Can we be unsentimental about death?

by Paul Phillips

Before any of this started happening, before we’d lost even Jimi & Jim & Janis, I asked my father how he dealt with the death of his heroes. I was probably 18, and worrying how I’d cope with the death of any of The Beatles, or Muhammad Ali, for instance.

Since nothing past 1948 had made much impact on him, his heroes were the likes of Humphrey Bogart, George Shearing, Stan Kenton and Raymond Chandler. A lot of them were gone already.

He was remarkably unsentimental, my dad. “Well, they’re still there, aren’t they – on records, or on film. Or in the books they wrote.”

This was no comfort to me the day I woke up to the news that John Lennon had been murdered. I was in a daze for the next week.

But as the years have rolled on, I see his point. The art never dies. And it’s greedy of us to mourn the loss of the possibility of greater riches that a longer life might have produced.

If, for instance, Bob Dylan had died after Blood On The Tracks we would never have known he was going to go through a Christian phase, much less a Jewish phase. Nor that his next album, Street Legal (a personal favourite of mine), would be so traduced by critics and fans alike.

We certainly wouldn’t have been able to guess that 20 years later he would still be capable of turning out a song – Make You Feel My Love – so beloved of cover artists that these days most people have forgotten he wrote it. It’s usually referred to now as ‘Adele’s song’.

The cult of celebrity had no part in my dad’s world. And it is revealing to track the difference between his generation and mine, and on to the point where now celebrity is the reason for fame, rather than being famous for achieving something, and being celebrated for it.

Kim Kardashian, for instance. What’s she about? What is her particular talent? Recently the Sunday Times gave over several of its prized Magazine pages to this modern cipher. Written, no less, by Lynn Barber, the barracuda of personality profiles, who has torn limbs off some of the biggest names in showbiz for over 30 years.

But in Kim Kardashian’s hands, she turned into a pussy cat.

So it seems that even the hardest-hearted of us can fall victim to what Rod Liddle calls the ‘Sleb’ culture.

But it’s doubtful there’ll be a massive wailing and gnashing of teeth when Kim dies. Unless she dies young and, therefore, tragically.

But whatever the circumstances of her eventual demise, she is not, remotely, David Bowie. Or Sir George Martin. Or even Nancy Reagan. It’s been a sombre year so far for cultural icons dropping off their perches.

But after Elvis in 1977 and John Lennon in 1980, I must admit it’s got easier to deal with. And that’s partly due to my dad’s unsentimental view of things. But mostly it has to do with time teaching me to deal with stuff, through the simple lesson that life does – indeed – go on.

But that’s no reason to harden our hearts against a bit of emotion, even a bit of sentimentality. It’s not terribly British, I know, but I’m not going to be embarrassed by a tear here or there when someone I admired and loved dies.

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