The Gossip

A late word about celebrity gossip from my column in Swedish in the Goteborgs-Posten.

 

Last month, sadness and surprise settled over the nation after the news was announced of the death of Peaches Geldof, the 25 year old daughter of Bob Geldof, famous for a long defunct pop group and more so for so charismatically starting rock’s involvement in charity fund raising. His marriage to Paula Yates made them a kind of royal couple, much more interesting than the Beckhams. There was a vigour and intelligence about him and a childlike joy in stylish, even wild domesticity about her. She was famous for – well, being stylish and married to Bob. For being on television, in programmes produced by her husband, for being charming, pretty and part of a publicly loving couple. I think the way in which she was so obviously adored by Geldof imparted something more about her qualities than just having a flair for style and wacky children’s names. She gently mocked his pomposity, but you felt that somewhere she was being held by his serious strength. Then the children: Fifi Trixibelle, Peaches Honeyblossom and Little Pixie. It seemed quite likely that the names were thought up by Paula and ever-loving serious Bob was dragged along in her frivolity. Later after leaving Geldof for Michael Hutchence, Paula Yates had another child, Heavenly Hiraani Tiger Lily. The nation was both sorry for children given these names and also delighted by the freedom for daftness that they took.

The divorce was ghastly, these delightful loving people who even seemed to care about the poorer sectors of the world, revealing all manner of unkindness about each other in the fight for custody of the children. Then when Hutchence died from hanging himself either in suicide or a sexual act gone wrong, Paula Yates fell apart and the newspapers found a new victim, long term as she was pictured regularly in various states of drugged and drunken disarray. Finally, in 2000, she died from an overdose with her four year old daughter alone in the house until a neighbour found them. 

I know all this, because everybody – almost everybody – knows the story of the Geldofs. Gilded and then muddied. Children with fairy names who lost their mother before they were fourteen: and in the youngest’s case, both parents. We also couldn’t fail to know what happened to the children if we were in any way alert to the world around us. Particularly Peaches and Pixie, who were generally referred to as ‘socialites’ who were in their early teens given columns  in newspapers, did a bit of DJ-ing, modelling, and were seen out and about at fashionable places being the worse for drugs or drink. Famous teenagers famous for being the children of famous and notorious parents, taken up by the fashionable world because of that, and slotted into activities that required little more than a desire for a fashionable life. Bob Geldof’s fierce and generally effective good intentions were more or less forgotten. I more of less stopped taking an interest, as much as it was possible. I didn’t know that Peaches married for a month and then divorced. I didn’t know that she became far too thin on a diet of juiced vegetable. I had known simply that she was around, although I got her and her sister muddled. I hadn’t followed her ‘career’ but her name popped up on the front pages of newspapers or online sites. I gathered that she seemed to be staggering towards disaster, like Amy Winehouse, but without her talent. However faintly, I thought I didn’t want that to happen again, although it was none of my business. I vaguely knew that a couple of years ago, she married again and had two very young children, and that she declared that she, like her mother, adored domesticity and Twittered loving pictures of the babies. Who wouldn’t be pleased at the idea that such a troubled family, which had started out so charmingly, should return to being contented?

Of course, it was nonsense even to notice them. Rich and spoiled, for all their early tragedy, what did they matter in a world where so many were poor, starving, homeless, imprisoned, fighting and dying for freedom. I was slightly ashamed of even knowing they existed. Still, I did, even if I didn’t think about them. They’d been around outside my life for so long, they were a narrative. And anyway, pain is pain in the rich as well as the poor. The bankers and CEOs getting away with a disgustingly privileged life is a disgrace, but the Peaches and Pixies of the world hadn’t asked to be born into their mix of privilege and public tragedy. Why not hope the best for them? Why not hope that the tinsel world lost one of their own to a more substantial life? Or at the very least hope that the two new children of such a troubled family might grow up without too many troubles of their own? None of it my business or my concern, and I never gave it more than a passing thought.

Then the news on all the front pages that 25 year old Peaches had died. Who knows why? The post-mortem was been inconclusive. Later, it seemed it was a heroin overdose. I was sad that a 25 year old has died. Even sadder that her death adds to a string of tragedies. Just hours after the death, her father eulogised his middle-daughter: ‘She was the wildest, funniest, cleverest, wittiest and the most bonkers of all of us.’ Once again the Geldofs, living inside the cliché, somehow reach beyond it to be genuinely human and moving. 

I see that the newspapers are now saying that the youngest, 11 month child was found beside his dead mother. Who knows if it’s true? The banal repetition of her mother’s death is reported with too much glee, whether it’s true or not. I’m going to skip any further news about the Geldofs that I come across from now on. Nothing more I know or find out will add anything positive to my life or anyone else’s. My reading about it (or writing about it) will contribute nothing to the world or how we can understand it. The knowledge of the death of Peaches Geldof was unavoidable to anyone keeps up with the news. It struck me with the shock and glare that tragedy, fictional or real, strikes outsiders. It is said that Greek tragedy is cathartic. That audiences work through the sadness and arbitrariness of their own lives by immersing themselves in the on-going horror of Aeschylus’s house of Atreus. I imagine something like that is what is going on. Or we could put a psychoanalytical interpretation on it. That’s why it becomes interesting even in spite of one’s attempted resistance to gossipy glee. But in this case, I think, a little knowledge is enough. Catharsis easily becomes indulgence, even sadism, when its personae are real people, seemingly acting out tragedy on our behalf. Perhaps this very article is part of the problem.

