To Lewinksy Last Wednesday, fresh off the jet from Paris, I attended a lunch at the Yale club given by Christopher Ruddy, editor of NewsMax.com, for its first anniversary. It was a pleasant and rather good lunch?I am a big fan of NewsMax?postprandially followed by the main speaker, Ed Koch.
I will not bore you with Ed Koch. He's a man whose idea of being forced to commit an unnatural act is to keep his mouth shut. Needless to say, he committed a nonstop (45-minute) unnatural act following lunch, and it was all about what an absolute shit Rudy Giuliani is.
Mind you, it's his right and all that, but how Captain Ahabish can one get? According to Koch, he (Ed) saved the city and now Rudy is taking it down the Swanee. He listed everything that's wrong with the Big Bagel, and blamed it all on the incumbent. He even said that the drop in crime had nothing to do with zero tolerance, but only helped the rich. (I see: 99.9 percent of the victims of crime, who happen to be the black and the poor, are rich.) When Tom Lipscomb, a respected publisher and a very congenial fellow, asked him a question that didn't catch his fancy, he didn't even wait for Tom to finish. "Next question!"
As a first-time guest I didn't wish to be rude, so I stayed quiet (well, almost quiet) even when Koch pronounced that "Giuliani has too much baggage to win next year, whereas Hillary does not." This coming from a man who cheerfully bragged to us how he posed with race-baiter Al Sharpton for the cover of a downtown rag.
When the walls began to grow hairs, he finally stepped down. The crowd loved him. He came off as a great man thrown out of office by an ignorant electorate manipulated by jealous opponents?a modern Coriolanus.
In other words, a victim. Which brings me to the point I wish to make. That same morning, on my way in from Kennedy, I had burst out laughing at something I read in the Post. Bernard Lewinsky, father of you know who, is demanding an apology from NBC and the producers of Law & Order for using his last name as a term for oral sex. Although bragging is not on, I'm afraid it was the poor little Greek boy who first coined "Lewinsky" as a verb back in January of 1998, in the very elegant pages of London's Spectator. Bernard Lewinsky is claiming victimhood because refined people, and there are very few of us left, are using the term Lewinsky instead of you know what.
NBC and the rest of the networks have a lot to answer for, but not in this case. In fact, I, too, feel like a victim of neglect. Old Bernie should sue me, who started it, not NBC.
On a more serious tone, Andrew Goldstein's lawyers?he is the man they claim is schizophrenic, and who has admitted pushing Kendra Webdale in front of a subway train in Manhattan last January?are planning to use the broad loophole of insanity, the time-honored way to sway naive juries into allowing murderers to get away with it. Don't get me wrong. I'm not for a moment suggesting Goldstein is not disturbed. He is. What I'm suggesting is that he will get away with it because "the culture" dictates he should.
Let me explain. When I was growing up, seeing soldiers return from combat after terrible ordeals was like listening nowadays to athletes describe a long and violent football game. "It was hell out there..."?that sort of thing. Then they went on about their everyday lives. No longer. Just before the Gulf War I was struck to read that counselors in various hospitals were being mobilized to do their stuff on returning soldiers. The counselors talked with lugubrious satisfaction about the terrible psychological symptoms the soldiers were likely to suffer from?now get this?in the absence of counseling. Watching some of these clowns (the counselors) on the telly I got the impression they needed their putative victims more than the military ones needed the clowns.
Psychology has sure changed. Now, instead of it being a respectable academic discipline, it has been transformed into an industry full of hucksters eager to sell its product, a product of dubious value at best, positively harmful at worst. Psychology today promises cures so fraudulent, they require yet more assistance from you know who as a result. This, needless to say, makes every form of discontent a disease requiring treatment. Not only does it undermine man's capacity to overcome adversity, it turns all unpleasant things?like the loss of a dog, or the burglary of one's house?into an emotional catastrophe unless dealt with by a professional.
Alas, the clowns have been let in, and they've had terrific success in peddling this tomfoolery to society. We are now all victims of something?including Koch, Lewinsky and Taki?thanks to the clowns. For example: Jim Brown, the Cleveland Browns great running back, regularly beats up women. His counselor's defense, I am sure, is that Brown suffers from "battering man syndrome," whatever that is. He is a victim, just as O.J. was and is.
