Hannah McGill: Mourning the loss of natural order

The late lamented Patrick Macnee ' seen here with Twiggy for a 1967 photoshoot ' died last week at the age of 93. Picture: PA
The late lamented Patrick Macnee ' seen here with Twiggy for a 1967 photoshoot ' died last week at the age of 93. Picture: PA
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It’s a sad day. I am weeping. Gutted. Devastated. Actually, okay; I’m not. I’m pretty much just working and having the odd casual scan of the internet – and so are most of the people who make that kind of graphic claim of utter emotional devastation every time someone dies who they saw on telly a few times.

Look, someone dying can be devastating – if you knew them. And the death of someone whose work you admired can be shocking, particularly if they were still at their peak of productivity. Paying public tribute to a life well-lived is fair enough. But the rush to claim a celebrity death as a personal loss can look rather more like self-obsessed phoniness than a display of compassion.

This phenomenon becomes particularly ridiculous when applied to people who were really old, and thus only fulfilling the natural order of things by dying. Take, for recent example, Patrick Macnee, the actor who passed away last week. His family and friends have suffered a particular loss, and I mean absolutely no disrespect to him or his legacy by pointing out that he was 93 years old. That is the dictionary definition of a good innings, is it not? People claiming on social media to be saddened or devastated – what did they want him to do? Live forever, because they liked The Avengers? See also other recent deaths of the aged and justly esteemed – Sir Richard Attenborough, who was 90; Geraldine McEwan, who was 82. Was anyone who didn’t know them genuinely “gutted” or “saddened” by their passing? Wouldn’t it be more respectful to approach such deaths, if they must be publicly wallowed-in at all, as worthy of celebration?

When someone does die young and unexpectedly, the frenzy of online mourning – for, say, a Philip Seymour Hoffman, a Robin Williams or a Peaches Geldof – can have an even sourer tang, suggesting as it does the a hijacking of genuine private “devastation” by strangers who are, in reality, just surprised. And there’s a further aspect to an onslaught of faux-sorrow: it prompts an indignant reaction, so that in all those unfortunate cases, the news had barely dropped before would-be controversialists started countering the sad-hype with nasty criticism of the dead and their lifestyles.

Whatever the impetus behind the celebrity death hoaxes that periodically sweep the internet, they emphasise people’s strange over-eagerness to indulge in some grief. One headbending satirical website, mediamass.net, takes things a step further by debunking real celebrity death stories as fakes, to reliable outbursts of righteous anger.

Perhaps the most generous way to look at the celebrity mourning cult is that it represents people asserting their own aliveness – like the character Maude in the film Harold And Maude, who attends strangers’ funerals to remind herself to live life to the full. I’d still suggest, however, allowing strangers a little space to be dead in; and holding back on claims of being “devastated”. Otherwise, what’s left to describe how you feel when the loss really is your own?

Education, education, education

CONGRATULATIONS to Mhairi Black, Paisley and Renfrewshire South’s youthful new MP, on earning a first class degree in politics. Many have asked whether a student has ever come under more pressure to excel – and certainly Black’s tender age gives her something to prove. Yet it could be argued that she’s now a little over-qualified: her new job has no precise educational requirements, just a few stipulations, like not being a prisoner or a bankrupt. About nine out of ten current MPs hold degrees – but how many of them got firsts? Boris Johnson followed posh boy tradition by doing classics (and apparently lost sleep over only scoring a 2:1), while his fellow toff George Osborne has looked after our economy for all those years using his 2:1 in modern history. Whether we actually want the people representing us to be more educated, or better-versed in the demands of the outside world of work, remains a live question. In the meantime, Ms Black may find herself supplying answers to her fellow Westminster newcomers on the knottier aspects of parliamentary process – like the only girl in class who’s done all the homework.

Calling the film shots

PEOPLE who object to mobile phone use in the cinema, the times may be against you. Or us, I should say: while I’ve never gone as far as a former colleague who once grabbed a phone from a chatty press screening attendee and chucked it into the aisle, I have certainly chided cinema-goers who can’t stay incommunicado. Now Paramount Pictures is experimenting with an in-cinema interactive phone game for audiences of Terminator Genysis. It ends in time for the film to start – but you can bet this is a slippery slope towards a galling, greater digital participation.