Ever asked a famous name for their autograph? I have, but not many times. The list of autographs I have is limited to childhood heroes, one turn-of-the 80s pop star and one teenage guitar God – John Noakes, Peter Purves and Lesley Judd; Jon Pertwee; Johnny Ball; Johnny Thunders; Pauline Black; and…yes…Jimmy Savile. That’s it. The signatures of the classic ‘Blue Peter’ line-up were acquired via a letter to the programme’s legendary editor Biddy Baxter in 1977 while Sir Jim’s was acquired for me by my dad at some 70s social function; but I met the rest in person – the two Johnny’s in the 80s, the third Doctor Who not long before he died in the 90s, and the former front-woman with The Selecter just a couple of years ago.
I was reminded of how something so simple once held such kudos when a friend showed me her signed photo of the original ‘Rainbow’ musical threesome Rod, Jane…and Matthew; yes, before Freddy, there was Mr Corbett, doing the harmonies prior to succeeding his old man in sticking his hand up a bear’s backside for a living. For decades, autograph books were the fan’s badge of honour; after the passing of the years and of the stars who signed them, they’d be considered valuable enough to be auctioned as precious memorabilia. The signature of the famous once counted for something, but perhaps it’s apt that the written word no longer has the cache it did.
How many stars have been asked for autographs lately, I wonder? Carrying a pen and a notebook used to be essential if stumbling upon one, as I did with the children’s TV icon Johnny Ball in the late 80s; a quick dash to the nearest WH Smith’s, having spotted Zoe’s dad filming something on the street, was followed by engaging the great man in conversation. He spilled the beans on drug use during the recording of the ‘Play School’ LP ‘Bang on a Drum’ and was happy to sign his name in my hurriedly-purchased notebook. There is one main reason why that incident probably wouldn’t run along the same path today, however, and that is due to the mobile phone and the insidious selfie.
As a product of a here today/gone tomorrow culture in which each must-have object has its built-in obsolescence, the mobile selfie is the perfect successor to the autograph. Fifty years from now, will selfie collections be auctioned off at Christie’s? Will there be a big clamour in 2066 for an image of some anonymous member of the public standing next to some reality TV contest runner-up who few could remember the name of within weeks of their fifteen minutes, let alone decades? Somehow, I can’t really see it. The transient nature of the photo taken on the mobile – often lost as its owner forgets to upload it to a memory stick or if the phone conks out once its twelve-month technology has expired – means, like music on an iPod, it inhabits a cyber universe of permanent impermanence.
There was a non-story online a few days ago concerning some silly cow who leapt on stage during a gig by an obscure punk band in order to take a selfie; one member of the band booted her back in the crowd and is now being condemned for his actions on social media, as though he was the one out-of-order by daring to reject her right to advertise her importance. Keith Richards once famously did something similar when his territory was invaded back in the 80s; a friend’s mum received the same treatment from Pete Townshend when she encroached upon the Who’s turf even further back than that. It’s nothing new in itself, but the addition of the selfie element brings a vacuous narcissism into play that is entirely rooted in the here and now.
Although no longer a gig-goer, I’ve been told that large sections of the audience can’t keep quiet during the songs anymore and spend most of their non-talking time viewing proceedings through a little screen, as though they were watching the performance on TV. Why bother going out if that’s the view you want? I have seen such behaviour at the cinema and the theatre, however, and it almost always comes from the under-40s. Perhaps the consequence of being brought up to believe they were ‘special’ means they think their voice needs to be heard by everyone within a 200-yard radius and their face needs to be seen next to a famous one; both these examples of what is now accepted as normal behaviour in a social scenario reflect just how special they really are.
The selfie can also inhabit a world as repugnant as it is stupid; the recent sickening case of the moronic mobile-waving wankers who descended upon a stranded baby dolphin, passing the poor creature around in order to take selfies of themselves with it resulted in its utterly unnecessary death. One can only imagine what illustrious mementoes of past tragedies would clog up the pages of Instagram had the technology been available at the time; and while we must be thankful for small mercies, there’s no reversing the trend now. It’s too entrenched in what passes for culture in the twenty-first century to change.
Whether Z-list celeb, distressed animal or plane hijacker, capturing someone or something sharing the same space (and celebrating the great event with a gormless gurn while clicking the switch) is the autograph of this era. It’s clearly not enough now to prove one met a household name by producing a scrap of paper bearing their signature; there has to be photographic evidence of the incident. An autograph didn’t require the fan who requested it to sign their name next to that of the star, but by including one’s self in today’s equivalent artefact, there is an implicit moving of the goalposts in the relationship between the two. We are all on the same ‘special’ level now – all in the gutter too busy looking down at a Smartphone to notice the genuine stars above us.
© The Editor