going out in public and pretending to read one. We all know because we did it ourselves when we were young: the fact that I used to swan around Glasgow’s West End carrying Freud’s Interpretation of Dreams and smoking St. Moritz fags (the favoured tab of Bryan Ferry) tells you more than you need to know about my youth.

The aforementioned AN Wilson is quite clearly Out, although Alan Bennett could in some cases be In. Other fogeyish authors like George Orwell and Evelyn Waugh are Out, while Henry Green is so obscure as to be perfectly In. Uber-fogey GK Chesterton is Out, therefore so is his modern-day reincarnation, Stephen Fry. Books by anyone on the TV are Out, as a matter of principle.

Old titles are reliable winners, though not if there’s an adaptation about at the time. So for now there’s no harm in being seen around town with a Trollope, though you’ll come a cropper with Dickens and Austen, since you’ll look as if you’ve been watching screen versions of Bleak House and Pride and Prejudice. As is quite likely to be the case, be honest. Foreign books are always a good bet, which is why my copy of Don Quixote (in the Edith Grossman translation, naturellement) would easily have trumped the bloke in front of me in the queue even without the ponytail. It should go without saying that there’s no need to get carried away and read foreign books in the original Foreign.

Which brings me to mention of Nicola’s Bookshop, just opened in the Rue Stassart near Place Stephanie. The shop is tiny, but has quite the most unusual selection of titles I’ve seen anywhere, arranged not by genre but by continent of origin. And the range of foreign titles translated into English is remarkable, with names such as Bohumil Hrabal, Naguib Mahfouz and Ismael Kadare. I took away a small volume from the little-known Pushkin Press consisting of two exquisite stories by Stefan Zweig, an Austrian Jew who took British citizenship before moving to end his life in Brazil. I know a match-winner when I see one, and no mistake.



May 13, 2008

As a well-known media figure and family man, I am often approached by worried parents who ask me: “How can I tell if my child is a world-famous celebrity?”

The question arises more and more these days, after Naomi Campbell, the supermodel, took Mirror Group newspapers to court to protect her privacy. Similar action has been taken by Michael Douglas and Catherine Zeta-Jones, and they will not be the last. Top stars these days, it seems, don’t want anyone to know.

It didn’t used to be this way: in the past celebrities were open about their fame, and were happy to appear in magazines and on billboards, and invite the public prints into their lovely homes. Now, though, the very cream of the celebrity world are more concerned about their privacy. The result is you may not even be aware someone is a celebrity at all.

It’s hard for parents. In this age of fractured family relationships, parents often don’t know what their children are getting up to. In my day things were simpler. You’d leave school on the Friday, and first thing on Monday morning you’d be walking with your Dad, sandwiches in hand, to start work at the film studio or TV production company where he worked, and where his father before him had worked. Celebrity ran in families: the trade-papers were full of the story when Kirk Douglas took little Michael to his first job on the lot, and when Richard Dimbleby brought young David and Jonathan into work, their overalls all starched and clean, ready for their first shift at the journalistic word-face.

Nowadays it’s all different. And parents are worried their children could be celebrities without their knowledge. So what signs should parents look for? The first thing to point out is that celebrity isn’t in itself something to worry about. Of course, we’ve all heard the stories of hidden offspring emerging from the shadows of the past, bodies found floating in swimming pools, attacks by crazed psychotic fans and illicit love-affairs with the adopted daughters of life-partners. But many celebrities, like Tilda Swinton, Reece Witherspoon and Rene Auberjonois, manage to lead almost normal lives.

The main signs your child may be becoming a celebrity include:

Taking longer than usual to get ready in the morning. Most adolescents become fixated on personal appearance, but this could also be a sign of activity by a hairdresser and makeup artist, and is especially suspicious where boys are concerned. Does your child blow up because you bought shampoo on special at the supermarket? It could be a sign they’re under contract to represent another brand.

Is your child surly and uncooperative? This could be normal teenage rebellion. On the other hand it could be that those little jobs you’re asking them to do are not included in writing in their contract, and they’re holding out for a renegotiation, or more money, or both.

Do strange boys wander out of your daughter’s room in the middle of the night or first thing in the morning? Normally, this is nothing to worry about. But if the boys in question include one or several of the following — Robert De Niro, Daniel Day-Lewis, Liam Neeson or the Gallagher brothers — there could be cause for concern.

