Oh dear. This one only came out yesterday (the current issue of Venue), but it's already caused a bit of a scrap with Mike, inspired a disparaging email from a colleague and a driven my neighbour to communicate his opinion with a disappointed tut. I'd be very interested to read your comments!
As news of Heath Ledger’s untimely death followed him into oblivion, one plaintive, anonymous comment amongst the plethora of obituaries on an American fan site stood out from all the others: “Even at school, it was clear that he wasn’t ever going to be a nobody, like the rest of us. Truth is, we were just plain jealous of him”. How refreshing. In Britain - in public, at least - we hide any suggestion of envy behind a wall of sonorous self-righteousness, dismissing premature deaths within Camp Celebrity as just another typical report from behind the lines that divide us, the humdrum folk, from just another day in what we sullenly assume to be a paradise that’s ‘not for people like us’. Or, to put it in basic pleb vs sleb terms: “I see another spoilt waster’s gone and topped himself”. Kick ‘em when they’re down? In Britain, ambition isn’t even allowed to get up.
Despite its superficially altruistic aim to create opportunities for no hopers with big ambitions, even the vile, sinister ‘X Factor’ franchise propagates this tradition. From the misshapen, maniacal miscreants that open every season to the dull, derisive conclusion (“bland, talentless oik wins X Factor!”), the show only serves to showcase the real truth at the heart of the matter: the little people are not - and never will be - special in any way, and those who have the tenacity to imagine otherwise will be punished. The ‘who does she think she is?” backlash against 2006 X-Factor winner Leona Lewis began even before she accepted her gong, with former ‘friends’ sneering “she thinks she’s too good for us now” while merrily flogging grubby stories for dirty cash. Damn that uppity Leona to hell? We don’t need to; fame has already guaranteed her a fast-track ticket. When Anita Roddick died last year, one tabloid newspaper published a photograph of the 65 year old Dame, taken three weeks before her death, alongside a feature that referred to her as an ‘eccentric woman’s rights campaigner’ and questioned the effectiveness of the Body Shop skincare range. Humane activist and long-term green issues campaigner? Nope: wrinkled, self-serving feminist. At a recent dinner party, I happened to mention that I still find ‘that’ Russell Harty/Marc Bolan interview – the one where Marc says he doesn’t think he’ll ever see the age of 40 – really poignant. “Why?”, snapped another guest. “If he’d worked on the checkout at Tesco, then yes, it would be sad. But he was a pop star – he had it coming”.
Now I’m not saying that the life of a shop assistant is of less consequence than the life of a Hollywood actor, flamboyant entrepreneur, pop muppet or ostentatious rock star. What irks me is how self-righteous ‘ordinary’ members of the public can be when it comes to spouting supposedly moral judgments on the lives – and even the deaths - of individuals in the public domain. The general consensus seems to be that Heath/Marc/Anita got what they deserved for aiming higher than a badly paid, assembly line non-job, while ‘good wives’ (the ones with husbands who think that the fact “she always put dinner on the table at 6pm sharp” is a loving tribute after 50 years of intimacy) and soldiers who die in Iraq (excuse me, but isn’t the risk of death-by-maniac an almost inevitable part of “just doing my job, ma’am”?) garner reams of sentimental obituaries or are posthumously elevated to ‘hero’ status.
As I write, the results of an autopsy conducted on Heath Ledger have been returned as ‘inconclusive’, and Ledger family lawyers have successfully ordered the media to correct spurious claims that “pills were found strewn around his naked body”. A certain tabloid has run this story under the headline, “Heath: What Are They Trying to Hide?”. RIP talent, ambition and success – the British public have murdered you. Bitterness, drudgery, resentment, mundanity and envy, however, continue to thrive.