On 31st August 1997, shortly after midnight local time, Lady Di was fatally injured in a car crash in Paris while fleeing the paparazzi. It so happened that this was just a month after Sarada and I had started going to church again, and we arrived there to hear our vicar say that some of us would feel deeply affected and others wouldn’t, and the two of us were definitely in the latter category. It was a strange few days, where there seemed to be largely fake and histrionic OTT “grieving” for someone people had never met or had much of a connection with. We were rather surprised to find that another couple we knew were genuinely deeply upset about it and we just couldn’t empathise with where they were coming from. Their connection was that they acknowledged that they were part of the LGBT community and Diana was well-known for touching people who were HIV positive at a time when the route and risks of infection were uncertain and she had had much involvement with people with AIDS. Although a close friend of mine had died of AIDS a couple of years previously and I identified even back then as gender dysphoric, like many other gender dysphoric people at the time I didn’t consider myself to have any right to define myself as a member of the LGBT community and saw the interests of trans people and lesbians and gays to be utterly opposed. Nonetheless it really mattered to me that my friend was probably dead and AIDS had been a major issue to me over the previous decade or so. In fact I didn’t even have the closure of knowing he was dead but merely had to assume that he would either very soon die or actually had by that point. Like Sarada, I still felt left completely cold by the fact that she had died. By contrast, thinking about my dead friend still upsets me even now, and that’s to be expected considering that I had a strong personal connection with him. He was a close friend, we had lived together, we took each other’s advice seriously, confided in each other, went to parties together, were at university together and he was really special to me, and I’m still really gutted that he’s dead. I think about all the things he wasn’t there to see or experience, everything he missed out on which happened later. He didn’t, for example, get to see same-sex marriage enshrined in law and, forgetting the LGBT angle, he just didn’t get to live past the age of twenty-four, and that’s really crap and nothing can change it.
Lady Di though. I saw her as the victim of a vacuous and trivial media and I felt sad for her, but in the end she was just another random person out there with whom I felt no personal connection, and I couldn’t understand why people were making such a big deal of her death. It was like you couldn’t say anything or draw attention to something which seemed really artificial, like it was almost a major public festival or sports event which we could almost have fun joining in. I also wondered how the people closest to her and therefore most personally affected by her passing felt about the way the general public had reacted. It seemed completely inappropriate.
I imagine this is how a lot of people feel about those who are affected by the deaths of celebrities whom they admired recently, such as David Bowie, Prince, Ronnie Corbett and Victoria Wood. I’m sure it seems quite fake to them and they too would contrast their deaths with people closer to the people who may or may not be grieving.
Of all the people named above, David Bowie is probably the one I feel most affected by. Victoria Wood is also quite major. I never felt much of a connection with Prince. My sadness in such cases is mild. I feel sympathy for the people close to them and sadness for the people themselves. Bowie is a slightly different matter. In his case, he represents a fairly major aspect of my life and in particular my youth, and the fact that he was a musician of whom I was a big fan means that I’ve looked into his lyrics and had by heartstrings tugged by his melodies, and I also see him as something of a genius. He means something to me. Even so, although I feel sad he’s gone, it’s not the same as losing a loved one or even a friend.
As usual, the people whose deaths most affected me, and about whom I feel I can honestly say I grieve, are not A list celebrities although they were pretty well-known. This is like my tendency to back the loser, manifested for example in me being a Prefab Sprout fan when hardly anyone else is or ever was.
One of these people is Douglas Adams. His death really affected me. I still feel pretty upset from time to time that he’s no longer around, and that the major influence he had on our culture won’t continue. He can’t be replaced, and whereas I’m sure his friend Stephen Fry is quite a bit more authentic in his grief than I am in mine, I don’t even question my right to grieve him, not as much as I grieve my friend who died of AIDS but still quite a bit. Douglas Adams was important to me and quite a powerful influence, possibly too powerful.
The really off-the-scale bereavement in this respect for me, though, is Iain Banks. Iain Banks is the only famous person whose death has reduced me to tears. I met him once but I don’t think that’s why this happens. I think the reason his death is so important to me is that his work is so emotionally real and often very raw, and because his politics are so close to mine. In particular, he envisaged a technological and political utopia where death was optional and disease non-existent, so the fact that he died at a time when the world, as usual, was rapidly going the opposite way to utopia, as usual, of a disease which wouldn’t have existed if the human race had spent more time on preventing it rather than making nuisance calls about PPI or causing deaths of disabled people by taking away their money. The details are less important. I did have a strong emotional investment in Iain Banks’s work and he really mattered to me. The scale of the loss is still way smaller than that of my friend, but it is still real.
I can relate to both sides. I shared Sarada’s bafflement and utter lack of emotional involvement in Lady Di’s death and also the sense that that kind of grieving was ostentatious and artificial. To some extent, I also share the sadness of Bowie’s passing with others, although I don’t feel it as strongly as the deaths of Adams and Banks. I think these deaths affect us a lot when they represent the permanent loss of something the people concerned gave us which is significant to us and makes a connection. This is particularly true of Douglas Adams, who manages to articulate the thoughts and feelings we all share in particularly unusual but also very familiar areas which were rarely or never expressed before. For Iain Banks, the sadness is almost as palpable to me as the sadness I feel at the death of my friend. Clearly that last loss is way more significant to me than that of anyone I couldn’t count as a friend, but it is still important and whereas the process of grieving someone we don’t know is not the same as grieving a friend or even an acquaintance, it is still meaningful and worthy of respect. Anyone’s death diminishes us, and feeling a real sense of loss at the death of a celebrity does not diminish the reality of the considerably more intense bereavement of beloved friends and family.