Saturday, 23 April 2016

Grief Observed

I’m imagining a big variety show going on in Heaven.  The compere is Terry Wogan, and Pierre Boulez conducts the orchestra in an overture of his own composition. The first half consists of a Victoria Wood special, with Ronnie Corbett, Alan Rickman, Frank Finlay, Gareth Thomas and Sheila Sim all taking cameo roles in “Acorn Antiques”, with a script co-written by Arnold Wesker.  Following the interval, during which Howard Marks serves drinks and nibbles (with assistance from Johann Cruyff), Paul Daniels does a set, giving way to Percy Sledge and Merle Haggard, who each do a couple of numbers arranged by Sir George Martin.  Joint top of the bill are Bowie and Prince with their band featuring Keith Emerson on keyboards and Black on backing vocals. The whole show is produced by Robert Stigwood.

People do die.  The swathe of “celebrity” deaths in the first four months of 2016 has attracted comment, but it’s not that unprecedented. It's just that the news gets out more quickly these days, and nothing much goes unreported. Looking back to 1963, two giants of the literary world, CS Lewis and Aldous Huxley, both died on the day President John F Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, Texas; consequently their deaths went almost unnoticed by the world’s media.  Likewise, the death earlier this year of novelist Anita Brookner had passed me by; I have read half a dozen of her books. 

Brookner, an art historian by discipline, did not begin her career in writing fiction until she was in her fifties. Her parents were Polish Jews, real name Bruckner which (ironically) they changed during the First World War because of anti-German feeling.  Many of her books deal with people in her own situation – people from Jewish backgrounds, often caring for elderly relatives.  I am sorry that there won't be any more.

I read an interesting article about how celebrity deaths affect the lives of their fans.  In many cases, they feel as if they have lost a family member. This is perhaps more understandable in the case of actors and musicians, now that the mass media has brought them closer to us and enabled “ordinary” people to become familiar with the appearances, voices, mannerisms and even the personal lives of those they admire.  With writers, I think, it is the recognition of a “voice” that chimes with the reader’s own feelings, as the voices of Siegfried Sassoon, Thomas Hardy and other writers do with mine.  If the writer is very skilful, he or she can take on another voice, putting him- or herself into the place of a person who is really nothing like them.  People are often disappointed when they meet their idols face to face and they realise that the actor is not the same as the fictional character they portray on screen (or in print).

Sometimes, or so I gather, a celebrity death can become confused in a person’s mind with a personal loss.  For example, one woman who had recently lost her grandfather without displaying any great outward emotion, found herself devastated by the death of the actor Philip Seymour Hoffman in 2014. Other people often find such reactions inexplicable and even laugh at those who experience them.  Columnist and rock drummer Tim Thornton sensibly asks: “What damage does it do to anyone else if someone is waxing lyrical in a slightly embarrassing manner?” The repression of emotion is often associated with being British, and an opposite tendency is one of the things we look down on “foreigners” for.   There is a widespread suspicion that giving vent to such feelings is a sign of immaturity and/or lack of self-discipline.

Wartime is when the “stiff upper lip” shows itself most clearly.  During the Blitz, ordinary Londoners got on with their lives, with a minimum of grumbling.  Many must have felt they could not afford to show strong emotion, as they needed all their energy to care for their families, and sometimes simply to survive.  Repression of emotion is not always good, however, as Sassoon learned from Rivers.

Although mass hysteria may not be desirable, it does sometimes result from a genuine wave of public feeling. I cannot imagine any admirer of Victoria Wood becoming involved in the kind of scenes that took place at the funeral of Ayatollah Khomeini in 1989 (can it really be more than a quarter of a century ago?) but perhaps the occasion fulfilled a need for his followers to vent their feelings. Violence is not normally the British way, though.

The media, who are so often responsible for stirring up trouble where there was none, have long been a problem for those attempting to grieve privately.  At Thomas Hardy's star-studded funeral in Westminster Abbey - far from the quiet family occasion Hardy wanted for himself - Sassoon was too distressed to sit in the front-row seat reserved for him, and never forgave Humbert Wolfe for the way he used the occasion to publicise himself and almost immediately turned on Hardy by publishing criticisms of his poetry.  At T E Lawrence's funeral a few years later, Sassoon physically assaulted a would-be photographer at the graveside. "Let me have my feelings to myself," he wrote in his diary, unwilling to share his grief even with his wife.

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