The approach of 2017 is inexorable. In three short days we’ll at the start of a brand new year. Being in the northern hemisphere means that I’ll be welcoming the new cycle of the earth around the sun, at the darkest and coldest time. That’s an accident of geography though- no point in splitting hairs about that .
If I am to be frank, I detest the new year celebrations. People looking back on the year gone by – often with a sense of regret at what has been lost, at the resolutions that remain unfulfilled, at the ambitions not yet realised, the unresolved relationships. The people gone. It can be a dark time if you are not fully happy in your life – and who is? Navel gazing over the disappointments of unachieved goals is not the best way to cheer yourself up. Especially when the days are short and cold. When in reality, you have limited control over what is happening in the world.
This year there seems to have been a theme – especially if you are active on social media. The untimely loss of the great and the good from the world of music, film, TV and writing. David Bowie dying so early in the year seems to have set the tone. Week after week it seemed another much loved icon had gone. He was followed from this earthly plane by Alan Rickman. It cemented the idea that 2016 was the year of the Grim Reaper. As the story of each new passing was shared on Facebook, the caterwauling intensified. ‘Why 2016? Why are you doing this to us? Why are you taking our touchstones?’
Victoria Wood, Gene Wilder, Prince, Leonard Cohen, Pete Burns, Caroline Ahearne, Zsa Zsa Gabor, Rick Parfitt, George Michael, Carrie Fisher, Debbie Reynolds. Week after week there seemed to be another loss from the world of the stars.
I understand the logic of this second hand grief. These are the people with whom we grew up – watching their music videos, films, comedy shows. They represent a time and a place in our lives. We thought they’d be with us forever. And their deaths seem shocking. These people are meant to be eternal. But the grief is second hand. We didn’t know these people. They were not our friends. We didn’t know whether they put the empty milk carton back in the fridge rather than the dustbin. We have no idea whether they left the toilet seat up after relieving themselves, or whether they thought that no-one could see them picking their nose.
Their deaths seem to be evidence of something else – the relentless passage of time. We are getting older. And their passing is an awkward reminder of the temporary nature of our time on this revolving planet.
I was upset in an abstract way by many of these losses. And in a specific way over George Michael. He was my childhood popstar. He is fixed forever in my mind as the bouncy boy from Wham! who would wake me up before I go-go. Despite the fact that he was retired, and that all his music remains in the world, it was upsetting.
Our love for these people seems pure. Untainted by the awkward reality of everyday living. Their deaths can be a useful diversion from the truth – that you’ve not been home in two months, or that you are neglecting a friendship. Or that someone closer to home has died. There is little personal responsibility or repercussion from our love for these strangers.
And our grief for the loss of these figures is more manageable and meaningful than our powerlessness in the face of the larger horrors going on.
This year saw an escalation of the horror in Syria and the refugee humanitarian crisis. There was the bombing of the gay club in Orlando. Brexit. The election of Trump. The looming environmental apocalypse. The homeless crisis.
These are all such huge events and some of which are potentially cataclysmic. My ability to change any of these seems limited.
I have little sympathy with the idea that grief about a celebrity’s death is somehow shallow in light of the existential threats facing the world. I cared that George Michael died. I make a monthly donation to a homeless charity. Just because I don’t announce the charity donation on Facebook doesn’t negate the fact that I do it.
2016 has been a fairly good year for me all told. According to Facebook, I signed the lease for my flat on this day last year. As the months went by I started regretting my move back to Ireland less and less. The despair I was feeling last January over the fifteen year old life I left behind in Amsterdam diminished. I started moving on.
And so on to 2017. I won’t be making any resolutions – I never do – they tend to be a recipe for failure. But I’ll try to keep on keeping on.
If I pass my police background check (which is a given – to my shame I’ve never even been arrested in my life) then by March I will hopefully have a new grandfather – I’ve volunteered with Alone – a charity for elderly people living alone. I will be assigned someone to visit each week. Is it possible I wonder to request a gay person I wonder. I’m curious about the bad old days.