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.

React Now

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Customer Service Executive

£18000 - £22000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Retail Buyer / Ecommerce Buyer

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Working closely with the market...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Executive - CAD Software Solutions Sales

£20000 - £50000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A reputable company, famed for ...

Ashdown Group: Client Accountant Team Manager - Reading

Negotiable: Ashdown Group: The Ashdown Group has been engaged by a highly resp...

Day In a Page

Read Next
'Unbiased': Former M&S boss Sir Stuart Rose  

So, the people who always support the Tories... are supporting the Tories? Has the world gone mad?

Mark Steel
Crofter's cottages on Lewis. The island's low population density makes it a good candidate for a spaceport (Alamy)  

My Scottish awakening, helped by horizontal sleet

Simon Kelner
Peter Ackroyd on Alfred Hitchcock: How London shaped the director's art and obsessions

Peter Ackroyd on Alfred Hitchcock

Ackroyd has devoted his literary career to chronicling the capital and its characters. He tells John Walsh why he chose the master of suspense as his latest subject
Ryan Reynolds interview: The actor is branching out with Nazi art-theft drama Woman in Gold

Ryan Reynolds branches out in Woman in Gold

For every box-office smash in Ryan Reynolds' Hollywood career, there's always been a misconceived let-down. It's time for a rethink and a reboot, the actor tells James Mottram
Why Robin Williams safeguarded himself against a morbid trend in advertising

Stars safeguard against morbid advertising

As film-makers and advertisers make increasing posthumous use of celebrities' images, some stars are finding new ways of ensuring that they rest in peace
General Election 2015: The masterminds behind the scenes

The masterminds behind the election

How do you get your party leader to embrace a message and then stick to it? By employing these people
Machine Gun America: The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons

Machine Gun America

The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons
The ethics of pet food: Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?

The ethics of pet food

Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?
How Tansy Davies turned 9/11 into her opera 'Between Worlds'

How a composer turned 9/11 into her opera 'Between Worlds'

Tansy Davies makes her operatic debut with a work about the attack on the Twin Towers. Despite the topic, she says it is a life-affirming piece
11 best bedside tables

11 best bedside tables

It could be the first thing you see in the morning, so make it work for you. We find night stands, tables and cabinets to wake up to
Italy vs England player ratings: Did Andros Townsend's goal see him beat Harry Kane and Wayne Rooney to top marks?

Italy vs England player ratings

Did Townsend's goal see him beat Kane and Rooney to top marks?
Danny Higginbotham: An underdog's tale of making the most of it

An underdog's tale of making the most of it

Danny Higginbotham on being let go by Manchester United, annoying Gordon Strachan, utilising his talents to the full at Stoke and plunging into the world of analysis
Audley Harrison's abusers forget the debt he's due, but Errol Christie will always remember what he owes the police

Steve Bunce: Inside Boxing

Audley Harrison's abusers forget the debt he's due, but Errol Christie will always remember what he owes the police
No postcode? No vote

Floating voters

How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

By Reason of Insanity

Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

Power dressing is back

But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

Caves were re-opened to the public