x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

The Sting of commercial success

Sting performs in Dubai this week, and the Abu Dhabi International Book Fair has lined up an impressive roster.

Sting, who recently performed at Hope for Haiti Now: A Global Benefit for Earthquake Relief, will play in Dubai on Thursday.
Sting, who recently performed at Hope for Haiti Now: A Global Benefit for Earthquake Relief, will play in Dubai on Thursday.

Sting is the kind of entertainer that England seems to specialise in. The kind who starts out quite good and gets more and more complacent and grandiose until at last the goodwill is spent and you can't remember why you liked them in the first place. Other followers in this tradition include Paul Weller, Ben Elton, Eric Idle, Paul McCartney, Pink Floyd, Chris Evans and the entire cast of Not the Nine O'Clock News.

In such company, Sting seems relatively innocuous. What are his crimes, really? Breaking up the Police, the only graceful ska-punk band ever to have existed? Yet every good band must end. Releasing albums themed around The Canterbury Tales and interpreting the Elizabethan lute music of John Dowland? We live in an age when the kwassa-kwassa guitar and vocal hocketing of a band like The Dirty Projectors translates straight into indie prestige. Animal Collective had a sample of Zamfir, king of the pan flute, on their last EP, and yet they still get invited to soundtrack the Guggenheim's 50th birthday party. Rock has entered a post-cool phase. Sting ought to be making hay.

The worst of it, really, is the increasingly boring song-craft and the insufferable, vaguely yogic bittersweet ironic twinkle that infuses his every release. After a while, all you want to say to him is "Da do do do, da da da da" before jumping up and down on his studious scarf. Post-Police, Sting has had only one moment of true greatness, in this correspondent's opinion: All for Love, the power ballad he recorded with Bryan Adams and Rod Stewart for the 1993 film The Three Musketeers. It's fantastic - three croaky-voiced little bleach-blond chaps, each competing to out-rasp his fellows. It's a McTriple hoarse-burger with extra cheese, and I note in passing that Stewart is in Dubai in May. If we can line up Adams while delaying the other two at customs, we'll have the complete set.

This week the Abu Dhabi International Book Fair returns to ADNEC, bringing an impressive list of celebrity chefs, poets and publishers and a roster of international authors, the biggest of whom are probably Amit Chaudhuri, Ahlam Mosteghanemi and Yann Martel. The exciting part, however, is the announcement on Tuesday of the third International Prize for Arabic Fiction, or the Arabic Booker as it has become known.

A few weeks ago, my sometime colleague Youssef Rakha detailed in Review the rumours of skulduggery and malign influence that have been swirling around the prize. The overlooked novelist Ibrahim Abdul Meguid claimed a "conspiracy against Egypt". A Lebanese poetry journal wrote about a "clandestine deal" that guaranteed victory to a book that, in the event, never made the shortlist. Rakha concluded with amusement that the baselessness of these accusations didn't seem to have dented their popularity noticeably.

Nor should it. Book prizes serve many valuable functions in the publishing ecosystem, not least of which is as a relatively harmless target for conspiracy theorists. Writers are, at the best of times, anxious to the point of paranoia. The most enjoyable prizes - the Nobel, for instance - take this psychological fact and use it as the basis for a pageant of ritual denunciations and nationalistic feuds. What is literary life without the chance, every 12 months, to fulminate over those haughty Swedes? And so with the IPAF, it would appear that everything is going to plan.