According to the Internet, something like 153,000 people die on the planet every day. Each death presumably wreaks its catastrophic effect on those closest to the person who has passed. One of the depressing markers of your time spent on the planet is the increasing number of deaths which strike some personal chord. It’s part of what enables the young to be so impersonal.
The older you get, the greater the chance of wincing at each day’s new toll, the diurnal catalogue of necrology.
Someone tried to contextualize last year’s brutal cull of celebrities by claiming that our sense of shock was simply a matter of statistics. More people on the Earth became famous during the 20th Century than ever before. These are in the main people we have never met, but with whom, in that plangent human way, we want to feel some sort of connection.
We have seen them on the news, consumed their media, shed tears of second hand joy or frustration at the calamities of their football teams. At different times, deluded or no, we like to feel a famous person has touched us personally. Somebody’s book contained something that seemed to speak personally to me. At some point in a long presence before the cameras, some politician seemed to say something I personally identified with.
No matter, perhaps, that she then went on to do things I hated. The subconscious never seems able to forget anything. Like an old relationship, it’ll ensure there’s a part of you that’s never entirely able to forget the good times (I used to believe Hillary Clinton was kind of hot, for example. I wonder would her and my life have been different, had we ever met? Well obviously they would have been, but you know what I mean.).
The sudden decline of Martin McGuinness, the self-avowed IRA commander who went on to become joint First Minister of Northern Ireland, was alarming, sobering, a nagging reminder of all those things we don’t like to think about. Whatever your personal view of his career – and it is hard to think of anything more controversial – McGuinness’ public persona was that of a titan, the ultimate ‘hard man’ of Irish politics.
Just as only Nixon could go to China, only McGuinness could win the majority support of all those other ‘hard men’ for making peace with the British and Unionists. But we never know the day or the hour, and to hear that voice – always so full of strident conviction – so suddenly stripped of vitality and strength, was unnerving in the extreme, as if a known presence was suddenly ceasing to be present.
We are constantly – to an extent that almost induces suicide – exhorted to be positive, to bare positive smiling teeth in the face of multiple adversity, but those of us who’ve picked up a few things over the years knew too easily what the scary new fragility of that voice really meant.
He both gave and took life. It is unquestionable that hundreds – perhaps thousands – of people are alive today because of the bravery shown by McGuinness and others in that excruciating labour to craft peace in Northern Ireland, just as hundreds of others probably died on his orders.
But as I listened to the various tributes and condemnations over the last 24 hours, a thought about McGuinness struck me. A senior Irish journalist told of having driven to ‘Free Derry’ in 1970, at the very height of the Troubles, and being semi-officially ‘greeted’ by McGuinness, who couldn’t then have been any more than twenty.
Presumably, only a few years before, that 20 year old had been a child, kicking a football or daydreaming at the side of some hill. Whatever private life of the soul he might have tried to enjoy, his life was entirely defined by conflict. There can’t have been a lot of time for happiness, for kicking back.
Sometimes the life contract can seem like a peculiarly awful deal. If the world of the pre-born has lawyers worth their salt, one would assume they’d advise most of their clients against it (“I mean, look at all the lawyers in there, for f***s sake”).
It was while some of this crossed my mind that I heard of the death of crime author Colin Dexter at the age of 86. Dexter was the creator of Inspector Morse, the misanthropic, opera loving, basically alcoholic Detective brought to life on TV with such grandeur by the incomparable John Thaw.
Dexter’s novels were enigmatic little crossword puzzles (like Morse, he was a lifelong devotee) and the writing style was fusty, even a little maddening. They were probably geared towards a particular kind of middle brow English readership, the kind of people who listen to BBC 4 and write letters to the paper about litter, but they were entirely true to their own world, consistent with their own internal logic, which is all that is really required for a work of art.
“And suddenly, unexpectedly, Morse found himself thinking he’d rather like to meet the mysterious ‘K.’ Then, just as suddenly, he knew he wouldn’t; unless, of course, that ambivalent lady held the key to the murder of Felix McClure – a circumstance which (at the time) he suspected was extremely improbable.”
[from ‘The Daughters of Cain’]
It’s unlikely such prose would get you through the door of a publishing house these days, but then nothing – apart from celebrity or some sort of sexual connection to celebrity – seems likely to pull off that trick today (maybe it’s not too late to call Hillary).
There’s more than a tinge of misogyny about the Morse novels. That and other gritty details – such as the fact that Morse smokes cigarettes and is an avid consumer of porn – were excised from the ITV series which ruled British TV during the late 1980’s and 1990’s.
