Tom Sutcliffe: Whither thou goest, I will go

The Week In Culture
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The joint death of Sir Edward and Lady Downes was described in a variety of ways in the press coverage of their decision to end their lives together. Their son Caractacus described it as "a completely reasonable" thing to do, Sir Edward's agent said it was "typically brave and courageous" and a friend used the word "surprising". What I couldn't find anywhere was the word which – a little uncomfortably – came into my mind, which was "beautiful". It's not particularly hard to think of reasons why, of course. It's an odd kind of word to use about a sad event, and one hesitates to say anything which would imply that the opposite course of action – raging against the dying of the light or declining to depart a second earlier than is necessary – might be seen as "ugly". In the immediate aftermath of the couple's death most people would tactfully steer clear of anything that suggested either approval or condemnation, restricting themselves to something more neutral. And yet I found that in thinking of their joint decision to travel to the Dignitas clinic in Zurich that word – more conventionally suited to art and music – kept turning up. There was something about this act that seemed to go beyond desperate expediency. They had crafted their final moments into a joint statement about their feelings about each other, and, it seemed to me, had recovered something beautiful from a hopeless circumstance.

I don't know whether "beauty" is actually appropriate to what happened or a callow aestheticising of a despairing moment. But I think I know why it came into my mind. It was because this was a Romantic event, with a capital R, an ending that made me think of the association between death and love that runs through so much art. It made me think of Tristan and Isolde, not a suicide pact strictly speaking but certainly a story in which death is seen almost as an apotheosis of love. And it made me think of Swan Lake too, where Siegfried and Odette choose death together rather than a life apart. It isn't hard to think of other examples either – fictions in which death is presented not as a contingent termination to a life, but as something embraced in defiance of what life has actually delivered. What Sir Edward and Lady Downes did suggested that it isn't only on stage that the curtain falls on such profound gestures.

I can't believe, either, that their careers in music and dance – and their knowledge and love of such repertoire – had no influence on their decision. Virtually everything they did was a matter of aesthetic control, of final cadences crafted to the last note and timings judged to the second. Endings, in their professional life at least, were never a matter of chance or obedient surrender to fate. They were consciously shaped to mean something and – just as important to an artist – shaped so as not to betray everything that had gone before. In her essay "Illness as Metaphor", Susan Sontag properly warned against the temptation to romanticise disease and terminal illness. She was right – there's nothing artistic about cancer or the suffering it imposes. But it's not fanciful to suggest that there might be something consciously wrought about the way you choose to respond to that suffering, and that one of the effects an artist might seek to the very end is beauty.

A no culture show, please

The Department of Culture Media and Sport's web-page laying out the details of Ben Bradshaw's (below) City of Culture challenge makes interesting reading. The competition is to find a City of Culture for 2013 – the prize – somewhat circularly – being permission to use the City of Culture brand for a year, and thus deploy the power of art for civic regeneration and de-centralisation. The words "step change" occur no less than five times in the press release, a standard bit of initiative-speak that repetition starts to give a faintly comical undertone, since it seems to hint (without ever saying it explicitly) that the worse shape a candidate city is in now, culturally speaking, the better its chances. London has been barred from competing, on the grounds that everything is too metropolitan anyway, and it's hard to imagine that the award would go to Liverpool (which has just finished its period as European City of Culture) or to Manchester (which is currently running a terrific festival and doing very well without a branding exercise). I imagine there might be political difficulties in handing it out to Glasgow or Edinburgh too – both of which scarcely need a logo to establish their cultural credentials. So, if you find yourself living in a cultural desert somewhere write to your local council, because you've got a head start in this race. And start fund-raising too – because not a penny of Government money is attached to the gold medal.

I used the "it's hard not to think of" trope the other day, having been provoked by the sight of Zaha Hadid's temporary chamber orchestra structure for the Manchester International Festival into saying that, when you first encountered it, "it was hard not to think of Goethe's famous remark about architecture being "frozen music". Then, a couple of days later, I encountered the construction again from the receiving end, in a notably thoughtful review of Brüno by the film critic Philip French.

He began his crit by quoting the New York intellectual Alfred Kazin on how important mimicry had been in securing access to the literary mainstream for Jewish writers – a theory, he wrote that "one can't help thinking of" when contemplating Sacha Baron Cohen's career. I could help thinking of it, I thought, and I have a feeling that millions of other people will have managed the trick, too. In fact, it seems quite possible that the only person on the planet who would have any difficulty in keeping the two concepts apart is Philip French. That's the point of him, surely. That he brings to bear a breadth of reference that is pretty much unique in its historical range (his review also contained references to a classic of sociology, The Lonely Crowd by David Riesman, and Terry Southern's novel The Magic Christian, both of them illuminating). Anyway, I was left feeling that I'm either going to have to up my game considerably when it comes to reflexive cultural cross-references... or give up the game entirely.