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October 04, 2006

Harry Phibbs asks, did Malcolm Rifkind have a knife fighting youth? Overexposure - Hugo Rifkind

Posted by Harry Phibbs

by Hugo Rifkind
London: Canongate, 2006
Paperback, 9.99

It's most inconsiderate to be famous and have children. I found it enormously distracting reading this first novel being aware that Hugo Rifkind's father is the former Foreign Secretary Malcolm. I kept wondering to what extent the main character, Mac, is Hugo - and thus the main character's father is Malcolm? Mac is told that his father fought off a gang of anti-semitic thugs attacking his family home in Edinburgh in the 1950s. Mac's father used a skian dhu, while his grandfather father used a claymore. Mac reflects to himself:

Excuse me, but what? My dad and grandpa fighting off louts with swords in the 1950s? How cool is this? It's like something out of The Godfather. To be honest, though, I take it with a pinch of salt. As far as I have ever been aware, I absolutely do not come from this type of family. I am respectable. My dad isn't a knife wielding psycho. He's an accountant, and on the board of his company. He's called Peter and he's a dad. Imagine your own bloody dad having "stuck a laddie or two". Can you? If you can, your dad is nothing like mine. I don't think Mad Old Graham was making it up though. I just wish I could get my dad to talk about it.
We all wish we could get Sir Malcolm Rifkind to talk about his knife fighting youth too. But maybe young Hugo just made it up. It is a novel after all - so that's allowed.

There is plenty of pace. Too much for my taste. I would have preferred more languid cynicism, less tigerish energy. One of the problems is over reliance on swear words. I think here Hugo Rifkind is wanting to prove himself as "edgy" despite his establishment job, a journalist on The Times, and as noted earlier his establishment father. He should be himself. Offer lofty disdain for the world - not pent up aggression. He's no Irvine Welsh.

This novel is a romp. The characters stand out in primary colours. At no stage is there a lull. This is a novel for the airport not the Booker Prize - but so what. I think the problem is not in having produced something lowbrow but in the sense one gets reading it that he has been consciously dumbing down - that he is too intelligent to have written this book. Thus it rings a bit false. With Jilly Cooper and Jeffrey Archer what you see is what you get.

The novel's main theme is the vacuous nature of the modern preoccupation with celebrity. Rifkind is himself an example of this, writing the People gossip column for The Times, a paper that a few years ago would not have had such a slot. In the novel the names of real celebrities are mixed in with invented names - appropriate enough given the winner of Celebrity Big Brother was a non celebrity.

Rifkind describes the hero's strategy for attending a celebrity party - after getting a Red Bull and vodka from the bar:

Thus armed I mingle slipping through the sea of fame and semi-fame as though I actually have somewhere to go on the other side of it. This also works well - little asides and half conversations make celebs much less suspicious than actually pinning them down in a corner and subjecting them to interrogation. So I pass comment on Emma Bunton's necklace and I give Kym Marsh an ashtray in which to stub her cigarette. I laugh at something scathing the artist Alice Caligula says to Kae (or possibly Dinos) Chapman. I even (and I'm proud of this one) tell Martine McCutcheon that I spoke to Barbara Windsor the day before (I didn't) and she said to pass on her regards (she wouldn't). I mingle, I fit in. It's what I do. The wonderful thing in such situations is that, if people think they should know you, they invariably assume they do.
The truth in such situations is far more mundane, incidentally. Celebrities want publicity. They like being pinned down in a corner and interrogated. They become suspicious when you put your pen and notebook away.

To give the story a theme, there is a thief who attends the PR events where publicity seeking celebrities flock. The hero, the louche and disorganised journalist Macaulay Lewis, attends show business parties on two consecutive evenings when diamonds are stolen. The perpetrator of the offence leaves a calling card with the name Fingers. The hunt for the villain grips the nation. Mayor of London Ken Livingstone expresses the hope that the publicity will promote tourism. Boris Johnson praises Fingers' "Boys Own" audacity. Certainly some of the dialogue is almost comic strip. Mac calls after a policeman who has come offering to share information:

Oi! Plod! You're bluffing.
The thing is our hero is flawed by the celebrity disease himself. He hopes that by catching the thief he will enjoy fame himself. Implausibly given the highly publicised difficulties they have in their love lives, he even imagines that achieving celebrity status for himself will provide him with romantic advantage. Poor fool.

Harry Phibbs is a journalist.

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