In all, 33 feature length episodes were filmed before the Detective met his end in ‘The Remorseful Day.’ Each episode is effectively a self-contained movie, and some of them – ‘Second Time Around,’ ‘Who Killed Harry Field?’ and ‘Masonic Mysteries’ are examples – attain a level of excellence far beyond most movies.
Sometimes, all too rarely, the quiddity of human contact produces results far more sublime that the individual components would ever have led one to suspect. The fact that TV Morse vastly outgrew his original creation was partly due to the input of directors like Danny Boyle and Anthony Minghella, but mainly because of that mystical union between Morse and Thaw, a man with more demons than the prose Detective could have shaken his cigarette at.
Dexter, to his credit, always acknowledged this, and paid generous tribute to the extra riches Thaw poured into his creation. The author himself appears in every episode, a la Hitchcock, and the appearances are always more interesting than you’d expect. You wonder should they have experimented with making him a minor villain.
The void left by the passing of Morse is illustrated by ITV’s desperate attempts to keep the franchise going, with both a sequel and prequel. In ‘Lewis,’ the excellent Kevin Whately reprises his role as Morse’s faithful sidekick, now the main act, while ‘Endeavour’ features the so so Shaun Evans as an improbably twentysomething Morse, back in the early 1960’s.
Both series’ opt for fantastically complex plots which eschew both credibility and the operatic grandeur of the original. They are both vaguely comforting and vaguely distressing, just like all tribute acts.
John Thaw did not long survive his defining character, dying at the age of 60 just months after the completion of ‘The Remorseful Day.’ Dexter was apparently told back in the 1980’s that he had only a few years to live. He was diagnosed with Type 2 Diabetes, a condition he eventually bestowed on his Detective, and suffered from deafness throughout his life, a disability which also features in one of the novels and episodes.
If the prose quoted above might not inspire the avarice of a 21st Century publisher, then it might be a good idea to read some original Tolkien, and speculate on just what chance that elderly Don might have of getting his big break today. Dexter, to some extent, inhabited the same world as Tolkien, of stone courtyards and real ale and hearty conversations which beguiled the emptiness of so much around them.
Like Tolkien, he was able at his best to sketch out a Universe both comforting and occasionally ennobling, and there aren’t too many who can say that.
The cull continued with Ronnie Moran, who spent his adult life as a soccer player and coach with Liverpool FC. Moran was an integral part of Liverpool’s famous ‘boot room,’ where iconic manager Bill Shankly gathered some likeminded souls around him and began a series of conversations about the philosophy and purpose of the game known as football.
Just as the famous pub conversations between Tolkien, CS Lewis and others helped shape an entirely new genre of English literature, so the ‘boot room’ talks went on to change the entire nature of the world’s favourite game, though like everything connected with Liverpool FC, including and especially Moran, they don’t get anything like the credit they deserve.
The doctrine of ‘pass and move, pass and move’ which emerged from the conversations led to Liverpool dominating English and European soccer for two decades. But it changed the way other teams played the game as well. Prior to the boot room, soccer – at least in England – had been a lot like other contact sports, such as Gaelic Football, depending a great deal more on brawn than brain.
Nowadays, fitness, speed and strength are still important, but so also is a grasp of the principles behind a dynamic, lightning fast form of human chess. Those gatherings of a few, mostly unassuming, middle aged working class men has led in its way to the form our biggest opiate takes today. Teams like Barcelona and Bayern Munich play according to ideas the men of the boot room would have theorised about fifty years ago.
Ronnie Moran was always a backroom figure, more at home perhaps, as a coach of players rather than a manager. It’s hard to imagine him playing the media like Jose Mourinho. He did serve as caretaker manager during a couple of the crises which rocked Liverpool in the 1980s. He was apparently in the frame to become full time manager in 1991, before the club opted to appoint former player Graeme Souness, who then set about completing the process of Liverpool’s long term decline.
It is tempting, for supporters of Liverpool at least, to wonder how Moran might have done, not that much worse surely.
Ronnie Moran was the last living link to the original boot room; the others – Shankly, Bob Paisley and Joe Fagan – are long gone. The crushing emotional blows of the Van Heysel disaster in 1985 and Hillsborough in 1989 must have taken their toll.
The incredible teams Moran helped create now live in their pomp only in the re-runs massively expensive sports channels are forced to churn out during the close season, but they can still look sublime today. Moran and those he served with didn’t have access to the biggest chequebook to secure the biggest names, so instead they created the best machine, and watching that machine today inspires both awe and depression in supporters of today’s Liverpool team.
These three passings, like so many before and after them, serve as markers in time. Is it a special cruelty of today that we are granted roughly the same amount of time, but an infinitely greater number of markers?