Sunday, January 25, 2009

Known unknowns

One of the rules that most writers learn is to be very wary of the word "famous". The phrase "the famous actor Judd Nelson" is wrong, goes the logic, because if he is indeed famous, the adjective is pointless, and if he is not famous, it is untrue.

I used to follow this diktat, until I started working in Bangkok. Writers here seem desperately keen on the adjective "renowned", which is really just "famous" with a built-in positive spin. A hotel bar will be proud to present "the renowned jazz saxophonist Wally Schtuppe"; a restaurant will promise diners traditional Thai dancing from "the renowned Hogplum Theatre".

At first I cringed at all this incessant renown; until I worked out what it really meant. You have to understand that Thailand, as a rapidly developing nation, has people in positions of wealth and influence whose parents were rice-picking peasants; it is also home to a great many expatriates who would have led fairly humdrum lives at home, but suddenly find themselves in a lifestyle they might previously only have seen in the pages of Hello magazine. Add to this the overwhelming social pressure, prevalent in many east Asian societies, to maintain face at all times; and you've got a critical mass of people who are suddenly expected to be au fait with fine wine, classical music, designer frocks and all the cultural gewgaws associated with a successful lifestyle.

So what "renowned" means in these cases is an implicit nod to the culturally befuddled: this person is worthwhile, it says; this person's name is worth dropping. And if everybody in Bangkok (or everybody in Bangkok who matters) reads that Wally Schtuppe is renowned, then everyone will believe it. The fact that Wally Schtuppe's been playing bar mitzvahs in suburban Omaha for most of his career is neither here nor there, and certainly not to be mentioned in polite society.

Of course, once you leave Bangkok and start raving about Wally, and the Hogplums, and the renowned modern artist Cornelius Ding, and the renowned post-fusion tapas chef Mimosa Pondicherry, you're on risky territory. You might be exposed as someone who knows nothing about jazz or dance or art or food, beyond what you read in a fawning advertorial in a free magazine in Starbucks at Central Chidlom. On the other hand, you might discover that your new friends in London or New York know bugger-all either, and they'll start hymning these people's praises too, just as art critics began fawning over the entirely invented Nat Tate. And from such combinations of chance and embarrassment are lasting reputations made.

(All names changed to protect the irrelevant.)


Valerie said...

The same might be true of all of America's thousands of "world famous hamburger" (or hot dog) stands... except the chance of lasting reputation is lower, and the chance of exposure as a fool higher. I think.

Billy said...

A friend of mine once described something or someone has being "known for being infamous amongst the people of Bournemouth".

I thought this was a hilarious piece of nonsense and dutifully used variations on it as often as possible.

Until I was at home for Christmas and used it, only for my dad to say sniffly "That's a tautology".

Tim F said...

Surely that's just like the World Series, Valerie?

That's pretty cool, Billy. I was once informed that "every sixth-former in Dorset thinks you're God", which was nice.

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