Winner of the 2014 Editorial Intelligence Independent Blogger of the Year award

Friday, 22 April 2016

Why so many sad farewells?

Can someone please ask the Grim Reaper to take a break? Go and lie down somewhere, go on holiday, anything -- just stop scything away at much-loved artists who have brought joy to millions.

Yesterday the shocking news was the death of Prince, the day before it was Victoria Wood, and before them went Ronnie Corbett, Terry Wogan, Alan Rickman, and David Bowie -- all gone, most of them too young, and that's just in the first four months of this year.

So what's going on? Is it just me, or are the deaths of some of our most popular public figures coming much faster than they used to?

Here's a partial list from last year: actors Anne Kirkbride, Geraldine McEwan and Anita Ekberg; Demis Roussos, Leonard Nimoy, Terry Pratchett, Ben E King, Ruth Rendell, BB King, Christopher Lee, Ron Moody, Patrick Macnee, James Last, Omar Sharif, Val Doonican, Cilla Black, George Cole, Jackie Collins, Henning Mankell, Maureen O'Hara, Warren Mitchell and Colin Welland. I make that 22, and of course I could have added many more.

What about 2014? Phil Everly, Roger Lloyd Pack, Elizabeth Jane Howard, Claudio Abbado, Pete Seeger, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Shirley Temple, Mickey Rooney, Bob Hoskins, Sue Townsend, Maya Angelou, Rik Mayall, Dora Bryan, Nadine Gordimer, Robin Williams, Lauren Bacall, Richard Attenborough, Joan Rivers, Lynda Bellingham, Lynsey de Paul, Acker Bilk, PD James, Joe Cocker, and Billie Whitelaw. That's 24, and again, there were, of course, many more.

So, with six gone so far this year, at the current rate, we might expect to end up with 18-20 celebrity deaths by the end of 2016. And that, surprisingly, would be fewer than in each of the past two years. So, accepting that there is something distasteful about reducing death to a statistical exercise, perhaps the Grim Reaper isn't any busier than usual after all.

On the other hand, the BBC is reported to have broadcast twice as many obituaries in the first three months of this year as it did in the same period last year. One possible explanation is that celebritisation really took off in the 1950s and 60s as television came of age, and as the people who rose to fame then are now in their 70s and 80s, their lives are inevitably coming to their natural ends.

Death comes to us all, celebrities and non-celebrities alike. Some of those listed above lived to a ripe old age; others died far earlier than seemed right or proper. Perhaps one reason why we are so shocked when we hear of celebrities' deaths is that we tend to regard them as somehow different from us, not better necessarily, but made of slightly different DNA components. That's why they are celebrities and we are not.

But then they die, and we are reminded that they are made of exactly the same stuff as the rest of us. Their bodies are as frail as ours, and as susceptible to disease as ours are. They die, and we will die. It shouldn't come as a shock, but it always does.

Once you reach a certain age (the Daily Mail called me 'venerable' this week, which I thought was pushing it a bit), the deaths of contemporaries and near contemporaries come far more freqently than they used to. So perhaps it's only us oldies who see death all around us -- and as it's us oldies who buy most of the newspapers, celebrity deaths are splashed all over the front pages.

Phil Sayer was never a celebrity in the way that Prince or Bowie were celebrities, yet his voice was far more familiar to me -- and to millions of other travellers in London and south-east England -- than any rock star's. Sayer was the 'mind the gap' man who recorded the announcements at some of the country's busiest commuter stations, and at all London Underground stations.

As The Economist wrote in a delightful elegy after the announcement of his untimely death last week: 'Travellers entrusted their lives to him. All across the London Underground, at his behest, they took care to Mind the Gap between the train and the platform -- or sometimes, more subtly, between the platform and the train. Thanks to him, they stood clear of the closing doors and did not leave cases or parcels unattended anywhere on the station.'

Sayer's family announced his death in exquisitely fitting style: 'Phil Sayer - voice of reason, radio, and railways. A dearly loved husband, father, grandfather, brother, uncle and friend. We are sorry to announce that this service terminates here.'

By the way, I have made a series of short programmes for the BBC World Service about Shakespeare's legacy to the English language. They are available online here.