Channel 4, home of Posh Pawn, My Big Fat Diet Show (?) and Three Wives One Husband, where three women shit onto a bloke watching the rugby. The other night I accidentally landed on Channel 4 when whatever I was watching on catch-up ran out, and made the fatal error of not hammering desperately at every button within reach.
It was a programme about the royal family, I think. At any rate there was lots of Diana in it and she died. There were clips of plebs exhibiting mass grief outside a palace they weren’t allowed in. A huge, blatantly hard man shuddered as his beetroot-red face leaked onto the pitbull tattooed on the bingo wing of the ‘woman’ consoling him.
Where is he now, I wonder? How does he remember that day? Nobly, one suspects, with gnarled fists brandished if his manliness is ever questioned. But the TV doesn’t lie, matey. No matter how many fat people it exploits while promising Baked-Off strudels are good for you, Channel 4 doesn’t lie. You bawled like a smacked infant at the death of a rich woman you didn’t know, who’d have treated you like a 17th-century peasant with a large red X on his door had she met you, and we all saw it.
It’s not grief that baffles me, not exactly. I can understand people might be sad when someone dies. It manifests itself as sadness on behalf of the departed, who can feel nothing and need no sympathy, when we all know it’s selfish misery that Granny won’t be around any more to tell you what a special little boy you are. Nobody else does, after all.
But somebody needs to explain the ritualisation of tragedy to me.
Last week a nutcase drove a car into a pile of pedestrians in London, punting one into the river and another onto his head on a pavement below. He then went crackers with a knife and an unfortunate policeman found his stab-proof vest wasn’t worth the cardboard the Met had 3D printed it on because ‘efficiencies’.
These are miserable events for sure. Indeed, had I not been sucking on a Magners tap like an Irish baby the previous night I would have been about 200 metres away when it happened, and therefore had a much more harrowing tale to tell. They wouldn’t let us out of the office for two hours, it was total lockdown. They told us nothing, and all we had was Twitter. It was like a tube station during the Blitz, but twice as scary. Really, I nearly died.
It is quite key, though, that the people who did die in this hearty display of psychopathy will not, can not, know anything about the public’s subsequent lapse into unified woe. There are vigils for people who during their lives would never have intended to be the subject of such a bizarre gathering. As corpses lie oblivious, cuddly toys are sellotaped to lamp posts. Flowers are piled up on pavements as though their plastic wrappings will simply swirl away on a breeze that signifies life’s transition, not skitter to the Thames to suffocate the one seal dumb enough to venture into its horrible brown depths.
Anger upon tragedy is understandable, as is the loss of those connected to victims. But turning a lone goon with a car and a knife into a festival of despair – who does that help? Please, explain it to me, why are you lighting a candle and leaving it on a bridge?
I mean, really think about what you’re doing there for a moment. It’s a candle. Wax and fire. Keeps a room lit when the 50p coins run out. And a bridge. A way to cross a river. These two things have no business being combined. People once used candles in conjunction with grief because they didn’t have any other way to make sure the local thatcher was sufficiently upset that his wife had fallen down the well, and that he hadn’t helped her on her way. Candles don’t actually symbolise grief – they symbolise a time before E.ON.
Importantly, the dead can’t know they’re being insulted, either. I can’t think of a good reason to, but I can posit that ‘retired window cleaner Leslie Rhodes, 75, from south London’ was shit with a shammy. Your reaction might be horrified outrage at my disrespect for the dead. Disrespect for the what was that? Oh yes. Dead. If I’d insulted Leslie during his life I would have rightly expected a squeegee jammed into my face such that Harry C. Browne could have milked it for lyrics. I wouldn’t have done that. Now, it just doesn’t fucking matter.
But the families! Yes, there are those left behind to defend the honour of those they’ve lost. I’d argue they have their hands full with the aftermath of losing a relative, but if a family wants to take offence at something a stranger says to make a point, I will accept my disgrace with head dipped and hands aloft. I would, however, recommend they stay off social media. Compared to that, I’m Gandhi.
Perhaps it’s religion; three words with a lot of explaining to do. It’s possible that the diminishing number of people who think PC Keith Palmer is ‘looking down on us from heaven’ are responsible for the curious collective notion that he somehow cares what we do once he’s passed through the incinerator.
But let’s pretend for a moment that’s true, and we don’t show sufficient respect after death. Isn’t it likely he’s enjoying the afterlife and bestowing glowing forgiveness on all, including maybe even the arsehole who stabbed him? Or do you think it’s more likely he’s spending his time in paradise castigating humanity for their lack of wreaths?
Yes, wreaths. These have become the standard method by which you show you’re a good human who cares about someone who can’t respond that they thought you were a bit of a prat when they were alive. Witness the chief constables and superintendents placing rings of flowers at the foot of a revolving sign outside an office block. Then pause for a moment, clear your mind, and wonder how that’s simply accepted as normal.
The crowning moment came, naturally, at a football match. Thousands of people stood in silence, pausing their braying and insults for a full minute, while four dignitaries of unspecified provenance walked a wreath each from the sideline into the centre circle of Wembley Stadium. When the minute had passed, they walked off. As they left the pitch, four different people came on. They each picked up a wreath, and carried it away. These people wore lanyards so it all made sense.
The theatricality of it is so predictable as to render displays of public grief utterly worthless. There are two purposes to it. First, for every one of us to pretend that we will be missed and lauded like a war hero when we die. Look, look how I show my respect for an American tourist caught up in a random act of violence! You’d do the same for me, right? You would, right? Please don’t forget me. Please?
Second, to avoid standing out. If you’re not seen to be sufficiently upset at something like this, we as a race can surmise that you are a sociopath who wants every one of us dead. You are the man laughing at the funeral, because you always hated the bloke, you’re not a hypocrite and you’re genuinely pleased he’s gone. You have the integrity of Jeremy Corbyn, and you’ll get about as many votes.
I don’t know why the sight of flowers on a grave bothers me. Maybe it’s that whoever left them could have given them to the recipient while they had the capacity to be grateful, and made them happy. Maybe it’s the fact that every time we honour the dead we miss a chance to honour each other, the living.
If we didn’t always look back with so much selfish guilt, perhaps we could numb death’s sting a little and appreciate lives well lived. And maybe if we shook a hand instead of lighting a candle, or bought someone a pint instead of a wreath, humanity wouldn’t hate itself so much it drives cars into window cleaners.