Wednesday, 28 December 2016

Actions speak louder than words

Let's just spare a moment shall we and think of all the editors, researchers putting together those end of year 'who we've lost lists'? Just when they sit back down to spend time with their families, another 'national treasure' or 'icon' appears to die - so back they go to the editing suite, no doubt to make everyone else's moment a little shorter in order to fit in one more well lived life.

Being Welsh I tend to have a very matter of fact way about looking at death. You're either here or you're not - simple. If you go, I'm grateful for having known you, and grateful for all that you added to my life.  Of course with close loved ones the pain is immeasurable for months, even years - but like all of life's scars, they heal over, making you a bit tougher in the process.

When Diana died in 1997, for the first time in my memory, we saw a collective, public outpouring of grief never before seen in this country.  For the Royalists, my generation had never experienced another Royal death, and I suspect that nobody had experienced a death so 'complicated' as Diana's . . . ever. From the People's Princess, to establishment outcast - her level of celebrity hit a new high.

Even further back in the 80's we witnessed far too many deaths for those too young to die. AIDS robbed the world of so many talents, we had almost become immune to death altogether.  Of course the fans cried, the fans laid flowers - but there was also a section of society who (wrongly) believed that these deaths were of their own doing.  Had they been 'straight' they would have been alive (of course these ignorant statements can be debunked in a second when you look at the evidence) So when half the world grieved, another half seemed to hold back with a religious fervour, refusing to mourn these 'self fulfilling prophesies'.

Diana though bridged that gap. The irony can't be lost that she was one of the first people to publicly break the taboo and misplaced shame of AIDS, when she simply 'touched' an AIDS victim - she had sent out a clear message to everyone that AIDS was just that, the name of a ravishing, cruel illness  - not some sort of plague of leprosy sent down to  wipe out the sinners!

Back then there was no reliable social media, or at least, no reliable way to get onto it if there was.  By the time you finished hearing that dial up tone, you felt like you had died, or your 'grief' had certainly subsided a bit. So we were all glued to the screens, as the main channels (and don't forget there that were only 5 then . . . 5 didn't count as no-one really watched it, and 4 was out simply because you watched major events on BBC1 or ITV.  A few people had their Sky subscriptions but it wasn't really 'a thing').

So what's changed? Are we losing too many too soon? Well yes and no really, but there are so many social and economic factors to keep in mind. Let's look at the 'easy' ones first. The young ones 'taken too early' by cancer or some other hideous disease. There's long been a conspiracy theory that cancer could be cured, but the pharmaceutical companies couldn't afford for that to happen. Whilst the theory can be picked apart I'm sure, it feels to me a little like the 'why don't all the main car manufacturers make a reliable electric car?' Well our economy is driven by gold and oil . . . you can see where I'm heading?

So for me this is where my Welshness kicks in. Yes it's sad, yes it's unfair, yes I know a whole load of other people that I would have preferred to have suffered in this way. . . however the circle of life must be concluded.

Maybe that's why all these deaths are really hitting us so hard in 2016? We appear to have supported the rise of some of the most ridiculous, dangerous and narcissistic  political figures in decades. Many of whom we feel like we woudn't miss, but all of whom appear to be missing the grim reaper, who instead goes somewhere that that takes a bit more 'joy' out of our lives. . . or at least seems to.

Many (not all) of the young ones that are dying have lived lives of great excesses, sometimes through addiction/mental illness.  We've forgotten many of the stories now (although the media are desperately attempting to remind us) - but I suspect in 'real years' they were actually much older than we realise.  You can't spend decades with drug and alcohol addictions and then be surprised when your vital organs have been worn out a bit quicker than you were expecting.  However if you look at the list you are kind of left thinking 'but when you were alive you really lived'

Finally there are the elderly who have lived to amazing ages. So can we really scream in defiance when an octogenarian dies? Hell they've had it all and seen it all.  In most professions people retired at 65 and go and 'graze in a field'. In our profession actors celebrate making that age, knowing that they've just hit a new casting bracket, so the work never dries up.  We remain in the public conscience as the elder statesman, still honing their craft.

However social media and rolling news channels mean that every death is amplified within our own echo chamber. The deaths somehow feel more catastrophic. There are the people who report every death like some contemporary town crier. There are those who are desperate to be 'close to the death' - so relate stories about how they once went shopping in the same supermarket as those people, therefore giving them an 'unique' position to vent their grief.  Suddenly 'a nation' mourns, whilst the news regurgitates the same old clippings of them, or plays on a loop the words of grief of our nation's other treasures. Whilst speculating widely on the cause of death, in order to give us an understanding, and give us a closure maybe?

The other night  I was incensed watching the news of George Michael breaking through. Firstly because once you've made the statement that someone has died, there's a full stop really. Where else is there to go with that (I appreciate that this is the Welsh in me though. . . and that they have to keep repeating it for 'those people just joining them')? However on this particular 'event' the reporting was appalling. The endless passive words of blatant homophobia being reported on, the utter lack of understanding of mental illness, self medication and addiction.  I felt like the world had taken a few steps back.  For any of you that follow my tweets (either my personal account @ALThomasMT or my 'work' account @theMTAonline) you would have sensed my annoyance and anger as several times I felt compelled to pick up my phone and ask them what the hell they were doing?

However there you have it don't you? Suddenly the death of someone not known to me, but someone that I can admire, has prompted me to 'tell the world' how incensed I am about a channel's reporting of the death. I can spew my viewpoint out to all that can be bothered to hear it.  I have entered the echo chamber.

Last night I was incensed by all those people celebrating the advocacy work that Carrie Fisher had undertaken to remove the stigma around mental health.  The tweets were eloquent, many hoping that they'd 'caught' the wave, and might even get a bit of a viral RT going.  Yet those same people who were loudly shouting about removing the stigma of mental health last night, were the same people that I had approached to join #time4change - and who had rebuffed the idea with various retorts. That stigma was too real to actually DO something. . . but it was OK to poke it with a far reaching stick to make sure that their followers thought that they actually cared about it!

Then in amongst all of this 'noise' is a family. A family that we don't know, who are the real mourners in the tale. I wonder what it must feel like to share your personal grief with millions? Are you touched that your loved one was revered and indeed appreciated by so many, do you just not notice it as you look inwards for strength from your loved ones - or do you wish that the rest of us would just go away and leave you to come to terms with your very real, very personal loss?

This phenomenon is only going to get worse, as we all cross lines that were put down for a reason. Personal space is ever harder to find - but find it you must.  The end of the world is not nigh if we all stick together and look after each other - but that includes actions not just words.

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