Thursday, 29 December 2016

The Curse of 2016

And so Debbie Reynolds has now gone too, the latest name in an unusually long list of music and film artists who have been harvested by the Grim Reaper in 2016. My goodness, I sometimes watched her TV show in the mid-1960s.

Her death is comprehensible, following so closely on the unexpected death of her daughter Carrie Fisher. It must be terrible to lose a child of your own, whatever their age. It's unnatural, out of sequence, not what should be. I haven't experienced that kind of loss myself, so can't claim true empathy. I know only what it is to lose my younger brother, and both my parents - rather more 'ordinary' tragedies, though still awful to think about. I've never had a child, and can never know how I would react if that child were snatched away for whatever reason. Such a loss is beyond imagining. It must break you.

2016 has been notable for the number of well-known names who have died. So much so, that one talks fancifully about 'The Curse of 2016' and wonders who will be next. There are plenty of potential candidates. So many people are growing old, and not always in the best health they could have managed. Surely it's true that those who were in younger days heedless about the long-term effects of smoking, drugs, drink, fatty food, and great wear and tear on their bodies, are now discovering that the seeds of a healthy, pain-free, intellectually viable, and mobile old age need to be sown early. It's clearly never a good strategy to burn oneself out too soon. Nor to neglect sensible efforts at maintaining physical fitness, which has been my own failing. (I am not properly fit. But I can still do something about that)

2016 has throughout felt like a year of profound change, a year of goodbyes to both the Old Regime (Brexit, and the election of Donald Trump in America) and many personalities who had 'defined' the decades one lived through. I do associate people like George Michael - more particularly his music - with an era in my life, the very early 1990s, when my marriage had come to an end and I had not yet met M---. Do I admire him? Do I miss him? Am I moved to tears at his loss? No to all of those. But his early death at age fifty-three did come as a shock, and I realised at once that, in a way important to me, the 1990s had now slipped a little more out of reach. Much as when Elvis Presley died in 1977, the 1950s receded a bit more into history, and became a bit more unknowable.

Past decades remain with us still while the people active in them stay alive. But once they go, once the living link disappears, the threads that hold us to those decades are cut. It's not just about the music. The deaths of the last survivors of the First World War have separated us from that experience as much as we are separated from the Battle of Waterloo.

What now happens to these giant figures? The Departed of 2016? Or any previous year, for that matter.

If you take it as likely that the death of their brains is the complete death of what they were as people, then they are now just memories, and nothing goes forward into a fresh existence. This is how I see it, although I do accept that without experiencing death myself I cannot possibly know for certain. Who can?

There is nothing to 'prove' or 'disprove' here. The facts are unknowable. The only thing you can say is that no ordinary person who once lived has ever come back from death fully restored, to publicly explain what it was like, and subject themselves to an intensive debriefing and careful medical examination. Not one. Not Julius Caesar, not King Alfred the Great, not Napoleon, not Vincent Van Gogh, nor any of the zillions of everyday folk who lived anonymous, low-key and unremarkable lives during all the millennia. Either they would like to, but some cosmic law operates so that they can't come back; or they don't now exist in any form, and for that reason can't return.

This doesn't explain why people frequently have the sensation of 'being close' to a deceased relative, when the mood or atmosphere or surroundings are right. Who hasn't felt that? Is it just suggestion and a keyed-up imagination? Without doubt, a feeling of closeness can certainly be induced - surely the basis for such things as spiritualism - but there's nothing remarkable about a collection of old letters and photographs in a tin evoking the vivid memory of someone long dead. But it is only a memory. And memories can be lost.

So I come back to George Michael and the rest. They loom large for now. But what will be their legacy when viewed from a time forty or fifty years ahead? That's like saying 'Who stands out from the 1960s?' Who indeed.

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