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Alec Ross: For Whom the Bell Tolls

“Come, gie’s your hand a say we’re gree’t: We’ll ease our shanks and tak a seat – Come, gie’s your news; This while ye hae been mony a gate, At mony a house”. Robert Burns “Death and Doctor Hornbook”.

The boy in the hood has been busy, it seems. 2016 was the year when 69 became the new 27, which was the age when Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin and Brian Jones shuffled off their mortal coils. Last year, 69 saw the end of the road for David Bowie, Glenn Fry from The Eagles and Lemmy from Motörhead. Given the latter’s almost heroic consumption of Jack Daniels and amphetamines, to get so close to the biblical three score years and ten was, actually, remarkable.

The diverse and often bizarre nature of rock stars’ deaths was brilliantly lampooned in the classic spoof “rockumentary”, Rob Reiner’s “This is Spinal Tap”. Early on in the film, the band members are relating how they keep losing drummers in unfortunate circumstances. They lost one, according to their bass player, to a “bizarre gardening accident“. A second spontaneously combusted. Another, the unfortunate Eric “Stumpy” Joe is reported to have choked on vomit, although it is not clear whether this was his own or someone else’s.

Back in the real world, recent events in London made me ask a few searching questions.

  • Is the world a more dangerous place than at any time in our history?
  • Have we crossed the Rubicon from quiet respect to mawkish sentimentality?
  • And what does our reaction to death say about us as a society?

To deal with the first of these questions, I’m not sure if the world has ever been safer. I’ll allow that’s not a view you hear very often, but in an ever more connected world, danger is amplified to an almost ludicrous degree. There was a grim irony in the fact that the London attacks were taking place  while Martin McGuinness was being buried in the Bogside and being lauded by Bill Clinton.

I grew up on a Portpatrick farm, and a more peaceful, safe upbringing is impossible to imagine. And yet, on a clear day I could see Belfast Lough only nineteen miles in the distance. In the analogue age, our television showed only BBC Ulster and its ITN equivalent until the early 1980s, so I was keenly aware of The Troubles. Just occasionally the ripples reached our shores. A member of the Thatcher government has a house in Portpatrick and was a member of my local golf club, and he saw something under his car that he didn’t like. There was no bomb, but the point is there might have been.

It seems that the threat of terrorism was a much clearer and more present danger then than now. More than one hundred people died annually from attacks on the British mainland in the 1970s and 80s. The last two decades have seen about ten per year. Ten too many, for sure, but we live today in what is, by any reasonable benchmark, a peaceful island.

The two movements – the IRA and IS – couldn’t be more different. For all its cruelty and horror, Irish Republicanism had at its core two clearly defined demands – a united Ireland and the removal of British troops – that could be discussed and which led, eventually, to peace.

The movement that may or may not have been responsible for the last London outrage had none of that. Indeed, a Metropolitan police chief admitted that the Westminster attacker probably acted alone, and that his motives would perhaps never be known. He also didn’t fit any neat stereotype. Predictably, Nigel Farage floated the idea of a travel ban as a possible solution, but as the attacker was middle-aged and came from Kent, then presumably the UKIP chief won’t be leaving his house anytime soon, which is perhaps one small chink of light in an otherwise dark week.

In other words, the outrage in London was just as random as a road traffic accident. For that reason, I worry when people call for increased security. It’s not as if Theresa May needs any more encouragement to further erode our civil liberties. Sometimes the only person to blame for terrorism is a terrorist and the best reaction is to do nothing at all.

Who breaks a butterfly upon a wheel?

Twenty-four seven news coverage, the internet and general media hyperbole make it tempting to think that we’re constantly in grave danger, but it may well be that we’ve never been safer. Crime continues to fall and we’re all living longer.

I was in Glasgow to see Scotland gain a morale boosting three points in a World Cup qualifier against Slovenia. There was, as we’ve come to expect, a minutes silence that was perfectly observed. We should, of course, mourn and respect those that lose their lives. “No man is an island”, said the great metaphysical poet John Donne. “Ask not for whom the bell tolls. It tolls for thee”. But I have to be totally honest with you. A big part of me wishes they’d just blown the whistle and started the game. Sometimes I fear that by making a big public statement like this, the bad guys win some small victory.

Football handles these things appallingly. It’s like the tedious annual debate over the wearing of the wearing of the poppy on strips on or around Remembrance Sunday. You may remember there was an enormous stramash ahead of the England v Scotland match last November. Both associations wanted their teams to display poppies on their shirts. FIFA pointed out that it was in breach of the rules that both countries had, in fact, signed up to. Both wore them anyway. Both got fined. Theresa May said how annoyed she was and that something should be done. And life went on.

It raised a few questions for me though. Firstly, both associations would have known about the date of the fixture and both should have known the rules. Why not fly to Zurich and sort something out? Or were they deliberately trying to engineer a confrontation? And, if it really mattered to them that much, why play the game on that weekend at all?

Secondly, it’s quite possible – likely, even – that a few players may have had some reservations – for political or religious reasons, maybe – about wearing the symbol, but didn’t want to make a fuss, perhaps due to peer pressure, or perhaps mindful of the polite refusal of Ireland’s James MacLean to wear the poppy and the death threats and Twitter outrage that followed. If it’s coercion, it cannot be called respect.

There was a press conference before the game where Mark McGhee, the Scotland assistant manager, ranted on about FIFA intransigence and how it was a disgrace that Scotland couldn’t wear the poppy. It was only when a journalist asked him why he felt it was so important to do so that he finally shut up. His silence suggested that he had never in his life considered the question. Like people on the television wearing poppies weeks and months before Remembrance Sunday, poppygate was all about being seen to be doing the right thing.

