Visiting a Royal Horticultural Show – renamed “The Spring Festival” – at Malvern recently, I was struck by how much even the down-to-earth dirt-under-your-fingernails world of gardening has been infected by the cult of Celebrity. The main attractions seemed to be not so much about our ordinary world of gardening, its skills and problems, as entering a marquee to hear television gardeners selling and signing books. Thus we had not only all the Big Name Celebs from the BBC Gardener’s World programme but also various showbiz personalities, pop stars, even a famous ex-cricketer, using the occasion to sell, or endorse, products.
The other trend I noticed was how many of the show gardens were linked to some notion of Charity, the purpose being, presumably, to warm the icy cockles of one’s heart as well as espousing the saintliness of the Celeb concerned. Thus we had Chris Beardshaw’s garden sponsored by Hope for Heroes (war veterans ); many other show gardens were linked to usually medical good causes. One of the most surreal show gardens was promoting sympathy for Alzheimers Sufferers; another garden particularly wasteful of water with its features, falls and rivulets, was drawing our attention to a Charity for providing bore-holes and wells to thirsty Africa. So there you have it,- Celebrity plus Good Causes seems to equal guaranteed Success.
Poetry festivals still mostly feature real poetry readings. At the recent Much Wenlock Festival, I served as attendant/ ticket collector for two days’ worth of events – a cheapskate way of hearing a lot of contemporary poetry. This year I was especially taken by the freshness of two young poets – Jonathan Edwards and Liz Berry – who somehow appear to be unspoilt/uncelebritised by the huge success of their first collections. There was a great deal of interesting poetry of all kinds, from slam to ‘serious poetry’, on offer. But, inevitably perhaps, the main Saturday evening event was headlined by non-poet Celeb, Michael Rosen, well known for his amusing and insightful broadcasting and his children’s books rather than any keen interest in poetry per se.. Again perhaps inevitably he was selling something, – this time his ‘latest’ memoir of a North London upbringing. Even real poets (Simon Armitage springs to mind since I have seen him so often at G.C.S.E. promotions), seem to me to put themselves in danger of becoming attended to for their celebrity status, their media ‘doings’ and performing style, rather than their poetry. At Much Wenlock another senior Name in the poetry world claimed to have nine pints inside him as he rolled up to read in (I thought) a far too casual throwaway manner, playing, or perhaps pretending to play, the old-fashioned role of celebrity semi-drunk. It must be tempting for regular readers on The Circuit to develop a celebrity-style personality. I admire Carol Ann Duffy for appearing not to succumb to celebrity worship, even to the extent of sometimes appearing rather grumpy and reluctant to perform. Gillian Clarke is another who concentrates on projecting her poems rather than selling her Self. Other, perhaps bigger, Literary festivals (Cheltenham is performing as I write, following on as it does from Glastonbury) promote themselves as hosting the starriest –ever galaxy of Big Names for their writer/Celebs. Same old… Same old….
I guess that there have always, even in pre-broadcasting days, been Celebrities, crowd pleasers, Court favourites, great beauties, leaders of fashion in dress or thought… Attractive for what? Youth? Charisma? Charm – that sense of a fellow human being thoroughly confident and at home within their own skin? Outrageousness? ‘Sex appeal? Style? All these and more. Whatever it is that gives certain individuals that ‘X factor’ appeal.
I guess that we have always needed such models of celebrity to emulate or envy. I only hope that the cult of mere celebrity doesn’t spread its lush weediness into my small well-gardened world of real poetry too deeply or profusely. In the end, the poets I most admire, – Chaucer, Shakespeare, Marvell, Emily Dickinson, – have a marvellous way of disappearing into their creations, like the Cheshire Cat behind his smiling..