“Charles Saatchi has been one of the leading forces of the modern age” so reads the dust jacket of Babble. The claim may be hyperbolic, but it’s hard to gainsay.
Along with his brother Maurice, Charles Saatchi has founded two ad agencies, which, over the last thirty or so years have done a lot of memorable and not-so memorable work for the world’s biggest brands. That’s before we get to his huge influence on the art world. It’s no exaggeration to say that Charles Saatchi underwrote the YBA movement and the wholesale rejuvenation of British art that followed it. As much as the artworks themselves what made the headlines were the (then) astronomical-seeming sums which Saatchi paid for those Hirsts, Emins and Quinns. But his gamble paid off. He sold that £50,000 shark for around £8m. Today the market follows him so slavishly that he more or less gets to decide whether an artist’s work is valuable or not. Culturally his word is worth a great deal, but can the same be said for his writing?
In fact his books represent a similar kind of economic alchemy. As well as all that art, Saatchi possesses another extremely valuable commodity: name-recognition. That peculiar surname, with its unmistakable double ‘a’ midsection, has been around in the British consciousness for coming up to thirty years. And in this country, where any old nonsense written by a celebrity is saleable, for him not to write a book might start to seem frivolous, an omission roughly equivalent to careless asset management.
Babble, published by Booth-Clibborn, has been custom-built for impulse-buyers at bookshop cash registers. It contains 63 sections with provocative titles like ‘Child abuse? Guilty on all counts’, ‘Lobbying for beginners’ and ‘I miss the mafia’. To call them essays is a little generous, Saatchi is no Montaigne. Some have the tone of bad-tempered newspaper columns that never were. Others are heavier on facts and lists, closer to the wildly successful Schott’s Miscellany. They are, at about three pages each, perfect toilet reading. Under each of his grabby titles Saatchi has marshalled a few of his own anecdotes and opinions and laced them with factoids and stories collected from the internet. This last group are easily identifiable because he introduces them with phrases like “I’m very fond of the story of …” or “I recently read about …”.
To suggest that he sourced his material online isn’t just an irresponsible libel, it’s actually there in black and white at the end of the book, where the author credits websites including Quora, Wikipedia and Listiverse. The implication is that Charles Saatchi, collector of art, is also a collector of information, a kind of cultural magpie. But are we seriously expected to believe he spent time scrolling through the pages of Wikipedia for information on the Hindu ascetic Amar Mahant, or the famous Chinese eunuch Gang Bing? Given his net worth of £120m, I would suggest that he probably had some help with that.
So what we have between these two covers is information from the internet, assembled by Saatchi’s researchers, whoever they may be, combined with material from Saatchi’s other books, including some rather pixelated reproductions of some fairly relevant pictures. If that sounds like a good deal to you, I have some lightly distressed rope I think you’d love.
That said, I would hold that Charles Saatchi did still, in some sense, write this book. Firstly, there is the question of style. Put simply, if he had employed someone else to do it, he might have found someone better than this. His prose is often tortuous. To offer just one example, writing about TV he says that “it has the advantage in my home of being able to be viewed lying horizontal in bed”. Evidently one of the great things about being Charles Saatchi is that no-one suggests you redraft. When he’s not grinding the gears he deploys well-worn jokes, apparently out of an old-mannish need to recount those times when he said just the right thing. And this might be a revealing habit, but again, it’s hard to be certain whether these situations did in fact occur, or were just copied from Quora.Other tell-tale indications that this is an authentic Saatchi are statements that it would be hard to imagine a ghost-writer being brave enough to pitch. He refers repeatedly to his low self-esteem, his mawkishness in social situations, his academic failure and his multiple divorces. There’s more than one anecdote concerning “a wife”, as distinct from those concerning “my wife”. No one could accuse him of just trying to make himself look good.
So the book is a riddle. As a cash-cow it’s a laborious way for someone like Charles Saatchi to make money. As a vanity project, it’s a rather scrappy artefact. Maybe, like every copywriter, he just always wanted to see his name in print? Or maybe the book’s title is a joke that gets funnier the more cynical you believe Saatchi to be. Is it a kind of a art exercise, selling nonsense as reading-matter, like selling a tin of your own faeces as art? This isn’t impossible. Booth-Clibborn also publish prints by Saatchi-approved YBAs. But it belies Saatchi’s compulsion to reveal himself, albeit very slightly. In fact it seems as though he’s wrestling with the paradox of being a famous recluse. He wants to be visible, but can only do so while hidden under a protective layer of babble.
So what do we get of Saatchi the man? He confesses to experiencing a certain amount of guilt for living a life that he feels that he’s done little to deserve. And … that’s it. Apart from the odd tidbit about his choice of car (black Lincoln), an intriguing reference to the period when he was fat in a piece on Sumo wrestlers, that’s as much of himself as he’s prepared to offer. You’re left wondering whether perhaps that’s all he has. If in life a collector is someone who supplements his own perceived inadequacy with objects, it’s quite possible that he might try the same the thing on paper with facts.
(This piece appeared in Creative Review, under my pen-name)