"Whitney's death bath": a morbid curiosity

Long may such freedom of speech continue.

Billy Bob Thornton's latest directorial outing, Jayne Mansfield's Car, arrives at a suitable time. While we are morbidly fascinated with the death of Whitney Houston in a bathtub in Los Angeles at the weekend, it's worth remembering that this is nothing new: ghoulish interest in the very private death of a very public figure has always been around.

The morbid curiosity the Sun has with "WHITNEY'S DEATH BATH", to the extent of showing a photo of the bath on its front cover, is not a whole world away from the story of the Buick in which Mansfield was scalped and killed in 1967. "SEE JAYNE MANSFIELD'S DEATH CAR", urged the signs at fairgrounds across middle America. The bloodstains and brain matter had been cleared away, and the vehicle had been restored from the wreck it became that fateful night, but people still paid a dollar or so to go and see the car that claimed three lives, including a Hollywood icon.

I doubt the bathtub at room 434 at the Beverley Hills Hilton hotel will tour the world, attracting morbid onlookers the way the Mansfield wreck did. But the scramble to get a photo of the bath where Whitney drowned says something about how we can't let go of celebrities, even when they're dead; especially when they're dead.

Almost before the price of Whitney's back catalogue was quietly marked up in anticipation of the post-mortem spike in sales, the public wanted pictures. Sadly, this time there were no photos available of a naked Houston receiving CPR or a lifeless arm dangling out from under a blanket, so we had to make do with photos of a bathtub. Not a very interesting or exceptional bathtub, but a bathtub where someone famous died, and so a bathtub which has instantly become the most famous in the world.

The image of the bathtub, which appeared first in the Sun in this country and which has of course been shared around the world, is a curious thing in itself. It's a badly taken photo, blurred and badly framed, maybe snatched with a camera phone by someone who was there at the time, or who managed to squeeze their way into the suite on the night the singer died. It's just an overhead view of a bathtub with some water in it and a hairbrush sitting by the side: a meaningless, empty image of nothing.

There's a part of me that hopes this is all some colossal stunt, that it's just a photo of an ordinary bath and someone has somehow convinced the world's press that it's the particular bath where Whitney died. Imagine that, if an ordinary bath could appear on the front page of a newspaper, or be pored over by millions of people around the world, and that we're all just peering at some non-entity's hairbrush and bathwater, as opposed to that of a now-dead and now-very-much-more-marketable celebrity.

It's a time when our tabloid newspapers are trying to convince us that they are vital, that they are the lifeblood of our free speech, the cornerstone of our democracy, a set of people who should be placed above the law for the way in which they challenge authority and enlighten us about what's really going on -- and they're fighting each other to get photos of a dead woman's bathtub, to speculate about what it was that killed her, to gleefully announce in giant letters that someone is "on suicide watch" as a result of the tragedy.

I don't see much democracy, or authority being challenged: I just see a pack of jackals tearing over the corpse of a dead woman. And fine, that's free speech, and long may it continue: long may we have the right to want to read about dead people, be they Jayne Mansfield or Whitney Houston, seeing as it's what we appear to prefer to real political debate. And maybe tomorrow, or the day after tomorrow, we will see dozens and dozens of public-interest exclusives falling down like rain, proving me wrong.

In the meantime, who wants to buy a ticket to see Whitney Houston's death bath?

Patrolling the murkier waters of the mainstream media
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The decline of the north's sporting powerhouse

Yorkshire historically acted as a counterweight to the dominance of southern elites, in sport as in politics and culture. Now, things are different.

On a drive between Sheffield and Barnsley, I spotted a striking painting of the Kes poster. Billy Casper’s two-fingered salute covered the wall of a once-popular pub that is now boarded up.

It is almost 50 years since the late Barry Hines wrote A Kestrel for a Knave, the novel that inspired Ken Loach’s 1969 film, and it seems that the defiant, us-against-the-world, stick-it-to-the-man Yorkshireness he commemorated still resonates here. Almost two-thirds of the people of south Yorkshire voted to leave the EU, flicking two fingers up at what they saw as a London-based establishment, detached from life beyond the capital.

But whatever happened to Billy the unlikely lad, and the myriad other northern characters who were once the stars of stage and screen? Like the pitheads that dominated Casper’s tightly knit neighbourhood, they have disappeared from the landscape. The rot set in during the 1980s, when industries were destroyed and communities collapsed, a point eloquently made in Melvyn Bragg’s excellent radio series The Matter of the North.

