But he was famous long ago
It's Boris Spassky's sixty-ninth birthday today. I saw him on Thursday: he came out of the main hall in my Marianske Lazne hotel and walked right past me in the corridor. From my copy of Dnes the following morning I understood, in so far as my holiday Czech would permit, that he was going to spend his birthday in Karlovy Vary: presumably taking the waters and hoping, like all the other rotund pensioners, that they would somehow roll back his waistline and his years alike.
It's a good way to be a celebrity: to be famous among only a small section of the population, or at least recognisable onto to a few, though your name might be, as Spassky's once was, known across the world. No paparazzi (save the slow-witted English chessplayer photographing you as you descend the stairs) and very little press attention. Just enough, perhaps, to remind you, as you close your seventh decade, that you are remembered: just enough to make you feel good about yourself, feel you made your mark.
But no need to escape the attention, to live behind high walls with security guards. No need to accept the consequences of celebrity, to be greeted by total strangers and expected to be pleased to see them, no need to acknowledge their desires to mak their mark on your life and have them make a mark on yours. No need to be asked for autographs to prove that your path once crossed theirs. The occasional requirement to be applauded at an event which you can choose whether or not to attend: other than that, the open air, the shops, the streets like any other person, away from the insanities of celebrity and its consequences which, almost as much as shopping, define the culture in which we live. A culture of money is one that worships the successful: and because one cannot be successful any more than one can be a saint, we touch the living celebrity just as we used to touch the relics of the sainted dead.
None of that, for Boris Spassky - or just the shadow of it, just enough. None of the fear of being recognised, the persistent fear of lunatics, the constant resentment of intrusion. It is a healthy world, where those who have excelled can mix without discomfort with those who have just watched them and appreciated. Such a state of affairs, of course, depends entirely on those who excel not getting everything they want: upon them not receiving the enormous financial rewards which make a bridgeless separation between them and the community from which they spring.
No doubt the film stars and sportsmen believe that their wealth is, in part at least, a compensation for the fact that they are denied an ordinary life: no doubt that they are, in part at least, quite right to think so, because if people are to be denied that life they they must surely be allowed to live some other way. But it is unquestionably the wealth itself which produces the problem of which they complain: the cult of celebrity and all its attendant phenomena. Nobody bothers the genius who lives in the house next door: only the famous end up, not like the happy Boris Spassky, who could stand in any London street and not be noticed, but like the hapless Bobby Fischer - hiding from the world for half his life, almost as famous for the consequences of fame as he was originally famous for his talent.
You would not think to look at himIt was also, today, another anniversary: another less famous than once it was. Less famous than it ought to be: it is the anniversary of probably the most significant day in all this country's history, a day with greater consequences for politics, government and religion than any other. Yet it is the best-kept secret in England: it is a secret we have hidden from ourselves. It goes uncommemorated: in fact it goes unspoken, undiscovered. Its significance is not known, because its meaning is never debated: its existence is not known because the fact of its happening is never mentioned. Ask people what happened on 30 January - give them even the clue that it is, in your opinion, the most important thing that ever happened in the country's history, and still the answer is not come.
But he was famous long ago
For playing the electric violin
On Desolation Row.
Well, you say, England can be an ignorant country when it comes to history, and few of its people know much more of that history than the date 1066 and the outcome of the War. Maybe so. But I was on a bus through Westminster this morning and I saw the statue of Oliver Cromwell that stands (with much unmentioned irony) outside the House of Commons. It was surrounded by scaffolding, as was much of the building, and the effect was to make the man seem even more hidden, more obscure.
Nobody was taking his picture, nobody was standing on tghe pavement contemplating his monument and its meaning. Nobody, on this anniversary: like Boris Spassky, Cromwell can pass unnoticed on a British street. But Boris Spassky was World Champion, and did play Bobby Fischer. What happened on 30 January really happened. When a tree falls in the forest, though there be no-one there to hear it, it still makes a sound.