If the problem were not as acute as it is, I'd be laughing as hard as I did about Bernard Lewinsky's lament. Because what is really happening is that, as psychology is powerless to alter people's behavior, the false promise it holds out actually promotes that behavior. When three enormous Afro-Caribbeans attacked me four years ago in London, the police, instead of trying to bring the perpetrators to justice, spent their time offering me "victim support"; again, whatever that is. (I didn't win, but I gave almost as good as I got.) Koch should shut up, Lewinsky should stop trying to get on the front pages and poor little Taki should stop feeling sorry for myself because I'm not as widely known as NBC.
Toby Young ARRIVISTE
The X-Factor I've always been fascinated by what it is that makes a boite hot. In the West Village, where I live, a new lounge opens every week, yet only a lucky few will acquire that magical imprimatur that will guarantee their survival. To the untrained eye, all these bar/restaurants look identical, but some sizzle while others fizzle and, believe me, it's not reducible to anything as straightforward as value for money. For any social anthropologist wishing to understand the crucial role that buzz plays in dictating consumer behavior, New York's constantly changing lounge scene would make a classic case study. Who knows, perhaps Tim and Nina Zagat will endow a chair in boite studies at NYU.
The first question the Zagat Professor of Boiteology should ask is this: Is good buzz something that can be manufactured, or does it depend on a mysterious "X-factor"? The cynical view is that it's entirely the product of hype. All a smart restaurateur has to do is nail down the three basics?location, location, location?then hire a good publicist. Once, say, Lizzie Grubman is on the case, it's only a matter of time before your boite becomes hot.
The trouble with this is it assumes that a new lounge only has to be described as "hip" or "happening" on "Page Six" in order to become so. To don my professorial robes for a moment, I'd say this is a necessary but insufficient condition for acquiring a cool reputation. Of course, a good publicist doesn't simply place items in the New York Post. Lizzie Grubman has various tame celebrities in her Palm Pilot?being the daughter of Madonna's lawyer doesn't hurt?and she helped to transform Moomba into last year's most fashionable nightspot by persuading Leonardo DiCaprio and his posse to become regulars.
But, clearly, there's only so much a publicist can do. Another key player in this arena is the booker, the person responsible for booking events at the venue in question. The booker at Fressen, for instance, a hot new bar/restaurant on W. 13th St., managed to generate some good buzz earlier this year by persuading Kate Betts to hold a party there to celebrate her appointment as the editor-in-chief of Harper's Bazaar.
Nevertheless, all of the above fall under the heading of hype. Is this sufficient to create the kind of heat that a new bar/restaurant requires to burn a hole on the radar screen, or do other factors come into play? When I put this question to Doug Dechert, a publicist whose clients include Veruka, Ohm, P.J. Clarke's, Session 73 and Hush, he distinguished between "hype" and "publicity," claiming that a good publicist draws the press's attention to a place's "intrinsic merits," such as the food, decor and service. "Hype is more ephemeral than publicity," he contended. "Hype is more like spin."
I'm sure there's a grain of truth in this, but, to my jaded ears, it sounded like he was simply spinning his own trade. After all, even a bad publicist wouldn't neglect to point out a bar/restaurant's "intrinsic merits." In any case, being a good publicist, Doug Dechert was soon indulging in some hype of his own. "It helps that the owner of Hush, Steve Steckel, used to be a doorman at Studio 54," he told me. "In this city, that's like having been at the Last Supper."
The view of the various publicists I spoke to was that, while in general they play a huge part in generating good buzz, in the case of the particular bar/restaurants they were lucky enough to be associated with, it all came down to their "intrinsic merits."
Evidently, part of being a good publicist is persuading journalists that your clients haven't benefited in any way from your mastery of the black arts; they would have thrived even without your help. (Presumably, they tell a different story to their clients.) The problem is, it's clear to everyone, even "civilians," to use Doug Dechert's phrase, that becoming flavor of the month depends on much more than just the food. Such things as space, decor and staff are important, but they're hardly sufficient to create good buzz. If the publicists aren't responsible, who is?
