24 April 2016

Let us now praise famous people

"Overhead, without any fuss, the stars were going out."
(Arthur C Clarke: The Nine Billion names of God)

I have been struck this week by the popular reaction to the unexpected deaths of the musician Prince and the actor, comedian, musician and writer Victoria Wood.  2016 seems to be a killer year for much loved celebrities: the stars do seem to be going out. We're told that this is inevitable given that the baby boomer generation is approaching mortality - but many people are still desperately sad that their heroes have gone.

Others complain that it's over emotional or self-indulgent to mourn the deaths of those you don't personally know. There's often an implication that this is only due to the social media age - although I think what that brings is simply the ability for ordinary people to express their sense of loss. The well known outpouring of grief when Princess Diana died in 1997 predated the widespread use of social media, but it still happened.

For myself, I'm sad that some act as though they want to regulate what emotions others may feel. I am now in my late 40s. Musicians like Prince and David Bowie have been popular all my life. I never paid much attention to them because - especially when younger - I was never into pop music. They weren't part of my formative years, so I have no particular angle here. I have though been impressed by the little stories I've seen on Twitter about what these performers meant to people: how they made some feel valued or gave inspiration or affirmation especially to those who saw themselves as being weird or outsiders. (Who doesn't, at some point?)

That is a positive thing. Maybe in some ideal world we'd all feel of worth and be confident based on wonderful parenting or some kind of innate inner glow, but we aren't in that world and I don't think we will be soon. People get comfort where they can and sneering at it is a mean mean thing to do.

There's another point, though. At risk of quoting a much abused phrase, we are all in this together. We come into the world the same way and go out the same way. It's appropriate to mourn when somebody leaves us. This has long been recognised, from John Donne's meditation:

No man is an island,
Entire of itself,
Every man is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less.
As well as if a promontory were.
As well as if a manor of thy friend's
Or of thine own were:
Any man's death diminishes me,
Because I am involved in mankind,
And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls;
It tolls for thee.
(words found here)

to the custom of tolling a bell in church to mark a death, to people stopping what they are doing - as they used to - and taking off their hats for a funeral procession.

These deaths do diminish us. I know there are lots of deaths going on all the time. For somebody - if only the person dying - they are all too soon. We don't mourn them all. We don't even know about most of them. Those, too, diminish us. We can mourn those too, and perhaps the celebrity ones can remind us of that, remind us that we're entitled to grieve.

Above all, though, these are people's honest feelings and they shouldn't be sneered at.

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