Monday, 13 June 2011

Mourning Strangers

On the day I'm writing this, I've just heard of the death of Trish Keenan from the band Broadcast. Inevitably, since I didn't know her personally, what follows is more about me than it is about her. Hence, I've left a discreet interval before sharing it.

I liked Broadcast ever since I first heard them in '97. At the moment, I don't have all their stuff and I never actually got round to seeing them live. I'll probably pick up the albums I don't have during the next few weeks.



What I find is that I'm unusually upset by the news.

These things prompt some dark thoughts (or perhaps 'reactions' is a better word) - that it's not fair that xxxx should still be alive rather than someone who was, by all accounts a lovely person in addition to being highly talented, etc. But that's an ethically dubious line to take, at best it's an expression of a desire for fairness and equity though its implications are monstrous.

Instead, I wonder why I should find this news so particularly sad. Like I said, I never even met her.

There are people dying all around us: the news almost feels like some Biblical satire these days with massive floods, stories of corruption and greed in the temples, war, disease, famine and suffering. Death is all around and perhaps one person simply can't take it all in. That's not intended to be mobid - the same is true of happiness, of course. The world is simply too big for one person to understand so we focus on small significant moments and those are inescapably about ourselves as individuals. I often think it's remarkable that anyone manages to stay sane. Think about all the stuff going on inside your head: every tiny thought, doubt, hope, fear, daft question, mad idea. You and only you know all that in detail. But what you have to learn to cope with is the fact that there are 6 billion other people doing exactly the same and your means of communicating with them are bound by all kinds of constraints, physical, emotional and social. Is it any wonder if people end up with a rather lopsided and highly personal view of things? If you want to look at it that way there's a 6 billion to one chance of you being right about anything at all.

Perhaps that's paradoxically exactly why the death of an artist who has somehow connected with you is more affecting. Broadcast produce dreamy, sad, complex music with Trish's lovely, wistful, remote vocals gliding amongst the sound. Their music is an escape, a glimpse of something different. Maybe too the sadness is that she and I were the same generation and her passing touches a nerve not just in my own sense of mortality but a fear that there may be less and less that is both new and beautiful as one grows older.

But being contemporaries can't be all of it. That's mistaking communication for expression. This illusion is a side-effect of mass media. It's not a bad thing as such. I once heard Morecambe and Wise's scriptwriter Eddie Braben say that one of the things he takes most pleasure in is that he can see a group of complete strangers, say standing in a queue for a bus, and know that at some point he has probably made every one of them laugh.

Maybe it's because there was no such connection for me that I remain mystified by the reaction to the deaths of people like Diana, Princess of Wales, Michael Jackson, Tupac and even Kurt Cobain. Elvis was great in his day, but Lennon's death was the one I can't quite believe really happened - like when you watch a movie you've seen before and find yourself almost thinking it might end differently this time.

The loss of John Peel and Douglas Adams really did hit me because what they'd done had shaped who I am, how I think and how I respond to the world. I actually shed a tear at the news that Sir John Gielgud had died but I think that's because it tapped into my early ambitions to be an actor and for some reason his death at that particular time in my life somehow put a seal on accepting that this was not now going to happen someday. One day I shall probably find myself mourning Tom Baker, the hero of my childhood. Yet he's the very man who notes how we're mostly entertained by the dead these days. I still watch Morecambe and Wise and find them funny and a pleasure to spend time with. In that sense they're still as real and alive for me as they ever actually were.

I never met Trish Keenan and probably wouldn't have recognised her if she wasn't standing on a stage singing but this morning the world (or at least the one I live in) seems a lesser place. Soon, however, I'll be able to listen to her work again and enjoy it, grateful for what I've had more than dwelling on the loss. Here's the first piece of their music I ever heard. It's still one of my favourite things ever:



My sadness is ultimately selfish: there'll be no more lovely music to come. There are many of others who will be thinking that too. But at the back of my mind is the thought of all the people who actually knew her. Their loss is greater than mine.