The obvious answer is the Zeitgeist. The romantic, noncynical view is that some lounges just succeed in capturing the Zeitgeist and it's this, more than anything else, that accounts for their heat. Certain bar owners/restaurateurs, by some happy quirk of fate, just happen to get everything right: the right location, the right decorator, the right maitre d'. It's all a question of timing. Think of Indochine, Odeon and Balthazar?each perfectly expressive of a particular moment. This is the "X-factor."
But wait a minute. Weren't Indochine, Odeon and Balthazar all started by Keith McNally? Surely, conveying the impression that you've bottled the Zeitgeist is the biggest conjuring trick of all. I spoke to the wily cockney as he was plotting next month's launch of Pastis, his new bar/restaurant on Little W. 12th St. Obviously, the master poker player wouldn't completely show his hand, but he did reveal one of the aces up his sleeve.
"One of the things I always tell my staff," he said, "is no matter who comes in, or what people write about the place, it's essential that nobody thinks that the place is fashionable. The last thing I want is for the staff, whether it's me or anybody else, to somehow be under the impression that we're fashionable."
Aha! Counter-programming! If you're going to make your boite hot, it's essential that you appear not to be trying. The skilled restaurateur must give the impression that, outside the kitchen, heat is the last thing he wants; that the Zeitgeist?front and center at the high-visibility booth?is an unwanted guest. Of course good buzz can be manufactured?was it ever in any doubt??but in order to generate it successfully you have to give the impression that it's completely organic. "You have to pretend not to manufacture it," admitted McNally.
This was confirmed by Jared Paul Stern, the New York Post's trendspotter-in-chief. He said that, to impress him, a new bar/restaurant must convince him it doesn't want his blessing. "If it's a little difficult for me to get a reservation at a new place," he confessed, "I think, 'Hey, this place must be cool.'"
The secret, then, to becoming the hot boite of the moment is that, in addition to getting all the details right, you have to make people think that you're avoiding the spotlight; that somehow the secret has got out in spite of your efforts to keep it quiet. A brilliant restaurateur will convince people like me that he doesn't want them to write about it, that far from being responsible for creating a place's good buzz, he's desperately trying to suppress it. "I don't use publicists," sniffed Keith McNally.
Oh shit. Maybe I shouldn't have mentioned Pastis. Sorry, Keith me old China. I just hope I can still get a table.
George Szamuely THE BUNKER
Thank God For the Republicans! If ever a treaty deserved to go down, it was the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. The objection to it is not that the United States would no longer be able to possess whatever weapons it wanted in its armory. It is that there is something profoundly wrong about trying to limit the nuclear club to a handful of supposedly responsible states. After the demented destruction of civilian life in Yugoslavia, only a fool would put his trust in U.S. professions of good faith and reticence about resorting to extreme violence.
The patent dishonesty of the Treaty was apparent in the arguments of its champions. We were told that because of the ban on tests no state other than one of the club of five would be able to acquire nuclear weapons. "Unless proliferators are able to test their devices, they can never be sure that any new weapon they design or build is safe and will work," announced Tony Blair, Gerhard Schroeder and Jacques Chirac in an excruciatingly self-important article in The New York Times.
However, it turns out that the restriction on tests would not really apply to the United States. Americans apparently have this terrific computer capability that enables them to go on testing, but without making use of nuclear devices. In other words, Americans could go on testing and also claim that they were not really testing.
The Treaty was thus yet another instance of international law that applies to everyone but the United States.
President Jiang Zemin of China expressed the concern of many when he pointed out that "Disarmament should not become a tool for stronger nations to control weaker ones, still less should it be an instrument for a handful of countries to optimize their armament in order to seek unilateral security superiority." The argument in favor of limiting nuclear weapons to a handful of states has lost its validity, if it ever had it. Countries will want to acquire nuclear weapons for the same reason that Americans came to rely on them. It is the best and cheapest form of defense money can buy. If you have nuclear weapons no one messes with you. If Sudan had had nuclear weapons it would still have a pharmaceutical factory today. If the Serbs had nuclear weapons Belgrade would still be intact and cargo ships would still be happily cruising along the Danube. If Indonesians had had nuclear weapons there would be no Australians strutting around in East Timor. (Australians have no nuclear weapons, but have a security arrangement with a power that does.)
