"David Bowie went—we all noticed that" © Photobra|Adam Bielawski/wikimedia commons

Time's immemorial work

I am struggling to remember a year with a death toll like it. Then I realised it's not that more people are dying; it's an observer effect
March 24, 2016

“The high ones die, die. They die. You look up and who’s there?” So, in “Dream Song 36,” did my great hero the poet John Berryman express the problem. The grown-ups get scythed down by the grim reaper and you, still feeling yourself no less a child, eventually look around and realise that there’s nobody left to look up to: you’re it. Or, as Berryman put it in another poem: “Now Henry is unmistakably a Big One./ Fúnnee; he don’t féel so./ He just stuck around.”

Not, I should say, that I wish Prospect readers to feel gloomy. But I wanted to try to make sense of something that struck me recently. David Bowie went—we all noticed that. Also Alan Rickman, it felt like moments later; and then Terry Wogan. Those of us with semi-hippies for parents clocked Paul Kantner of the Jefferson Airplane going; others will have minded more about Glenn Frey of the Eagles or Pierre Boulez of the classical avant-garde. I was pretty stricken by George Weidenfeld’s death and not only because I had the good fortune to meet him. And then there was Margaret Forster, too—whose list of achievements as a writer and as a person was remarkable.

And of course, though we mocked him, Ed “Stewpot” Stewart: he was the one who was from time to time addended to the roll-call of the recent dead as if a semi-ironic afterthought. But he had a whole human life, as subtly involved with Larkin’s “million-petalled flower of being here” as anyone else’s. The fact that, as a child, I got huge pleasure watching him present Crackerjack does not make him a comic figure any more than my memory of watching Clive James capering in a dickie-bow on the television at New Year can be regarded as saying something profound about Clive James.

So, not long ago, I found myself thinking: hell’s bells, there’s a more than usually rich crop of prominent people throwing a seven this year. (Clive James, oddly enough, distinguishing himself in this by not only not dying but becoming even more famous for not dying, and in consequence representing the opposite though more welcome surprise.) I don’t think that thought was far wrong. At the time of writing we’re still in February and I am struggling to remember a year with a death toll like it. Then I realised: it’s not that more people are dying; it’s an observer effect.

I am 42. The people who were famous and/or important and/or influential—the high ones—when I was growing up were (mostly) between their late thirties and early fifties when I was in my teens. Time being what it is—that is, pretty dependable at anything much less than lightspeed—they are now (mostly) between their late sixties and early eighties. And that puts them on the old shooting range. Martin Amis’s excellent line—“time goes about its immemorial work of making everyone look and feel like shit”—leaves unsaid that what he describes is time just limbering up: it goes on, after that, about its work of making everyone peg out.

Grim, yes, but all part of the service. I cannot say that I do not look at my own parents, who are both with us and now approaching the zone, with a proleptically grief-stricken eye. My Dad would, he says for the record, like to snuff it by surprise; my Mum hopes to get a six-month warning so as to say goodbye to everyone properly. I’d prefer them both to live forever. I can’t tell you how much it upsets me that they won’t; and that nor will I; and that shuffling the order of our exits wouldn’t make any of it much more fun.

I guess, though, that that’s what the obituary pages are for. When you’re in your twenties, they mean nothing to you. When you’re in your forties, they seem to be sending you a cheery if slightly minatory message. And when you’re in your sixties, as the nice old joke has it, you ask your man to bring you the Times in bed, you turn to the obituaries and if you don’t feature you get up and have a soft-boiled egg for breakfast. What can you do? Stick around, I suppose.