Saturday, 7 January 2017

The Year From Hell

I joked about 2016 being the quintessential year from hell but let's be realistic - it wasn't. It was just another year in which - as usual - millions of humans died, many of them horribly and many while still very young.  

It also happened to be a year in which a few more celebrities than usual shuffled off their mortal coil - and in which the amplification of their deaths was perhaps a useful diversion from some momentous political and ecological developments.

Of the celebrities who died in 2016 - a fair proportion of them were in their 80s and 90s so their deaths are hardly unexpected or tragic, and some of them were younger people, a number of whom who had lived in ways that may not have been conducive to longevity.  So where was the tragedy?

In the past people created myths and legends about both the living and the dead - often as a comfort against the harsh realities of their own lives and the awareness of their own impermanence.  We still do - we just use digital media to do it these days instead of folk stories. 

Myths and legends about the great, the good, the bad, the beautiful and the ugly have also been used as tools of social control. A lot of our modern myths are the product of the many publicists and spin doctors employed by those who have a vested interest in promoting certain aspects of a deceased person's character and life - to divert the masses or, more prosaically, to sell stuff.

These days, thanks to digital media, we're more immediately aware of the lives and the deaths of celebrities and are bombarded with words and images mourning their passing and eulogising them to, and sometimes beyond the point of commonsense and reason.   Great dollops of faux sentiment and schmaltz fly off the screen, blurring the real world which continues in all its usual awfulness.  

Of course it's sad when people who have touched our lives die, but these are people most of us have absolutely no connection with and never will, whose true personalities and worth we can never really know and who, through film and recordings, actually remain as 'alive' to us plebeians as they ever were.  

The celebrities who attract this sort of media attention when they die are usually very rich. Their personal losses, trials and tribulations, their battles with addiction or illness - were all buffered by fame and by great wealth which enabled them to  buy the very best of everything - from legal representation to medical care. They were all cushioned by the downy pillow of privilege - not an abstract political construct but real advantages and immunities. 

I can't say I thought overly much about George Michael - either as a singer or as a person.  He wasn't a great musician but he was a talented pop singer and I'm prepared to believe that he had a good heart.  However, the acts of generosity he was lauded for after his death have to be put into the perspective of his massive fortune and his on-going earning capacity from royalties.  For someone who is worth £100m to donate £15k to someone  - is - objectively speaking - no more remarkable an act of generosity than a pensioner giving £1 to a homeless person.

I can't say I gave much thought to Carrie Fisher either.  I have never seen any Star Wars films -  although I could think I have given the ubiquity that was created by the cynical mass marketing of Stars Wars' ephemera - but I did like her in the Blues Brothers. I have also never read any of her books, but she seemed like a refreshingly honest person especially when judged by the standards of the plastic world she lived in,  in which honesty is notable more for its absence than presence.

David Bowie - who I didn't like as a musician and who I never forgave for his flirtation with fascism - died younger than someone of his wealth might be expected to, but that was not 'stop the world I want to get off' level tragedy.  He'd abused his body when he was young, he had lived his life to the full and died a rich, happy and fulfilled person, or so we are told.

I loved Leonard Cohen as an artist and I felt very sad at his death but I know that he would be the first to acknowledge how privileged a life he had led and I suspect he would have approached the amplified mourning of his death at the age of 82 with his usual laconic humour.

I lost my younger brother in August to liver failure. He was Carrie Fisher's age. I also lost two other close family members and, towards the end of the year, the husband of a good friend died. He was the same age as my husband.  

I've watched my once highly intelligent and fiercely independent mother sink into a half life of immobility, incontinence, confusion and periods of terror when the reality of her situation breaks through the drug-induced fog in which her carers keep her.

I'm aware that 2016 - like all other years - saw the deaths of millions of children under 5, most of whom need not have died.  Millions of others have lives full of misery, fear and deprivation.

I'm aware that much about our first world way of life is polluting, wasteful, cruel and asocial and looks likely to become more so.

I'm aware that we have not slowed our insane dash towards mass extinctions of other species, and I'm also aware that we're on a slide to what may literally be the war to end all wars.

In this context I'm sorry, but the deaths of a few famous and highly privileged people - however delightful, talented, good, kind and generous we believe those people to be – really do need to be put into a broader perspective.

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