Yorkshire historically acted as a counterweight to the dominance of southern elites, in sport as in politics and culture. Yet today, we rarely get to hear the voices of Barnsley, Sheffield, Doncaster and Rotherham. And the Yorkshire sporting powerhouse is no more – at least, not as we once knew it.

This should be a matter of national concern. The White Rose county is, after all, the home of the world’s oldest registered football club – Sheffield FC, formed in 1857 – and the first English team to win three successive League titles, Huddersfield Town, in the mid-1920s. Hull City are now Yorkshire’s lone representative in the Premier League.

Howard Wilkinson, the manager of Leeds United when they were crowned champions in 1992, the season before the Premier League was founded, lamented the passing of a less money-obsessed era. “My dad worked at Orgreave,” he said, “the scene of Mrs Thatcher’s greatest hour, bless her. You paid for putting an axe through what is a very strong culture of community and joint responsibility.”

The best-known scene in Loach’s film shows a football match in which Mr Sugden, the PE teacher, played by Brian Glover, comically assumes the role of Bobby Charlton. It was played out on the muddy school fields of Barnsley’s run-down Athersley estate. On a visit to his alma mater a few years ago, David Bradley, who played the scrawny 15-year-old Billy, showed me the goalposts that he had swung from as a reluctant goalkeeper. “You can still see the dint in the crossbar,” he said. When I spoke to him recently, Bradley enthused about his lifelong support for Barnsley FC. “But I’ve not been to the ground over the last season and a half,” he said. “I can’t afford it.”

Bradley is not alone. Many long-standing fans have been priced out. Barnsley is only a Championship side, but for their home encounter with Newcastle last October, their fans had to pay £30 for a ticket.

The English game is rooted in the northern, working-class communities that have borne the brunt of austerity over the past six years. The top leagues – like the EU – are perceived to be out of touch and skewed in favour of the moneyed elites.

Bradley, an ardent Remainer, despaired after the Brexit vote. “They did not know what they were doing. But I can understand why. There’s still a lot of neglect, a lot of deprivation in parts of Barnsley. They feel left behind because they have been left behind.”

It is true that there has been a feel-good factor in Yorkshire following the Rio Olympics; if the county were a country, it would have finished 17th in the international medals table. Yet while millions have been invested in “podium-level athletes”, in the team games that are most relevant to the lives of most Yorkshire folk – football, cricket and rugby league – there is a clear division between sport’s elites and its grass roots. While lucrative TV deals have enriched ruling bodies and top clubs, there has been a large decrease in the number of adults playing any sport in the four years since London staged the Games.

According to figures from Sport England, there are now 67,000 fewer people in Yorkshire involved in sport than there were in 2012. In Doncaster, to take a typical post-industrial White Rose town, there has been a 13 per cent drop in participation – compared with a 0.4 per cent decline nationally.

Attendances at rugby league, the region’s “national sport”, are falling. But cricket, in theory, is thriving, with Yorkshire winning the County Championship in 2014 and 2015. Yet Joe Root, the batsman and poster boy for this renaissance, plays far more games for his country than for his county and was rested from Yorkshire’s 2016 title decider against Middlesex.

“Root’s almost not a Yorkshire player nowadays,” said Stuart Rayner, whose book The War of the White Roses chronicles the club’s fortunes between 1968 and 1986. As a fan back then, I frequently watched Geoffrey Boycott and other local stars at Headingley. My favourite was the England bowler Chris Old, a gritty, defiant, unsung anti-hero in the Billy Casper mould.

When Old made his debut, 13 of the 17-strong Yorkshire squad were registered as working-class professionals. Half a century later, three of the five Yorkshiremen selec­ted for the last Ashes series – Root, Jonny Bairstow and Gary Ballance – were privately educated. “The game of cricket now is played in public schools,” Old told me. “Top players are getting huge amounts of money, but the grass-roots game doesn’t seem to have benefited in any way.”

“In ten years’ time you won’t get a Joe Root,” Rayner said. “If you haven’t seen these top Yorkshire cricketers playing in your backyard and you haven’t got Sky, it will be difficult to get the whole cricket bug. So where is the next generation of Roots going to come from?” Or the next generation of Jessica Ennis-Hills? Three years ago, the Sheffield stadium where she trained and first discovered athletics was closed after cuts to local services.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era