There is no evidence whatsoever that there exist certain countries that are inherently more "responsible" than others and can therefore be trusted to use nuclear weapons wisely. The only country in the world that has ever used nuclear weapons is the United States. It was the first country to build them. And the moment they were ready they were in use. If the bombs had been ready a few months earlier the Germans would also have gotten clobbered with them. If more than two bombs had been available in August 1945, other Japanese cities would have been hit. Our much-touted "responsibility" came only after other powers started acquiring nuclear weapons.
Ask yourself: Would the United States have gone on fighting for three years in Korea without resorting to nuclear weapons if there had been no threat of retaliation from the Soviet Union? Would the United States have accepted defeat in Vietnam while there remained the possibility of resolving things swiftly by the dropping of a few H-bombs? Resorting to nuclear weapons is particularly tempting to powers that enjoy a vast technological superiority over others and are extremely reluctant to take any casualties. Obviously, it is the threat of getting hit oneself, not some inherent "responsibility," that prevents nations from letting fly. Even in the throes of the Cultural Revolution, Mao's China was not about to do anything crazy with nuclear weapons.
Ah! But what about the so-called "rogue states"? Would it not be the end of civilization as we know it the moment they got their hands on nuclear weapons? Possibly. However, all the evidence suggests that the "rogue states" are nothing if not shrewd in the way they juggle their few resources to acquire greater standing in the world than they would have were they to go down the approved U.S. government-IMF-World Bank path. In repeatedly threatening to develop a nuclear capability, North Korea, for instance, has very skillfully blackmailed the United States into making all sorts of concessions. It received a commitment to help to build a nuclear reactor as well as a promise to lift economic sanctions. Iraq?yet another one of the rogue states?is also far from displaying pathological symptoms. Saddam used SCUD missiles during the Gulf War in the hope of provoking an Israeli retaliation, thereby breaking up the coalition arrayed against him. The ploy failed, but it was a gamble worth taking. On the other hand, packing chemical and biological warheads on those missiles would definitely not have been a gamble worth taking. American retaliation would have been swift and devastating. Saddam wisely avoided going down that path.
According to Chirac, Blair and Schroeder: "As we look to the next century, our greatest concern is proliferation of weapons of mass destruction? We have to face the stark truth that nuclear proliferation remains the major threat to world safety."
Now, Messrs. Clinton, Schroeder, Blair and Chirac have been doing plenty of mass destruction themselves lately. It is hard to see who today poses a greater threat to "world safety" than this bunch of feebleminded politicians animated by the insipid "Blair Doctrine." The Blair Doctrine, enunciated earlier this year, holds that there exists a right of humanitarian intervention anywhere in the world. This right, however, is to be exclusively exercised by powers equipped with nuclear weapons. And it is to be exercised against powers not equipped with nuclear weapons.
This right, moreover, is to be exercised in a distinctly nonhumanitarian way. There is something nauseatingly hypocritical about nations that are fully stocked up with nuclear weapons lecturing others on the horrors of weapons of mass destruction. Shortly after India and Pakistan conducted their nuclear tests in 1998, the hideous harridan of Foggy Bottom read the riot act to both countries: "[A] nuclear exchange of even a limited nature would kill not thousands, but millions? Each faces the risk of nuclear missiles being pointed at their cities." Pointing nuclear missiles at cities! What kind of barbarian would do a thing like that?
Moreover, India and Pakistan had so much to look forward to had they eschewed the nuclear option. Why, only "a month ago," she lamented at the time, "India and Pakistan could look forward to improved relations with the United States and other major powers; to steadily increasing outside investment and beneficial trade? Today, those prospects have been demolished." That nations may have interests other than enjoying "improved relations with the United States" is a notion too complex for her to grasp.
Shortly after the tests, the Indian government announced, "[T]he pursuit of non-proliferation in an arbitrary selective regional context remains the fundamental flaw in the global nuclear disarmament regime. The Government of India cannot consider any prescriptions which have the effect of undermining India's independent decision making."
Exactly. This is why neither India nor Pakistan bothered to sign the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. The two countries want what other powers want: respect and the certainty that they will not be subjected to the depredations of self-righteous aggressors.
