Death becomes most people. As a rule, it is a cue for praise, even idealisation. Legends usually start with death – Jesus being the most notable, but far from the only, example. It doesn't always work that way. The revelations following the death of Jimmy Savile have destroyed his living reputation as a latter-day saint who gave away 90 per cent of his income to charity. Now he will be remembered as a child abuser.
Eric Hobsbawm, too, upon his passing, is now posthumously suffering the accusations that many were too polite to fling at the old gent when he was still breathing – that he was an apologist for Stalinist genocide. History, as both Catholic Savile and Marxist Hobsbawm would have acknowledged, gradually unfolds towards a kind of truth. But then, it can also unfold towards a particular variety of myth.
Hobsbawm particularly, as a historian, would have understood that the meaning of an event never has an end – and a person is a type of event, albeit one spread out over a lifetime. The moment someone dies, the process of revisionism gets under way, because after the initial mourning and cultural tic of hagiography has passed, people are able to take a cooler, more objective view of a life. What they can't do – for the famous in particular – is leave alone the life now that has passed.
Who a person is, or was, is a dynamic process that, particularly in the case of real historical figures – Charles Dickens, for instance, who had his umpteenth biography published this year – never stops unfolding. For such people, death is not a full stop, but merely a hyphen.
Death marks the beginning of a new process in the unfolding of a life. It as if a magnifying glass is conjured, showing new details and revealing new facts. But facts always carry myths in their wake. Take the recent deaths of Andy Williams and Max Bygraves, which have been described as "the end of an era" – a highly questionable tag that is tacked on to just about anybody who is deemed to represent any cultural norm. There are plenty of scions of easy listening/light entertainment yet to be dispatched – but the myth of the Passing Era propagates all the same.
Likewise with the death of Scott McKenzie, the singer of the anthem "San Francisco". It is hard to resist identifying his death with an end to innocence, with a bygone era, with peerless youth. Yet death pumps out hot air more steadily than an industrial balloon pump. Sometimes death ensures that people cannot remain as they previously appeared to be. At other times it can enclose them in a straitjacket that they cannot escape. And it sometimes dresses them up in colourful clothes that do not fit.
The average funeral, for instance, reiterates what is known of the average person. They liked a particular football team, a certain song, the brand of cigarettes that killed them. The perorations and tributes tend towards fixing that person in their place, usually in a somewhat rosy light. This is the fate of most of us – to be lightly mythologised then left alone to rot alongside these enshrined impressions, true or false. This is not always true of everybody who fails to achieve fame or notoriety. After my mother died 25 years ago, I found out a number of things that changed my understanding of her substantially. In her case, the manner of her death – suicide – at its very stroke transformed my idea of who she was. Many mourners may live to discover surprising and sometimes uncomfortable truths. But there is yet a gulf between the famous and the ordinary.
Substantial public figures enjoy – if that is the right word – substantial public investment, both emotionally and financially. The biography industry ensures the survival of most public figures beyond their expiry, and that industry thrives on new facts and new revelations – the more scandalous the better – while the rest of us are more likely to be left, obscure and unsullied, in our eternal sleep as we are forgotten, one by one, by each surviving individual who knew us.
It is for the famous that death tends towards the dynamic – and weaves, like life, a texture of truth and lies, according to the emotional stance and needs of the observer. The recent death of the film director Tony Scott was immediately given a heroic explanation – that he killed himself to save his family from watching him succumb to cancer.
This proved to be without foundation, but a much-loved figure had to carry a heroic script with him – and death provided the dialogue. On the other hand, there are other deaths that really do seem to set the seal on a myth – the reputation of Neil Armstrong, as the first man on the Moon, appears indestructible.
Death is the conclusion of something for most of us, but only the beginning of a conclusion that never ends for the famous and powerful. It is not, for them, a final coalescence; it is the continuation and often a radical alteration of an ongoing process. Death is society's opportunity to have second thoughts.
For my own part, I am extremely glad that I am unlikely ever to be subject to anything but the most cursory obituaries and will then be forgotten. Like everyone else, I have dark corners to my life, and I would not have them unveiled by packs of biographers, pens like stilettoes, waiting to stab my memory to a second death.
Jimmy Savile, however, will not be left in peace, any more than Charles Dickens will be. Crass, predatory oddball and wayward genius share the same fate – although Savile's shelf life as an object of fascination will be massively more truncated. Whether this raking over dead coals is right and proper is not the question. It is simply inevitable, emerging out of the compulsion of the living to draw conclusions from and make connections with the residues of the dead just as much, if not more so, than with the lives of the living.
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