Of all the animals of prey, man is the only sociable one.
Every one of us preys upon his neighbour, and yet we herd together.
The Beggar's Opera: John Gay

Saturday, 16 January 2016

Ashes to Ashes

''Fame: puts you there where things are hollow'

It is something of a shame that the man who, even while assiduously courting it, regarded celebrity with a certain amused cynicism - "I'm an instant star. Just add water and stir" -  could not enjoy what has turned out to be a mass media hagiography of epic proportions (unless, of course, we have just collectively witnessed the pinnacle of a career dedicated to performance art; think of that 'Lazarus' video...).

While it was reasonable to recognise in a news broadcast the importance of his influence on popular culture, Radio 4's Today Programme went so far overboard it ended up effectively scraping the bottom of the ocean. A veritable host of callers popped up to describe even the most fleeting interactions with the star, while the programme itself turned into a rather trendier version of housewife's choice as enough exerpts from his records were played to make the copyright owners very happy indeed.

As the day wore on, endless interviewees from the music industry queued up to explain in lavish detail what Bowie meant to them personally and - more importantly - how he influenced their work. You can't blame them, I suppose; as always, behind each banal celebrity is a ruthless agent demanding that the client somehow shoehorn in a reference to his or her own latest opus.

As a culture, we seem to be experiencing some difficulties in adopting a suitable degree of response to the death of a well-known public figure. While the Victorians admittedly threw themselves into the whole business of mass mourning with unaccountable enthusiasm, the British attitude in general has traditionally been one of restraint - possibly because there were usually more important things to worry about like civil war, plague or taxes.

What we have seen this week is largely the product of a solipsistic media caste heavily influenced by their own personal priorities - the same phenomenon that produced the wall-to-wall coverage when Nelson Mandela died in 2013. It's all part of a growing trend towards collective sentimentality - remember 'the People's Princess'? - and an emphasis on the outward display of emotion, whether genuine or synthetic.

While I applaud the unseen hand that put Bowie on the PA system in my local shopping centre last week - infinitely better than the usual X-Factor warblings - and I may well play my CD of 'Ziggy Stardust' in the car this weekend (and sing along when there's no one listening), I see no reason to join in with a communal and irrational manifestation of grief played out to the extent that the mourning becomes in itself the news story.

There is a certain irony in the media descriptions of Bowie's quiet last months with his family and the private cremation interspersed with lurid accounts of candlelit vigils by tear-stained, elaborately-dressed fans (not for nothing is the term short for 'fanatic'). According to one paper, 'Rosie Lowery, 21, who painted her face with a lightning bolt in tribute, was crying as she laid flowers in Bowie's memory'; is it cynical to think that young Rosie's touching display may owe more to the omnipresent news cameras than to veneration of an ephemeral persona created twenty years before she was born?

Still, regardless of my views on conspicuous lamentation, I have to say that I have admired Bowie's musical and creative talent since I first heard 'Space Oddity' as a science fiction-obsessed teenager. Clearly I am not the only one for whom the song had a certain resonance - the internet sensation generated by Commander Chris Hadfield's performance suggests a sizeable intersection of enthusiasts (though it helped that Hadfield had already achieved online fame with his excellent tweet about having to wear a red shirt).

That being so, it is, perhaps inevitable that - and I've been saving this treat until last - there is an asteroid out there called David Bowie. It's not likely to be dropping by Earth any time soon but there's something rather agreeable about the idea of it sailing on eternally through the asteroid belt; perhaps, if online speculation proves correct, it will one day be joined out there in space by the cremated remains of the man himself.