Other warning signs to look for: correspondence from expensive plastic surgeons; Max Clifford hanging about the house at all hours; invoices from The Priory celebrity detox clinic; Loyd Grossman wandering about describing the furniture and fittings to a TV camera.

If you have noted any of these warning signs in your teenage child’s behaviour, you need to take action before things get any worse. You may think it’s a phase, part of growing up, but today’s blockbuster movie role or Calvin Klein advertising campaign with photos by Mario Testino could turn rapidly, tomorrow, to appearances on afternoon gameshows like Call my Bluff, or winter seasons in panto with Sir Frank “Gentleman Frank” Bruno.

You need to sit down and talk to your child to nip this dangerous condition in the bud. Have your people call her people and fix up a meeting, before it’s too late.


May 13, 2008

The modern logo was introduced for the 2004 Contest (in Istanbul) to create a consistent visual identity. The host country's flag appears in the heart.Image via Wikipedia

So Germany is not going to withdraw from the Eurovision Song Contest in a fit of pique at being voted into last place with a measly quatre points in Kiev last week.

The mind boggles, it really does. The Big Four Eurovision countries – France, Germany, Spain and the UK – have been whining and crying like despicable sissies since last Saturday just because the rest of Europe thinks their songs were rubbish. Somebody needs to apply to the European Clue Agency for a shipment of clues from the European clue mountain to be delivered to Madrid, London, Bonn and Paris.

There’s not actually a conspiracy at all, though who could blame the thrusting new statelets of Eastern and Central Europe if they did decide to band together? Better than slaughtering each other, surely. I take my conviction from what is probably the only scholarly article on the Eurovision Song Contest, published by Victor Ginsburgh and Abdul Noury of the Centre for Operations Research and Econometrics of the Free University of Brussels in November last year.

Ginsburgh and Noury conclude, “Though the votes cast may appear as resulting from logrolling, we show that they are rather driven by linguistic and cultural proximities between singers and voting countries.” And they go on using mathematical equations that cannot be reproduced on the human keyboard to argue their case: that cultural proximity plays more of a role than politics ever will. Hence, Turkey gives Greece 12 points; Ireland gives the UK eight points. People of similar cultures like each other’s music. People with similar languages are biased in favour of each other when compared with utter gabbling barbarians. Our own Urban Trad were pipped at the post, but they inadvertently hit on the secret with their entry in 2003, by writing the lyrics in a totally made-up language. Now we see why the competition has been littered with hits like Boom Bang-a-Bang, Diggi-Loo-Diggi-Ley, La La La and Ding-a-Dong.

But there’s one important factor our ULB academics have overlooked:

The Eurovision Song Contest forbids people from voting for their own country’s entry. Whatever its justifications, this has two results:

One, a Belgian can’t vote for a Belgian even if you think it’s the best song there is.

Two, the votes from each country’s population (I think only Albania still has a jury as such) all have to go to other countries. What this inevitable means is, that voting bloks within Belgium are competing to maximise their votes for other countries. Expect, therefore, votes from Belgium to go to Turkey, Portugal, Italy and so on, assuming those countries are taking part.

So who voted for Greece? Answer: not the Greeks in Greece, because they’re not allowed to. So it must have been Greeks in other countries (I believe there are one or two) or quite simply fans of the song (the only ones who get the point, let it be said). So does this explain why the UK, France, Germany and Spain came last? Well, ask yourself how may French expats there are living in countries like FYR Macedonia or Latvia. And of those, how many would pick up their phone to register a vote?

I think you see the problem. The Eurovision is like a French presidential election, only the French people can’t vote, and the people of Moldavia, Germany and Ireland can. And then there are complaints when they fail to elect a Frenchman.

So there’s the answer. Be nicer to your immigrants, allochtones, gastarbeiders, whatever you want to call them. If you want to get their votes when May comes around, you’re going to have to be nicer to them the rest of the year. Create some of that all-important cultural proximity.

And if it doesn’t work, and they still won’t vote for you because your entry is pants? Well then get better songs, or at least stop grizzling about it. It’s only a Song Contest, for heaven’s sake, not the bleeding Congress of Vienna. Nobody dies. And nobody, other than the ULB and the EBU and me, even cares.