When sorrows come they come not single spies
But in battalions.
There are some perfectly good things to be said about “grief athletics” and “grief inflation”. One might indeed compare the outpouring of public grief over the very funny Victoria Wood (2016) and compare it with that over comedy legends such as, say Eric Morecambe (1984), Charlie Chaplin (1977) or even Stan Laurel (1965). One could do a similar compare-and-contrast with Prince and Bowie on one hand and John Lennon and Elvis Presley on the other, and wonder how on earth we are going to top it when Paul McCartney finally shuffles of this mortal coil. (Fortunately, Bob Dylan is going to live forever.)
My working hypothesis is: “Until 1997, the death of a singer or sportsmen was show-business news or sporting news; after 1997 it became simply news. Before 1997, a death from natural courses would be reflected by an obituary and possibly an season of old movies on BBC 2. After 1997, the amount of newsprint given over to the death had to reflect the perceived importance of the deceased person. Not giving enough column inches to the departed would be a faux pas on a level of bowing from the neck instead of from the waist at the cenotaph, or being seen out in October without a poppy. AN INSULT TO THE DEAD." Prior to 1997, a tabloid might make Elvis Is Dead it’s front page story; after 1997 the serious broadsheets did so as well.
My mother used to say that people always died in groups of 3, although the rule didn’t apply to major family bereavements. Great Uncle Bulgaria said something similar, so I suppose it was a proverb. I suppose that if old Mrs Dodsworthy three doors down passed away; and a few days later you heard that old Rev Bandersnatch kicked the bucket in his home for redundant clergyman, then you would be consciously waiting for Number 3, and be positively relieved when the paper recorded that Uncle Tumble, who you used to watch on the radio when you were a kid had gone to join the choir invisible, and could stop counting.
It’s an old saying that “Dog bites man” is not news, but “Man bites dog” is. But if a local man dies after being bitten by a labradoodle (which is “news” in practically anyone’s book) then, for the next three weeks, the local paper will (quite understandably) think that every dog bite in the hospital’s incident book is worth a mention giving the punter (quite wrongly) the impression that there has been a terrible epidemic of men being bitten by dogs. It only required two deaths — David Bowie and Terry Wogan — for someone to decide that 2016 was a terrible year for celebrity deaths; and from then on every obituary has been underlined in magic marker.
No such thing as a Curse of Superman had even been thought of before Christopher Reeve had his riding accident.
One of the most boring and annoying rhetorical devices is the one where you pretend that because you think that something ought to be true, it actually is true. It might, in fact, be that the United Kingdom would be better off electing it’s next titular head of state rather than handing the title to the eldest child of the present incumbent. (1) I am, as everyone knows, agnostic on the issue. I tend towards saying that the process would be so complicated and divisive that it’s not worth the effort. Would we simply elect a new King when the old King dies, or would we stop having Kings and elect a President every five years? What would he be President of? “The United Republic”? “Greater England”? “New Britain”? “The Margaret Thatcher Memorial Islands”? This is a country where people claim that a preference for simple plurality vs instant run-off elections is a matter of ineffable religious conviction, for goodness sake.
But, as a matter of fact, we do have a Queen, and it is not too unkind to think that the time is not remote when we must, in the course of nature, have a new King. So there is a certain amount of interest in the day to day life of the Queen, and the next King, and the next King but one, and even the terribly cute next King but two. As arguments go, “Why are we interested in a photograph of an old lady and her grandchildren” and “Why does this require any coverage beyond a simple ‘Elizabeth Windsor, 90 today’ in the announcements column” makes republicans look like grumpy old twits. Republican twittery is cut from very much the same cloth as atheist twittery. I suppose it has to do with being against something rather than in favour of something.
It might be that the public ought to care more about the finer points of the E.U referendum than about the death of a funny person who used to come on the telly when they were kids. But thinking that a thing is so does not make it so. (Patrick Stewart is getting worryingly close to his 80th birthday.)
There was a point, just after I left college for the second time, when all the legendary geek writers and artists seemed to be turning up their toes. The Golden Age of science fiction and comic books was the 30s and 40s, so many of the participants were always going to to die in the 90s. (2) The 1970s were the Golden Age of television: everyone had a TV, but there were only two channels (plus a third one which only showed nature documentaries in Welsh) and there wasn’t much else to in the evenings, so a very fine comedy actor like Ronnie Corbett could easily become a household name. A generation before, he’d have been making a very decent living as a much in demand stage actor; remembered by no-one except a few aficionados; a generation after, his well reviewed comedy shows would have had to compete with eighty five channels showing rolling 24 hours footage of cats falling off sofas. The entertainers who were always going to die in the second decade of the second millennium weren't cleverer or funnier than the entertainers who have died at other times. But they were famous in a way no-one had ever been before, or ever will be again.
It isn’t big or clever to look at a photo of the next-but-one King and the next-but-one Queen outside the Taj Mahal and say “Why is a couple sitting on a bench news, especially?” It isn’t big or clever to pretend that you don’t know who Prince is. I suppose that it is possible to cut yourself off from popular culture to that extent (”and what exactly is a ‘beatle’?”(3)) but that rather prohibits you from talking bout it. I don’t think I could name a single professional football player. (There used to be someone called David Beckham, but he retired to sell perfume and knickers.)
For some people, it may simply be a logical error. If A is better than B then it follows that B is positively bad. If B is not quite as good as some people say, then it follows that B is awful. So the correct way of expressing the insight that "I am quite surprised, actually, by the importance the media attached to David Bowie" is "David Bowie was a talentless hack who couldn't sing."
But some people are, sadly, positively addicted to saying horrible things. If a lot of people are sad because a singer they liked as died their drug forces them to say "Who the hell was he?" A mad, sad man who writes for the Telegraph managed to describe Prince as “an obscure, sparsely talented performer”. A below the line commentator spoke about his “welcome death”. (4) The humans suffer from a disease called hatred: one day it may be possible to cure it.
I was a bit surprised, actually, that a left wing paper like the Guardian ran a full page solid black front page to mark the death of a singer. I used to think it was silly to feel sad when a performer you liked died: since I have been going to live gigs, and since several of the performers I most revere are the wrong side of 70, I don’t feel that any more. If Prince merits a front page and a pull out supplement, then nothing short of suspending all other reporting and printing 60 pages of black ink will suffice for Dylan. But as I say: he is immortal.
I blame Diana.
(1) Another thing I find boring and irritating is when people say "titular" when the actually mean "eponymous".
(2) Gene Roddenbury, 1991; Isaac Asimov, 1992; Joe Shuster, 1992; Jack Kirby, 1993; Jerry Siegel, 1996; Bob Kane, 1998
(3)It is very doubtful is any judge ever actually said this. And if even if he did, every word spoken in an English court is recorded verbatim so it is fairly important that slang terms and terms from popular culture are defined for the benefit of future generations. I know this from having watched Crown Court when I was off school with ‘flu. An American Judge would have said “And for the record, Mr Starr, could you tell the court what a Beatle is…” and no-one would have found it especially funny.
(4) Imagine being a Daily Mail journalist and having to sit up all night working out how to get some hatred and bile into reporting the death of an elderly middle-of-the-road comedian who just about everybody like. Imagine reading the Daily Mail and learning of the death of Mr Ronnie Corbett under the headline “WHY WASN’T HE GIVEN A KNIGHTHOOD”. (Due to an establishment conspiracy, apparently.)