‘Fame in the modern sense now pollutes every corner of our culture. Without instant name-recognition, you’re just not worth bothering with’

Literature Modern Life Open Season

“Famous,” my first, old-school sub-­editor used to groan when I had ignored her edicts and handed in copy describing someone as the “famous” writer/sportsman/actor. “Either,” she would say, with the strained patience of a primary school teacher, “they are famous, in which case I will know their name already, or they are not. In the first instance, you telling me they are famous is redundant, and in the second it is inaccurate, but in both cases your use of the word is plain wrong.”

Reluctant to follow this admirable logic, for reasons that now seem incomprehensible but must have had something to do with being 21 and imagining I knew better, I tried to dodge it by substituting “well known” or “celebrated”. But each time my typed sheet arrived back (yes, this was 1984 and in the offices of The Tablet, the Catholic weekly that gave me my first job, we were eagerly anticipating the arrival of our first fax machine, a freestanding unit the size of a kitchen cupboard), there was a red line through the offending adjective. Eventually I learnt.

I still think of Margaret Mullen, not just as a way of guarding against sloppy prose, but also to wonder how her rule would cope with today’s army of individuals who are famous/well known/celebrated only for being famous/well known/celebrated. Presumably by refusing to afford them column inches, impeccably logical but probably enough to get her sacked if she hadn’t retired long ago.

Her words have echoed in my ears twice in recent weeks. The first concerned an art exhibition a friend reported visiting, which was described as being by “one of today’s most celebrated artists”. Margaret would have crossed that out. My friend admitted to wanting to shout out: “But is he any good?”

The second involved the poet Elizabeth Jennings. My fellow biographers have described how their next subject somehow emerged naturally out of the book they were just completing. I’ve never found it to be true before – although some critics tried to make lame jokes out of an imagined connection between my life of Lord Longford and the book that followed it, a biography of the Devil — but in the course of researching and writing about C. Day-Lewis, the former Poet Laureate, I came across his correspondence with Jennings, the only woman alongside Philip Larkin, Thom Gunn and Kingsley Amis among the 1950s Movement poets. There is also an unpublished memoir, recording in stark detail the mental breakdown Jennings had in the 1960s which left her, until her death in 2001, living like a bag lady in Oxford.

How about Elizabeth Jennings, I suggested to my agent and a couple of publishers when the conversation turned to a new project. My agent, to his credit, looked embarrassed and said something about the predilections of the current non-fiction market. The publishers were more brutal in their verdict: just not famous enough. This despite Jennings winning popular awards such as the WH Smith Prize in 1987 for her poetry and her leaving us with several famous/well known/celebrated poems. My own favourite is her sad portrait, in One Flesh, of the elderly couple “Lying apart now, each in a separate bed” whom finally she identifies as her own parents – “Whose fire from which I came, has now grown cold.”

It is not, then, achievements that are conspicuously lacking in her case. Or, indeed, a dramatic life. Her life story possesses the same sort of narrative ups and downs that made Shine – Geoffrey Rush’s biopic about the troubled Australian pianist David Helfgott – such a compelling film. No, it is fame in the modern sense that now pollutes every corner of our culture. Without instant and empty name-recognition, you’re just not worth bothering with.

Jennings herself had strong views on the sort of fame to which we are now addicted. When in her 1950s heyday the attention ceased to be about her work and became focused on her, she felt it simply got in the way. She always avoided poetry readings. When fans appeared, seeking her out at the issue desk of the library in Oxford where she worked, it drove her into hiding.

In later life, she avoided interviews wherever possible. If cornered on a park bench or in the greasy spoon café where she worked (J.K. Rowling was not the first), she would direct the conversation away from herself and on to God. Her musings on spirituality and her lifelong search for clarity – “only one thing must be cast out and that is the vague”, she once said – were what principally concerned her.

At a recent books festival event, I was part of a panel of biographers on stage. Who, we were asked, are the subjects waiting to be “done”? Most of the names to emerge were, I’m afraid, the sort of literary celebrities with sufficient quantities of the 21st-century corruption of fame to hook a publisher. It was, we all agreed, a sad state of affairs, and one that meant that engrossing lives of great personal and professional substance were being overlooked – as, indeed, they are in almost every field of human endeavour.