Sam Schulman HAMLET
Madeleine at Lenin's Tomb Madeleine Albright is back at work. She's been lobbying officials of the European Union to withhold fuel oil shipments even to constituencies in Serbia that are governed by anti-Milosevic politicians. Her theory is that a cold and miserable civilian populace will deliver the villain to foreign justice more willingly than a warm and comfy one would.
There are several problems with Albright's scheme. The first is that it has often been tried and it has never worked. In fact, the opposite is more usually the case?only when your belly is full can you concern yourself with right and wrong, as the morally repulsive but well-fed Brecht said so often. Albright's strategy is really a continuation of the thinking that lead to the unnecessary, disastrous and idiotic war itself. The Yugoslav war?causing thousands of pointless civilian deaths, dispossessing nearly a million people temporarily, another hundred thousand forever, and forcing NATO troops to stand by and watch the KLA rid Kosovo systematically of its native Serbs?was conducted almost entirely against civilian targets. Milosevic's army was virtually untouched. The same can't be said for civilian Serbia. The result of the air war was nil: Gen. Mike Jackson has declared that only Russian intervention brought the "war against ethnic cleansing" to an end?whereupon ethnic cleansing began in earnest.
What failed during the war, Albright reasons, will work now. So far it hasn't. In fact, just last week, the EU's attempt to strengthen the "democratic" opposition to Milosevic backfired, embarrassing opposition leaders by making them look like "pro-Western puppets." Why bother to oppose Milosevic if you'll be just as cold when winter comes?
Then there's the dirty provenance of this idea. Though no Marxist will admit it, the tactic comes from a persistent strain in Communist thought: the worse the better. The more suffering among the masses, the sooner revolution will come. Sometimes the notion is credited to Lenin, at other times to Stalin or Trotsky, but every faction has advocated it at one time or another, since it fits so well into notions of historical inevitability. Even today, among the Yugoslav left opposition, there are those who believe in its power. A Serbian politician called Vladan Batic told the Suddeutsche Zeitung in August that making civilians suffer is good for democracy: "We want to increase social tensions. We can then canalise them into political demands." This is an old dream that has never worked, it's not working now and is likely to bring the opposition into disrepute.
And then there's law and common decency. This administration believes in international law, even when it is hypocritical or disadvantageous to our national interest, like the nuclear test ban and ABM treaties. (Of course our National Security Adviser doesn't believe in nations, as he'll tell anyone who will listen.) But the U.S. abides by the 1977 Protocol Additional to the Geneva Convention. And while this document is full of quaint fancy?can you imagine that the U.S. is obliged to forswear the "use of force against the sovereignty, territorial integrity or political independence of any State"??we are supposed to live under its provisions. These include Article 51, which declares that civilians should not be targeted, even incidentally, by military operations, and Article 55, which suggests that civilians should not be starved or harmed and civilian facilities not be destroyed.
The Clinton administration has harmed a lot of people, but usually has done so with precision in the pursuit of some selfish end. Those who've been hurt have put themselves in harm's way, usually by the desire to be a public servant or in some other way to help the Clintons. Albright, like Lenin, targets not individuals but classes of people. Her methods are about as refined as those of the KLA mob in Pristina last week who chose their victim by asking him the time. Because the American UN aid worker answered in his carefully learned Serbo-Croat, he was identified as a member of a class that deserved only liquidation.
The Serbs are in the same boat in Albright's eyes?innocent or guilty, there's no escape from the Secretary of State's notion of justice. One tries to use words carefully, but I can't think of a person in public life in the West who so thoroughly combines wickedness and incompetence, who has caused so much immediate harm, and on so many continents has set so much long-term mischief in train. Wouldn't it be nice if the people so upset about the Brooklyn Museum affair turned their attention to the crime she's now urging in our names?
John O'Sullivan Traveling Light
Nothing Like a Dame Rule Number Five in any sensible life would be: "Never take a front-row seat at any performance given by the Great Australian Housewife-Superstar, Dame Edna Everage." Dame Edna?for those who have missed the news from the Booth Theater on W. 45th St., where Dame Edna?the Royal Tour opened officially on Oct. 17?is the sacred suburban monster from Melbourne, Australia, who delivers a fusillade of barbed social commentaries, both on modern life in general and on members of the audience in particular, in tones of motherly hostility as her diamante-encrusted spectacles glint maliciously and rake the stalls for further victims.