 

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Dirty Dying

 Another piece written for my column in the Swedish Goteborgs-Posten.

 

On the subject of death I’m inclined to turn to my two favourite writers. Vladimir Nabokov begins Speak Memory, an autobiography of sorts, with the kind of banality any reader of his knows better than to get cosy with: ‘The cradle rocks above an abyss and common sense tells us that our existence is but a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness.’ Given how much respect he had for common sense we shouldn’t be anything but wary. Before the end of the paragraph the old ‘chronophobiac’ (though he claimed it to be ‘a young chronophobiac of his acquaintance’) is trembling at the memory of a home movie of his mother waving from a window just weeks before he was born (‘some mysterious farewell’), and most frightening, ‘the sight of a brand-new baby carriage standing there on the porch, with the smug, encroaching air of a coffin’. Then: ‘I rebel against this state of affairs. I feel the urge to take my rebellion outside and picket nature’. Quite right, and common sense go hang, I say. 

Beckett, too, was outraged by the prenatal abyss, and not crazy about the postnatal one. ‘They give birth astride of a grave, the light gleams an instant, then it’s night once more.’ The first abyss warns of what is to come (‘Birth was the death of him’). If we’ve not been here once, we could not be here again. And the fable has it that nobody escapes the other abyss. Worse, though, since the invention of photography, or even of writing, it is clear that the world, waving gaily at those who are there already, got on perfectly well without one – and One is the only word that counts in the nasty business of abysses. Even the joyful prospective parents are only anticipating someone, not VN, not you, not me.

I’ve heard of people who are able to take that first oblivion as some sort of comfort. Been there, done that. It wasn’t so – anything. But the first abyss is before and the second one after and it’s the taking leave of that bit of us in the middle that’s the problem. You can see why there are people who choose to believe in reincarnation; it makes so many befores and afters that, although it may be a very tiring prospect, it isn’t at least so singular.

I’ve never understood about boredom. I realise that with time and repetition all pleasures can run out.  Yelling in our cots and watching them come to hover over us anxiously; sex; TV; reading; long walks on frosty afternoons if that is the sort of thing you like; drugs, even; everything palls, eventually. But how can anyone be bored when there’s always death to think about? Every day. Every hour. Don’t you? All the rest is just evading or glossing the real subject of our lives. Beckett, again, the maestro of death: Never but the one matter. The dead and gone. The dying and the going. From the word go. I too shall cease and be as when I was not yet, only all over instead of in store.

However, having read recently Allan Kellehear’s The Study of Dying a book of essays on the sociology of dying, it became clear to me that dead and gone is very different from the dying and the going. And if abysses are anything like as consciousness-proof as they’re cracked up to be, it’s the dying and the going we should most worry about. Dying, unlike death, is not universal. Sudden death may involve no period of dying at all to speak of. Just there you are and then you aren’t. A random accident. A massive heart attack or stroke – out of the blue, as they say. No dying – at any rate, no perceived dying, and what you don’t know… There’s something to be said for skipping the run up to death. Although the shock for those left behind is worse; speaking selfishly, from what I read about the biomedical processes of dying, I wonder if sudden death might not be preferable to the ‘long illness’ that obituarists write of, or even that sometimes very long illness that people call old age. 

When I was young I thought differently. Partly, I had no personal face to face experience with death. It was always hearsay, and I hadn’t then read up on the many and diverse ways in which the body can pack up. A lingering death struck me as the way to go. Until the age of eight or so, I succumbed to a picture of being surrounded by weeping loved ones, sorry as hell now for whatever I thought they had to be sorry about. The movies….and death was so very like the Yorkshire moors, a vaselined lens and a smouldering glance.

Later, I fancied the idea of a slow, knowing build-up to death, of having time to watch it come, time to think about it and take a position on it. I couldn’t understand people (men, usually, when I asked) who were hoping for a quick violent death they would know nothing about. Peter Pan and I were at one on our position that death was an awfully big adventure. Also, I’ve never been keen on surprises. What I never imagined until quite late in life was that pain, disintegration, degradation and awfully big difficulty might skew my fascinating journey to extinction. Reading about why I should give up the comparatively easy, and pleasant evasions of Peter Pan, and the abysses of Nabokov and Beckett, to fix on the physical and mental deterioration looming not so far ahead in the smog, I’m not sure. The more visceral accompaniments to a lingering end have begun to grip me, quite taking over from the intellectual thrill and shiver of a lifetime of thinking about my own extinction. Actually, I’ve discovered myself to be in a pure funk about how my going is going to go. 

The very old idea of a good death, allows us tell a less frightening story of the period before the end. What Francis Bacon called ‘a fair and easy passage’. You make your peace with your life, your people and if necessary with your god, divide up the inheritance, say something notable, then you are ready to withdraw. Even in 1605, Bacon knew that this good death depended rather on circumstances:

I esteem it the office of a physician not only to restore health, but to mitigate pain and dolors; and not only when such mitigation may conduce to recovery, but when it may serve to make a fair and easy passage.

But even now, with presumably much better mitigaters of pain and dolors, a fair and easy passage can’t be assured. ‘Dirty dying’ is how one researcher describes ‘the combination of leaking, painful and difficult bodies that no longer respond to personal control by their owners.’ Actually, leaking and difficult was just as much a problem with young bodies, it’s the pain that’s added with age – plus, of course, the leaking and difficulty doesn’t lead to nearly as much fun. There are too many ways to die, but just the one to get born. 

1 Beckett, From An Abandoned Work