I hadn’t even realised I was crying until I tasted the tears collected by my spoon that had been paused mid feed, hovering momenterily between bowl and lips as I processed the information I had just received.
It was the morning of November 24th 1991, I was sat in my school uniform on a faux-leather sofa mindlessly watching television. At this hour the picture was hazy and vague as the sun sliced its way through the venetian blinds and reflected off the screen so I was more half-listening than watching. It was a generally nondescript winters day, fairly cold, fairly miserable, a smattering of rain, Freddie Mercury was dead and I was crying into my breakfast.
With a heavy heart, and blurred eyes I trudged through the drizzle to school, his lyrics wrapping themselves around my brain on repeat:
The death of Bill Hicks was announced to me whilst I was sat in my dad’s black Ford Sierra listening to and trying decipher the words from the presenter on radio Humberside, and it took me a second to realise what he meant when he said, “American Comedian Bill Hicks has darred”. We’d been to see my Grandma at the care home, the unforgettable smell of the place still strong in my nostrils is my overriding memory of that moment. Bill was thirty-two years old, and I was eighteen. I didn’t cry this time, but as I listened to the news I felt a hole open up inside me, a hole that has never been filled. A monologue from the end one of his shows played out in my head as we headed home down the M62:
“…but we always kill the good guys…you ever notice that? And let the demons run amok …Jesus – murdered; Martin Luther King – murdered; Malcolm X – murdered; Gandhi – murdered; John Lennon – murdered; Reagan… wounded…”
Neither Freddie or Bill were murdered, but they were two good guys and I had lost them both. The demons, it seemed at the time, were winning.
It was only when over the next few years as my each of my grandparents died that I experienced real grief and felt the pain of a more personal loss. But to this day Bill and Freddie are really still the only people I had never met whose deaths had any lasting effect on me. I miss my grandparents dreadfully, and remember them for their own individual contributions to the life that I lead now, the person that I am. But I still also often find myself missing Bill and Freddie, although for less personal slightly more selfish reasons.
I remember where I was when Diana died, and a few days later found myself tiptoeing over and around candles, flowers, photographs and prostrate grievers in the gardens at Kensington palace at four am. Though I wasn’t there mourning that morning, I was there through morbid fascination, and was bemused and a little bit afraid of what I was seeing, I was embarrassed by this incredibly public outpouring of grief for a lady who’d died in a car crash. I realised these people were dreadfully sadened by her death, and perhaps she was as much as inspiration or a hero to those people as Freddie and Bill were to me, but I felt strangely sickened by this performance, by this hysteria that followed the announcement of her death.
Isn’t it selfish that we often think immediately of ourselves when someone in the public arena dies, our initial thoughts don’t necessarily go towards their families, or close friends, we barely consider the private grief of their children, parents, or siblings, just that of ourselves. Although almost all of us have at one time or another experienced the death of a loved one, we forget what that feels like, we distance ourselves from that and only consider our loss and our own feelings whether they be sadness, or (unpleasantly) happiness. My own grief at the loss of Freddie and Bill was entirely selfish, and still is, and as selfish, though not as public, as the pantomime of emotions accompanying Diana’s death.
The sickening scenes of celebration, street parties, Champagne swilling and burning of effigies that accompanied the news of the death of an old lady are exactly the same as the candlelit vigils and moaning and caterwauling that accompanied the death of the younger woman. Built up by the same energies, feelings of desperation, and the same pressures of life , and although different in spirit and opposite in sentiment, both are equally as unpleasant.
When I read that Mrs T was dead, (I won’t refer to her as Baroness Thatcher as I loathe and despise our system of the peerage, and well it’s just not quite as catchy as Mrs T -I pity da fool!) I almost didn’t react. “Oh” I said, as I spooned my expensive cereal into my mouth, and that was about it. I might have murmured a cheeky “ding dong” into my muesli as I searched out the football scores but that was it. No tears, no reminiscence, no grief and no celebration, just the acceptance that a very old lady had died, as they tend to do eventually.
I read a couple of articles; I picked an obvious one from the Mail and then the Guardian and thought no more about it. A few mornings later I chanced upon an article on the street parties that were held on the night of her death, the celebrations, the dancing, the drinking of Champagne, the pictures showing a gruesome and macabre side to the UK.
I had to put my spoon down for a minute and have a think about what I was reading – though I had to be quick because if you leave anything unattended here for more than a minute the ants assume you’ve gifted it to them and they move in to finish whatever it is off.
Was I letting the side down? Was I forgetting my working class roots? -Though my roots are most certainly not working class, the area I grew up is very much so – Should I be celebrating her death? Should I be drinking Champagne and purchasing songs from the Wizard of Oz? Or should I be crying into my cereal because the “The woman who put the Great back in Britain” ( www.dailymail.com , pick an article any article) had passed away? Does the fact that my two greatest idols – a chain-smoking alcoholic comedian, and a drug taking promiscuous singer – mean I have got it wrong all these years, (especially bearing in mind I’m not a comedian or a singer.) Perhaps I should be choosing my idols more wisely, or certainly paying more attention to those that have had a greater influence on my life. Perhaps Mrs T needs to be reconsidered.
I spent a few hours working out what my relationship with Mrs T really was, trying to figure out how (if) she had affected my life? What did her death mean (if anything) to me? And the more I thought, and investigated my life and my memories, the more I came to realise that she had been a huge influence on my life, as much if not more than Freddie and Bill, and she has been a massive influence on the UK as I see it today, the UK that I grew up and the UK I subsequently escaped from. The more I read, the more I learned and the more I remembered and the more I wrote…