The evening's entertainment is usually described as a one-man show?the one man being Barry Humphries, both the creator of Dame Edna and the occupant of her glamorous gowns. But the description is questionable on grounds that have nothing to do with anything questionable. In the first place, Dame Edna conscripts members of the audience into the show so that shy people find themselves tempted onto the stage and into describing their bathrooms by the Dame's concerned but relentless inquiries. Very occasionally, one of them bests her in debate, usually accidentally, but this merely sets up the scenario for a savage act of vengeance. In Housewife-Superstar! in 70s London, one young woman was asked if she had come up to town from Surbiton especially to see the show. "No," she replied innocently, eliciting a scowl from Dame Edna and bringing the house down. An hour later, when we had all forgotten the exchange, the Dame got onto the topic of sex shops. Were there, she wondered idly, any sex shops in Surbiton? Again, the young woman gave an innocent "No." "Hence your visit to town no doubt," said Mrs. Everage, like Hitler overrunning Poland.
Nor is Dame Edna Mr. Humphries' sole invention. His creatures also include the beer-stained and magnificently vulgar Sir Les Patterson, Australia's cultural attache to the Court of St. James, and Sandy Stone, a decent ordinary Australian who struggles to get through life without complaining; in some sketches Sandy is deceased, and in others "in Western Australia."
Sir Les is a brilliant satirical creation. But both Sandy and Edna have escaped mere caricature. Sandy, who began as a surrealist device?simply a dull Australian voice listing Melbourne place names and advertising slogans from Humphries' youth, in a monologue that ought to be boring but in fact achieves a weird poetic force?has gradually acquired fully human status, even as he metamorphoses into a ghost. The mark of Sandy is that he never complains?except when he regrets dying on the morning he did because he had been intending to defrost the fridge that afternoon. Still, we learn from his monologues that, even more than Chekhov's character in The Evils of Tobacco, he leads a life of unacknowledged desperation. Clive James has said of Humphries' creatures that "to Sandy, and to Sandy alone, he is just." And as a result Sandy Stone has quietly ambled from surrealism and satire into tragicomedy.
Dame Edna, however, has leapt nimbly out of satire into stardom, first in Australia in the 1960s, then in Britain in the 1970s and finally in New York in the 1990s. Earlier forays into New York foundered on the novelty of Dame Edna as both a genre and a figure hovering between fact and fiction. Was this a drag show? Well, no, not in any usual sense. Was Dame Edna a fictional creation? More than that, surely. A real person, then? Well, almost, at least by now. Worse than that? Yes, maybe a monster from the Id.
Since those earlier visits, Humphries and Dame Edna have become better known in America because Dame Edna's chat show has been shown on public television, accustoming American audiences to the absurdist notion of a fictional celebrity interviewing real ones, sometimes brutally. "You might work that up into quite a nice little anecdote," he told Jeffrey Archer just in time to prevent the novelist's story from reaching its punchline.
Now Dame Edna is again treading the boards on Broadway, giving New Yorkers a last chance to redeem their reputation for sophistication. It is hard to dissect the influences that have gone into Edna's personality, because that personality has since grown to demonic proportions. She began life as a caricature of the kind of suburban snobbery recognizable everywhere. Some of her best lines are probably borrowed from Humphries' own mother who, in his autobiography More, Please, a surprisingly dark book, emerges as a strong-minded woman skilled at conveying genteel prejudices through a series of verbal codes. Above all, she embodied the Australian search for respectability in the nervously self-conscious form found in frontier societies.
Today, however, Edna has left behind her origins. She has risen above respectability and is into fame, money and power. She can see into our souls like Padre Pio, but she uses the information found there like an advertising copywriter who is marketing a new deodorant. Barry Humphries must sometimes fear that the last act may take place in the Bates Motel.
