Flash! "Princess Margaret was in Britain Thursday," according to the lead sentence of a recent United Press dispatch, meaning, of course that she was NOT out scandalizing the empire like the rest of her kin.

And Sen. Barry Goldwater says he will NOT visit China even if they invite him, which they have NOT. And right here in Washington, Teddy Kennedy announces at a party: "According to another Gallup Poll, I have been elected president in more elections that haven't been held than any other candidate."

This is terrible news. What it means is, we are lurching, lapsing, collapsing into the age of the celebrity non-event. Not that Princess Margaret should be out roistering beneath the palms or that we want to see yet more Great-Wall-of-China news film, this time featuring Barry "One Billion Chinese Can Be Wrong" Goldwater.

But we depend on our glitterati to enrich our lives with nuggets of derring-do, not derring-don't. The mother lode of celebrity hype -- divorces, alcoholism, comebacks and strange hobbies -- seems to be playing out, thanks to massive pop-cult strip mining by People magazine, The National Enquirer, and all the TV talk shows.

Granted, we still get the occasional find, but it's stuff like People telling us that Doris Day takes care of lots of stray animals, and stories like the one about the girl who sold more boxes of Girl Scout cookies than any other Girl Scout. Is fame so routine now that we have a merit badge for it?

These are desperate times. Something is wrong when Jane Fonda has to do a remake of Barbara Ellen Figure Salons to get a little attention. That, at least, was an event. Bert Parks got even bigger ink when he learned he would not be hosting the Miss America pageant anymore. Sure enough, he told The Los Angeles Times: "I never thought that being fired would be beneficial, but obviously it is."

Garry Trudeau is canceling "Doonesbury."

Sen. John Chafee told Republican supporters in Rhode Island that he was not hosting a fund-raising dinner, but for $50, he'd send them a cassette of the speech he wouldn't deliver. His Democratic challenger, Julius Michaelson, responded by saying: "If you elect me to the Senate, you won't have to listen to him for the next six years. And that won't cost you anything." This being the age of the celebrity non-event, Chafee won, of course.

In the newspaper business, stories like this have always been filed under the headline: "General Grant Still Dead."

But with the invention of the CNE, being dead makes stars bigger than ever. As the Hollywood agent is supposed to have said when Elvis Presley died: "Good career move." Who's bigger than Marilyn Monroe? Well, this year try Princess Grace or John Belushi.

After them, the next brightest items are stars who made it in the '30s and hardly work any more, if at all -- the ultimate example being Greta Garbo, who wants only "to be alone."

Admittedly, we've got celebrities of the magnitude of Robert Redford and Paul Newman, and you actually can watch them at a theater near you now and then, but true to the tenets of the age of the celebrity non-event, they do not do interviews, do not go on television to talk about drug problems, and do not show up at celebrity telethons, talk shows or tennis tournaments. Newman works actively for nuclear disarmament, but recently announced that he would not debate Charlton Heston about it.

Maybe Erik Estrada was trying to move into this rare air when he showed up at Charlton Heston's celebrity tennis tournament recently, but made a point of not playing. (Then again, real men don't eat quiche, either.) Pitching great Warren Spahn sued to block publication of a book about him on grounds that he had not won the Bronze Star the book said he had. President Carter turned the 1980 Olympics into a gold-medal non-event for American athletes. Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio? There's the Mr. Coffee bit, but otherwise nobody knows, and he's as big as ever, not playing baseball, and not giving up his grief for Marilyn Monroe.

In fact, People magazine recently gave us a spread on the guy Joe hired to put roses on her grave every day. That's how hurting the press is for somebody to turn into a celebrity.

We've created so many famous people that we haven't even heard of half of them. We don't buy People to find out what celebrities do, we buy it to find out who they are. Who will be at the top of the heap next week -- Barbi Benton? Let's not rule out Pia Zadora, who has won fame by basking in celebrity non-eventhood as if it were a hot tub.

Celebrity glut. Inflation. Degradation of the currency. And it's not just Mr. and Mrs. Front Porch USA -- even the experts can't keep up with it. Recently, Steven M.L. Aronson, author of a forthcoming last word on celebrities called "Hype," was asked a question about Kenny Rogers.

Said Aronson: "Who's Kenny Rogers?"

J.D. Salinger doesn't publish and doesn't give interviews, thereby making himself one of the most famous authors in America. Truman Capote's stock seems to rise with every hint that his book called "Answered Prayers" will never be published. In the graphic arts, we have Andy Warhol, who gets famous for saying things like: "I like being bored."

General Electric is doing its part to provide hardware for the non-event era -- they're introducing a machine that makes any TV channel you choose go blank for 12 hours.

Let's not forget that a hero of our president is Calvin Coolidge, whose most famous words were: "I do not choose to run."

Is all this not happening because this is supposed to be the age of lowered expectations, when less is more? Consider the trickle-down effect from the highest of highbrow arts when composer John Cage gives us a piece which is nothing more than four minutes and 33 seconds of silence. It can be less -- in one performance at Wolf Trap, it was cut by about a minute and a half.

Maybe we should blame it on Nixon -- the president who prompted the wisecrack: if he's alone in a room, is anyone there?

Actresses have done their part by refusing to do nude scenes, thereby requiring what are known as "body doubles." Cognoscenti in the audience assure each other: "That's not Jane Fonda."

Now that the Academy Awards and Emmy people seem to have created every conceivable category for what TV and film people do, maybe we'll have, the envelope please, yes, the winner for best non-performance is . . .

Get ready for the avalanche of non-events to come.

Secretary of Labor Ray Donovan will keep being found non-indictable. Brooke Shields will not pluck her eyebrows. Taylor/Burton will not get married/divorced again. The non-possibilities are endless. Don't think about them. Nothing is what it seems.