By Paris, I can reveal, I mean Miss Paris Hilton, though why should so extraordinary a reminiscence visit me all of a sudden is something of a puzzle. The most likely explanation is that I have gone temporarily soft in the head as a result of reviewing Tina Brown’s biography of the Princess of Wales for Chronicles magazine. The literary editor there should have added me to the milk delivery list, as they used to do in Russia with people who handled hazardous material in weapons laboratories.
Even in some of my saner moments, however, I can detect within myself a tendency of character that transforms me into a kind of Taki of the Gutter. Thus I may be the only writer you will ever read who has met both Paris Hilton and David Frum, a fact I adduce here with neither pride nor shame, merely as evidence of my indiscriminate, some would say alcoholically induced, gregariousness. Miss Hilton I met in Cannes, at a drinks party on a big tugboat by the name of Octopus, which I distinctly remember some people calling a yacht because it belonged to somebody who could afford one. Her journalistic counterpart I knew at university, where Mr Frum already stood out among his peers as a conspicuous toady, a superior liar, and a remarkably naff dresser.
Two Yale Daily News activists, if I my memory of events so distant does not fail me, were out to get me when I ran The Yale Literary Magazine, Mr Frum and another toady called Jacob Levich. The latter, you see, was politically of the Left. This obliged him to cast his toadying to the university administration, which wanted to shut the Lit down, in such terms as these: “This is not ordinary snobbery, it is snobbery of a peculiarly reactionary sort. The Lit is not simply condemning bad verse. What the Lit really objects to is bad verse in the modern idiom.” Mr Frum, by contrast, was a man of the Right, which allowed him to improve on his colleague’s brownnosing along these lines: “The Lit is not reactionary. It is merely bad.” Conservatives, Mr Frum concluded, “are being blamed for magazines like the Lit, and it is very embarrassing.” Perhaps there was a third toady on that team, but I cannot find all the relevant newspaper cuttings just at the moment. In any case, American politics being notoriously bipolar, the ideal of sycophancy was served well enough as it was.
It is this unquenchable appetite for approval that makes Mr Frum a plausible analogue of my Octopus drinking companion, Miss Hilton. The salivary secretions they direct at the media’s nether parts are conceived by them, to quote the title of a mercifully forgotten work by a madman beloved of Tolstoy, as “A Philosophy of the Common Task.” Of the dead, nil nisi bene, but perhaps it may be forgiven me if I hint obliquely that that the biography I have just finished reading records the earthly achievement of an individual who, far more decisively than poor mad old Fedorov, is the original progenitor of this remarkably modern school of philosophy.
“A modest tone is really much the nicest,” Mr Frum lectured the Lit‘s editors. “A truly conservative literary magazine need not exclude the exciting and the innovative.” How uncannily similar this sounds, in retrospect, to the late Queen of People’s Hearts telling an international psychiatry symposium of eight hundred specialists that “a hug is cheap, environmentally friendly and needs minimal instruction.” How like the average hypocrite and babbler, writing in a national newspaper that the British monarchy needs to evolve and change with the times when all he really means is that Buckingham Palace ought to have asked him to the garden party. How like Tina Brown herself, who would have us believe that her subject’s indefatigable brownnosing of the media is an act of revolutionary defiance.
I remember how a journalist known by the nickname of Greenslime—gentle reader, not only have I made friends with Paris Hilton and David Frum, but with Roy Greenslade as well!—was late coming over to dinner at my house in London one night, explaining that he had been detained at an important meeting of the British Republican Society, an organisation he directed. A Russian photographer was one of the twelve to dinner, or maybe it was thirteen, and in his broken English the innocent asked what “republican” meant. Greenslime explained, patiently choosing simple words to covey the meaning of the term as he himself understood it. “Somebody call police,” my benighted guest said after a brief silence. “He want to kill Queen.” Myself no stranger to sycophancy, though strictly in its cravenly domestic or opportunistically social applications, years later I told this story to HRH the Duke of Kent, who at once rewarded me with a top-up of my Negroni.
My repeating it here is a prelude to a confession. I used to be as direct, as intemperate, as “immoderate” as David Frum might say, as my Russian dinner guest, seizing on my opponents” weaknesses, studying their Achilles” heels as if they were prospective scalps, hankering for sanguine revenge and biblical justice. Thus I confess that at some point in my life at Yale I had made a vow, which some years later I came within a hair’s breadth of fulfilling at a Chronicles banquet in Chicago, that should I ever come across David Frum in the flesh, I would dunk his head in the nearest available public toilet. And, if you really want the ugly truth, that Mohawk vow still resounds somewhere within my manly breast.
And yet, after reading the biography of Diana, I realise how much I have mellowed. Human life is so damn complicated, motivations so elusive, explanations in the final analysis so terribly evanescent. One must have a heart of stone, for instance, not to be moved by the convulsive thrashings of a young woman who craves attention, spiralling ever deeper into a public trap of her own making, however destructive her agony might be to the social institutions one admires and values. Similarly, Mr Frum’s salivary exertions, nominally in the service of his country but in all probability directed at securing invitations to Washington garden parties for their author, are moving in their own way, if not to the point of actual tears as in the case of the People’s Princess, then at least to the point of disinterested reflection. And even this perceived disparity is probably due to the fact that a fat man with a natty bow tie appears so much less deserving of sympathy than a slim woman in a sequined cocktail dress by Catherine Walker.
“Wise conservatism,” wrote Mr Frum about himself in fabulously remote 1981, contrasting his own column in a student newspaper with the national magazine I had built from the ground up with my own hands, “prunes the branches to preserve he root.” Doubtless this is just what that other, blonde and willowy, neoconservative began doing in that same year, intent as she was on “reforming” and “healing” the Monarchy as if it were a Rio cokehead about to undergo surgery on her nose, or a Chelsea bulimic beset by “guilt, self-revulsion and low personal esteem.” A question that arises, however, is why this particular therapeutic approach to people and institutions should be regarded as any more inherently “conservative” than the socialism of a Fedorov, the liberalism of a Levich, or the republicanism of a Greenslade.
I can only come to the conclusion that “neoconservatism,” as the intellectual movement in which Mr Frum now plays a leading role is called by some, is fundamentally and quintessentially girlish twaddle, distinguished from that of its svelte Chelsea progenitor merely by the length of the words and the number of historical allusions in its policy statements. Stalin had Marshal Tukhachevsky executed by firing squad because he kept pestering him to build tanks without telling the boss how to build the factories that build them. This is good precedent for all men of good will to cheer wildly at the eventual prospect of my settling old collegiate scores with Mr Frum in a public washroom, but as I say I have mellowed. Like my Sovereign, nowadays I too feel sad at the thought of Princess Diana’s martyrdom to platitude, though thankfully I am not under any political pressure to show it.
Give me time. Like the American public, perhaps one day I shall come to grieve openly for Miss Hilton, blonde and willowy throughout her ordeal. Or was that a neoconservative act of moderate defiance against the third branch of government, reforming and healing in its intent to preserve the roots of American democracy at whatever personal cost?
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