Giles Auty THE SINGULAR EYE
Tycoon's Buzz or Just Dung-Ho? Just when you probably prayed you had heard the last about "Sensation"?for a blessed moment, at least?I fear I must weigh in with a final paragraph or two. I have just learned, to my acute dismay, that the whole "Sensation" shebang is traveling on to the National Gallery of Australia in Canberra. Escape from Charlie Saatchi and his cohorts is clearly impossible wherever one finds oneself.
Indeed, when news first broke here about the effects of "Sensation" upon the citizenry of New York, I found myself in Cooktown, some 1500 miles north of Sydney, a small settlement accessible only by light aircraft or dirt roads. Cooktown had recently experienced a minor sensation of its own, of a kind not unknown in those parts, when a crocodile mistook the dog of a well-loved local character for its morning snack. The ensuing battle took place at the back of the local premises of the Returned Servicemen's League, as banal a setting as you could probably find for an epic encounter of this kind. The final result? Local citizen and canine 1, local crocodile 0?although the dog did require some 110 stitches.
The point I am wishing to make is that if some local artist had managed to make a video of this heart-tugging event, had labeled this Performance Art and flogged it to Charles Saatchi, it would have made the sensational pretensions of most of that advertising tycoon's artists seem very small beer indeed. Real life is like that. Yet one of the major claims made by those who promote shows such as "Sensation" is that they cause the rest of us to think?in fact, that precise claim has just been made on Australian television by a goofy academic. I longed for the presenter of this early morning show to explain to said academic that she had frequently thought already. It is one of the more unbearable of the cliches regularly trotted out in defense of shows like "Sensation." In fact, the goofy academic probably presupposed that everyone else is much like her, with not too much happening in their lives other than the loss of an occasional paper clip in the cultural studies department of the local university.
In the meantime, real things are happening to real people. That is what I want to yell at such people. Young Aussie soldiers are getting shot at not far from these shores in East Timor, and crocs are endeavoring to eat canines by the banks of the Endeavour River, so named after the sturdy ship of Captain Cook was beached there during his 1768 expedition. With the aid of a telescope and a stiff walk up a local hill, the globe-trotting captain managed to discover an exit to the ocean through the threatening circle of local reefs. Real life again.
I have known Charles Saatchi?and of his aspirations to be an art collector of consequence?for many years now. I know many of the works in "Sensation" and a number of the artists who made them. In rural Australia, the latter group might easily find itself labeled as "a bunch of bludgers"?folk who do little useful work yet contrive somehow to make a handsome living. Some may even believe this last to be an apt description also of ad men, public relations personnel and others of such ilk. Before Saatchi married his first wife, former American advertising copywriter Doris, I am assured he collected nothing more sensational than unusual bus tickets. I was once invited to dinner by Doris at the former matrimonial home, but became seriously confused by whether a certain long low object was a radiator, a work of art or?as it turned out?a bench. All the other male dinner guests wore shiny suits, with shirts buttoned to the neck but no ties. I might as well have landed among visitors from another planet.
You may gather I have no great respect for advertising people. However, in Charlie Saatchi's own defense he is a half-decent tennis player, hitting big table-tennis forehands and delivering a flat, hammer service with a frying-pan grip. I played with him occasionally in London at the Vanderbilt Club, where those who cannot get membership to Queen's are forced to play their tennis. Unlike most rich businessmen with whom I have played, he was meticulous about his line calls.
When I last saw Chas, he had developed a belated passion for go-karting, a fairly unlikely-seeming pursuit in one with intellectual pretensions, and somewhat unseemly perhaps for someone of his age. The question that most exercises my mind now is why anyone cares a fig for Saatchi's intellectual pretensions or gives a rat's arse?another Australianism?for what kind of silly art he chooses to collect. If Saatchi had any real sensitivity at all he would have given up collecting for good after the piece I wrote about his habit, "Tycoon's Buzz," appeared in The Spectator of April 4, 1992.
Already all the tedious, tendentious arguments about "Sensation" are being aired in the Australian press and tv, long before the show itself arrives next June. Is Chris Ofili's black madonna with off-color collages and the ordure of an elephant sacrilegious, sensationalist or just dung-ho? Far from provoking genuine thought, this whole hyped-up affair may yet bring us all to an early grave simply from boredom.