Terence Blacker: 'Sympathisers' who are merely showing off

The Way We Live: It is not enough to feel something; one must be seen to feel it


Here is a question for those who are up to date with the ever-changing etiquette of the new media. When you discover, through a group email, Facebook or Twitter, that someone you know is seriously ill, what is the correct way to respond? Once you would have contacted the person privately. Now, in this age of the semi-public forum, that seems inappropriately low-key.

Something has happened to sympathy recently. It has become more of a shared, team event than it once was. The English way of dealing with a crisis in the lives of others – murmured words, awkward offers of assistance – has given way to a more open show of caring. It is not enough to feel something; one must be seen to feel it.

Nowhere is the sentimental life of crowds more evident than at a football match. Once the emotion expressed was of the straightforward gutted/over-the-moon/we-was-robbed variety. Then, in the 1980s, violence and nastiness had their moment. Now, as we've seen over the past fortnight, it is the moment of mass sympathy. Hardly had crowds dried their tears (with, just possibly, a faint sense of anticlimax) after it became clear that the Bolton player Fabrice Muamba was not going to die following his heart attack, when another show of concern was required.

Stiliyan Petrov, who plays for Aston Villa, has been diagnosed with acute leukaemia, it was announced last week. By Saturday, what is described as "the football family" was responding in characteristically showy manner. Players wore T-shirts with his name and "We are with you" written on them. Petrov wears No 19, and so, with a fine sense of theatre, the crowd stood to applaud him in the 19th minute of the game against Chelsea. Petrov, in the stand, applauded back.

It goes without saying that both footballers deserve everyone's good wishes for their recovery, but there is something bogus and melodramatic in these displays of mass emotion. Unless one really believes that, individually, we are becoming more caring to one another – and the evidence surely suggests that the opposite is the case – then these campaigns would seem to be more about the excitement of grief than a new sense of shared humanity.

It is sentimental and prurient. At least with the death of Diana – the moment when mass grieving first took a grip on the culture – there was a genuinely shocking event involving one of the most famous people in the world, with perhaps a touch of guilt added to the emotional mix.

Today, grieving is everywhere and indiscriminate. It is a sort of addiction, a way of getting that buzz of mortality, a thrilling reminder of the thread between life and death, without any of the pain and bother of having to care for someone whom you actually know, who needs your help and whose death would cause real personal anguish.

Tearfully applauding a footballer of whom you may have hardly heard is less about the victim than about the sympathisers and their own sense of unearned drama. It is tempting to conclude that the more a person shows shared public sympathy, the less likely he or she is to display it in the real world, close to home, where it matters.


Anne Tyler offers a lesson in reticence

The great American novelist Anne Tyler has spoken. It is an exciting moment because she has rarely given interviews in a long, distinguished career. We are so used to the idea that showing off is an essential part of the creative process that the idea of a writer who prefers not to do publicity is a bit freakish.

Attending the Oxford Literary Festival, Tyler agreed to talk to its sponsors, The Sunday Times. She was not a recluse, she explained, but had never thought interviews had anything to do with writing. She had been lucky in her private life. She enjoyed writing about men because their emotions tended to be hidden. She preferred making things up in her fiction to using events or people from everyday life.

Interesting, but ever so slightly dull, the interview is a helpful reminder that giving good profile is a skill which has nothing to do with literary talent. "I'm happiest when I'm writing," Anne Tyler says. Long may she continue, without the interruption of festivals or journalists.

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