When Penguin published Morrissey's autobiography under its Classics imprint, it sent a seismic shock through the book world.
It was no surprise that a man with such a monstrous ego believed this was the natural home for his work, but that an august firm should bow to his whim and allow itself to be taken hostage by celebrity was profoundly disillusioning. Words matter, and nowhere more than in print. To sully the term classics with a book hot off the press, regardless of whether it was a work of genius (which it's not), was to tarnish the lustre of a once-great British brand.
Worse, though, than seeing Penguin give in to the demands of a superstar, was knowing this was only the latest in a long line of grovelling and demeaning capitulations in recent years across a host of supposedly reputable, responsible institutions.
While Penguin has been shamed by its eagerness to pander to a big name, only its reputation has been badly harmed. What is worrying, however, is recognising that even a company famed for its intellectual heft has fallen prey to a malaise that is fast distorting society. If the likes of Penguin can treat stars as if they are above the rules that govern ordinary mortals, then the idea that we are all equal, no matter who or what we are, is under serious threat.
Not everyone falls at the feet of the famous, of course. An Edinburgh restaurateur I know once chided a woman for moving chairs around his dining room to seat all her friends. "I'm Joni Mitchell", she replied indignantly, as if this was all the justification needed. I cannot repeat the maitre d's reply here, but suffice it to say the diva was obliged to put the chairs back where they belonged, and quickly.
Sadly, such rigour is a rarity, even in a country that relishes keeping people in their place. Judging by our celebrity-obsessed culture, we are surrounded by supposedly intelligent individuals who are not only in awe of pop stars, actors, footballers or TV presenters and their ilk, but bestow on them a wholly unwarranted degree of respect and trust. How else to explain Jimmy Savile blithely talking his way out of police interviews after allegations of abuse, in which his protestations of innocence were given far greater weight than that of his accusers?
The servility with which such stars are treated is deeply disturbing. Savile had only to hint at his willingness to sue for the press pack to shy away, and victims' lawyers to caution against stepping into the dock to denounce a so-called national treasure.
But Savile's is by no means the only such instance and nor, one feels sure, will it be the last. The worlds of sport, music, TV and movies are filled with examples of onlookers turning a blind eye to the excesses or crimes of top performers. So whereas an MSP cannot claim for a few Earl Grey teabags rather than a packet of sawdust without being ridiculed as a spendthrift, the wayward behaviour of celebrities is often cloaked in secrecy and sycophancy. When their every wish is catered for, and their path eased by minders and fixers, it's no wonder many begin to believe they are superior to the rest of humanity and beyond reach of its laws.
More baffling is why the rest of us buy into this belief too. Perhaps, in a secular world, those who inhabit the halls of fame have replaced the ancient gods: rich, glamorous and untouchable. Where once it was teachers, police, priests and politicians who won our unthinking deference, now it's these cat-walk creatures. The adulation kings and queens of old inspired is as nothing to our mass infatuation with celebrity. The influence and reach of the screen and internet has given today's stars a level of power and immunity unthinkable 50 years ago. Those who would reveal their feet of clay, or take them to court, do so knowing a tsunami of public opprobrium and personal humiliation may swiftly follow.
Morrissey's case is minor by comparison with those whose unacceptable behaviour goes unchallenged. Even so, the indulgence he has been shown is a reminder that in certain quarters people seem willing to risk ruining their own reputations simply to keep the famous sweet. That thought makes some of us feel very sour indeed.
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