Truth or Adair?

If you’re not growing things in Petri dishes, what does ”culture’ actually ; mean these days? Sue Wilson gets the low-down from Gilbert Adair.

"What interests me is not so much the terminals of 3 culture that is to say theatre, cinema, ballet, opera and so on but the currents that flow between them, the forces which turn a book or a film into an event. Because what an event does is produce meanings, generates an understanding of : our cultural environment, even if it’s a photo of Fergie having her toes sucked the photo itself is meaningless. What has turned it into an event tells us something about Britain today, and the least interesting possible response to this is, "Oh, it‘s so trivial, we should be thinking about more ' important things. It seems to me that we have completely altered the way we think about the world, the cultural environment, and this has not been acknowledged in those institutions at the centre of the culture industry, particularly

newspapers and magazines.’ Gilbert Adair’s approach to culture,

encompassing such phenomena as T-shirt slogans, l the names of pop bands, Benetton posters, Disneyland, The Flintstones, BT ads, coffee-table books and farting, may not tally with many dictionary definitions of the word, but it‘s a darned

m :“" g

9 sight more interesting than much ofwhat passes for arts journalism. His thesis, as set out in his new 3 collection of essays and articles The Postmodernist Always Rings Twice, is that culture, in our late-capitalist, media-saturated, instant-communications world, resides less in artefacts than in the collisions and connections

; between the ideas and opinions they spark off.

“Prizes, festivals, magazine profiles,‘ he writes, "newspaper reviews, biographies, bestseller lists, questionnaires, publicised feuds, gala premieres, suits for plagiarism, scandals, personal

: appearances, interviews, obituaries, anthologies,

, manifestos, readings, signing sessions,

Kaleidoscope and The Late Show that,

representing well-nigh everything the purists

I despise as fundamentally inimical to any true

2 culture that is the stuffofwhich contemporary

culture is made.’

On the face ofit, perhaps, not much distinguishes Adair‘s angle from that of other workers in the field, who earn their bread coolly and wittin decoding the multifarious messages fired off in the interchange between cultural

events and cultural participants. There’s a world of


difference, however, between the flip glibness ofa

style-bible arbiter of what’s “happening’, and

Adair‘s conscientious thoughtfulness of approach

and execution. The respect he affords his subject

matter is reflected in the poised, measured

eloquence of his prose style which, such is his

dexterity with language, still allows ample scope

for humour, outrage, humility and a bit ofgood

old-fashioned wonderment, on top ofsome of the

most cogent, humane and illuminating analysis of

contemporary thought-patterns you‘re likely to

i meet. In addition, while he argues that "culture is

: only marginally concerned with judgements‘, he

? remains, unlike too many of his colleagues, clearly

aware that judgements, particularly moral

judgements, have to be made somewhere. Ultimately, Adair’s aim is not to flash off his own

3 superior grasp of the cultural processes he

addresses, but to tease apart their knotty strands

as a way of offering people the tools of

understanding with which to resist and decide for

; themselves in our ever-more manipulative society.

L And, equally important, to share the evident

, enjoyment he gets out of his oblique "knight‘s

? move‘ approach to his subjects. “That‘s why I

; place a certain emphasis on notions of

} gregariousness and gossip. I don‘t despise gossip, l

' think it’s like the air we breathe; ifwe were

deprived of it our lives would be incredibly

impoverished. It’s about the pleasure one gains,

: from all those currents that flow around one, that

one picks up and extends in all sorts of directions; I

j really do think that these make us more informed

i and better people, in a certain sense.‘


i The PostmodernistAlways Rings Twice:

Reflections on Culture in the 903 is published by Fourth Estate at£l4. 99 Gilbert Adair’s third novel, The Death of the Author, has just been published by Heinemann at

_ Sex for sale

Providing sexual humiliation and degradation to businessmen was Mandy Kavanagh’s speciality as a prostitute. In her mid-twenties, it was not her first job, but one which she had chosen tor a strictly defined period. During this time she became the tirst working prostitute who Donald McRae met while researching Nothing Personal, the Business Of Sex. Mandy Kavanagh defies the preconception that all prostitutes are innocent victims, lured into the game oi vice. Her central role in Nothing Personal allows Mciiae to defy most people’s preconceptions about what a book on prostitution should be like. Neither dry social treatise nor lurid tly-on-the wall expose, Nothing Personal is, quite perversely, an intensely personal account of one person’s journey Into the acknowledged, yettaboo, world where men and women pay other men and women to provide them with sexual


lntensely personal, because it is McRae’s thoughts and attitudes which pervade the pages. Yet while his interviewees, gay, straight and bisexual, clients, pimps and prostitutes, parade their sexuality tor the reader, his is never present. ‘I consciously thought I won’t actually talk about my sexuality,’ he says “When i did the interviews i knew that they were going to be done in an intimate

setting where I would be talking to people about the most deeply personal feelings they had.’

A quietly spoken South African evading the draft, McRae decided to write the book after turning down a ghost-writing job for a famous prostitute. ‘The most important thing I had in the back of my mind was that it would have to look at men as well,’ he says. ‘I am not a prostitute and lam not a client, so there was the teeling at the beginning that maybe this was going to be bogus, which is why I did immerse mysell totally. lielt, to get a wider perspective, i had to get the other side, at people who were actually paying money for sex.

‘I never said that this is the definitive book on prostitution, it is my book and it is my ioumey. Obviously the people I have chosen to highlight are people who I was particularly fascinated by. At the same time, although they are unusual people, I think what they are saying echoes in most prostitutes’ lives and hopefully I did manage to move between high class prostitution and down into places like Soho, or the more

archetypal street comers where people are junkies and other more cliched perceptions.’

However, there is a lack of the more cliched side of the business, which accentuates the colour and humour with which Mciiae relates the book, and perhaps opens him up to accusations of romanticising prostitution. it is a charge he refutes, pointing out that he is simply saying that not all prostitutes are people who are in need of help. He does, however, concede that those who do need help would be unlikely to have the time or inclination to be interviewed.

What makes the book really work is that while Mciiae doesn’t judge or preach, it is quite clear whose side he is on. While the clients come across as the pretty sad bunch you would expect, the prostitutes are very matter-oi-tact and down-the-line. As Mciiae points out: ’It takes an exceptional person to deal with prostitution well.’ (Thom ledin)

Nothing Personal: The Business Of Sex is published by Mainstream at £14.99.

The List 11— 24 September 1992 63