We see it all the time. The tipping point was possibly the death of Diana. I remember that causing a diplomatic incident of sorts in Scotland, when the late SFA chief Jim Farry initially refused to postpone a Saturday afternoon fixture in Aberdeen, reasoning that the princess’s funeral would be over by three o’ clock. It took the intervention of Tony Blair to get Farry to, reluctantly, accede. I rather wish he’d stood his ground.

Firstly, because tragic though the death of Diana was, I remember thinking that if this was the fuss we made over a uniquely privileged woman we’d never met, what have we left to give when we lose someone who really matters to us?

Secondly, we never used to do this. As relatively recently as 1965, they buried Winston Churchill on Saturday morning and played football in the afternoon. Nobody thought this unusual. A friend who collects old newspapers showed me an edition of The Guardian from the day after John Lennon was killed in New York in 1980. From today’s perspective, it seems extraordinary that it wasn’t the lead story. Yet nobody objected at the time.

Post-Diana, we’ve struggled to regain any sense of perspective. Dead soldiers are lionised by all party leaders during Prime Minister’s Questions. I’ve never yet heard one described as anything other than a loving and loyal husband and father, although statistically it’s not possible that they all were. At least one of them must have led an imperfect life.

Of more concern, perhaps – and this takes me onto difficult ground – is the media’s lazy misuse of language. I remember watching coverage of the flooding in Cumbria, and there was a story of a guy who was killed during the floods. “A true hero”, said the reporter from the BBC. Actually, that’s stretching it. The man was walking his dog when a bridge collapsed, and he fell in the water and drowned. The poor man was by all accounts a nice bloke, but what happened wasn’t heroic – it was tragic and desperately bad luck. But in calling him a hero, we cheapen the meaning of a word that was properly used to describe Tobias Ellwood, the MP who tried to save the life of PC Keith Palmer, during last week’s attack.

Our treatment of death feels horribly out-of-kilter, and maybe, as a society, a reappraisal is long overdue. Perhaps this closing anecdote might start the process.

The writer Gore Vidal was informed of the death of his fellow American novelist Truman Capote, and was asked for his reaction. He considered this for a second before dispensing with the usual homilies.

“Great career move”, he said.


Alec Ross is a regular columnist with The Orkney News 

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3 replies »

  1. A few comments – surprise surprise……….
    1) For some reason, I didn’t receive this posting from The Orkney News. I happened to see it because I was looking at the site in general.?. The ways of t’Internet are often a mystery to me.
    2) Prince. Whatever a persons personal taste in music, the passing of someone who was so full of LIFE is worthy of note. That’s what gets me about these people – they are so full of LIFE, and when they pass, that particular spark of life is extinguished. It’s a shame, and a shock. Not so much a shock in Lemmy’s case – but still a shame. I was talking with my nephew of Lemmy’s passing, as John is a big fan, and his little lad asked “What did he do?” and I answered “He made very raucous music and raised hell.”
    I’m sorry to see these people go – we’re sorry to see these people go, even though they are nothing to us in ‘real’ terms – we’re not connected by ‘real’ ties. They do bring a lot to people lives – artists of all kinds do so. I remember Hendrix and Janis, and still think, when I listen to Jimmy, over 40 years later – “What a shame – that man is gone.” And with Janis “Poor girl – poor girl”.
    That isn’t trivialising it – I recognize the difference between losing ‘real’ connections and losing these people . I do still feel it, and am sorry to hear of it. They are so full of life, and bring that fullness, to other people’s lives, too.
    3) And that brings me to the trivialising words thing….I couldn’t agree more. A hero is a person who carries out an heroic act, not just someone that something happens to. Another one is “devastated.” People say they were, or are, “devastated”. They’re often quite miffed, or even very upset – but devastated is a very different thing. I blame Facebook and Social Media in general. People will place the notification of the death of a family member on Facebook, and people will break off relationships on Facebook. They will also say “I had a nice cheese sandwich today” And include a photo of said cheese sandwich.
    It makes a non-sense of our experiences. When we trivialize real emotions and aspects of life, and place them alongside nothingness, that’s what we get – confusion between what’s real and what matters, and what isn’t and doesn’t.
    Oh dear, I could go off into the blurring between reality and un-reality that is happening more and more. Do people clearly see the difference between what is actually happening in the world around them, and what is a film, or ‘Eastenders’?
    God help us all!
    Whatever happened to people accepting the fact, and it is a fact, that “Shit happens”.
    It just does.
    It’s one of the reasons I like living on Orkney – mostly folk here still don’t blow things out of proportion.
    And – death – look at how the ancient people dealt with it -as part of life.
    And – Gore Vidal – as ever – intelligence and thought. Truman Capote would probably have agreed, and been a bit miffed that he hadn’t thought to say that of someone else.
    And after all those words – I’m just saying that I agree with you Alec – well said. And……..I wanted to mention Prince.

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    • Good stuff, Bernie, as ever. And, yes, a killer line from the boy Vidal. It feels like we live in a binary world of absolutes, where everything is either brilliant or devastating, where Brexit means jump-off-the-cliff Brexit. There are shades of grey in everything, and how we talk about death should reflect that. There’s room for humour in most things. I’m sure it was Spike Milligan who wanted “I told you I was ill” on his gravestone. John Donne, whom I mention, had a healthy disrespect for the grim reaper, reasoning that if a short nap gave him pleasure, then surely infinite sleep would be just fantastic. Amen to that – but not quite yet.

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