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14 January 2002

How cold our hearts have grown

Real sympathy is continuous and all-embracing - nothing like the counterfeit compassion we exhibit i

By Bryan Appleyard

Dignity is best served when grief is honoured by silence. There is, therefore, nothing that should – or can – be said about the sorrow of Gordon and Sarah Brown at the death of their child, Jennifer. But a great deal was said. The broad theme of all the commentaries was that the birth of his first baby had cracked the granite exterior of the Chancellor. He was, it turns out, human. The ensuing death, therefore, was all the more poignant. Brown became human and then, at once, had to pay the price.

None of that can possibly correspond to any kind of truth about Gordon Brown. It is so implausibly neat that it is almost meaningless. Apart from anything else, the Chancellor has plainly never been granite, iron or any other mineral. He raises public spending, he lets it be known that he’s upset at not being Prime Minister and, like you and me, he periodically says incredibly silly things. More of a rubber Chancellor, I’d say, or possibly velvet. Either way, Brown has always been human and all the better for that.

The real issue, however, is not the state of Gordon Brown’s soul. Rather it is the media-driven requirement for easy psychological storytelling and the accompanying need for the exposure of all private crises to the public gaze. We all know the headline vocabulary: heartache, agony, my drugs/drink/gambling hell, love-rat, fight for life, battle against cancer and so on. And we’ve all read the mawkish or vituperative columns penned by the compassionistas of the press. In their hands, these crises become issues to be debated, as if infidelity or disease were akin to the privatisation of the railways.

In one form, these stories are simply intrusive – like the stark Reuters photograph of the Browns leaving the hospital after their baby had died, used, disgracefully, by most of the papers, including the Financial Times. (On a similar occasion in 1963, when President John F Kennedy’s three-day-old son died, the tabloids did the expected and splashed with the story; but the Times relegated the story to page six – without any accompanying photograph.) Or there are the American supermarket tabloids, which fill almost every page with revelations of the private lives of film and TV stars, all accompanied by the most unflattering pictures available.

But the genre has lately become more sophisticated. Intrusion is no longer the issue, as famous people now habitually collude in the exposure of their own frailties.

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“When I became Tony Blair’s press secretary seven years ago,” wrote Alastair Campbell recently, “I knew that the skeletons would probably come out, so I never hid the fact that I’d had a nervous breakdown.” He went on to describe the alcohol-related breakdown that afflicted him when he was 29. Similarly, Paul Merton has spoken of a “manic episode” in 1989 when his work drove him to a breakdown and a six-week stay in hospital.

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Both of these revelations appeared in support of a London exhibition run by the Mind Out for Mental Health campaign. Their rationale, therefore, is that these prominent individuals are exposing themselves for the good of others. Ordinary people, it is assumed, will not feel so agonised about their own crises and will be more ready to seek appropriate help if they are assured that similar things have happened to people they see on television or read about in the newspapers every day. And yet Campbell explicitly states that he came clean not to help others, but to help himself. Exposure of his breakdown gives him control over a story that he knew perfectly well would have come out anyway.

Meanwhile, Anne Robinson, in her autobiography, Memoirs of an Unfit Mother, has told the story of how she lost custody of her daughter because of her drinking. Previously, there was John Diamond’s explicit commentary about coping with the cancer that finally killed him, as well as John Bayley’s account of Iris Murdoch’s Alzheimer’s. Finally, at the most florid end of this particular market, there are the nuts’n’sluts TV shows in which the likes of Jerry Springer make prime-time fun out of the traumas of the gullible and the star-struck, or there are the numerous Big Brother-type shows in which “real” people suffer on screen.

We live, in short, in a confessional culture in which the greatest crimes are “bottling it up”, suffering in silence or maintaining a dignified composure in the face of adversity. Indeed, it is plain that many famous people are now all but obliged to confess, ostensibly to help others, but actually because, if they don’t, somebody else will do it for them. Pre-emptive self-exposure is now the primary damage-limitation technique.

And when it doesn’t happen, we either trash them or, in the face of a dignified silence such as the Browns’, we make up their feelings for them. So, on the death of Jennifer Brown, the columnists cooed compassionately about that granite exterior cracked by ordinary emotion. Perhaps the most bizarre example was the surreal piece by Sally Emerson in the Daily Mail – “I doubt whether, in the past, world figures such as Genghis Khan were made greater by tenderness.” Sorry?

The sane view is that nobody can possibly be made any happier, better or freer by any of this. The argument that people are helped by these confessions is utterly invalidated by the sheer weight of material. If everybody is at it – as they are – then the only reaction left to the average punter is mute resignation. Life is hard, in a bewildering plurality of ways, then you die. Furthermore, in the cases of people like Robinson, Campbell and Merton, life is no longer that hard. The message of their confessions seems to be that you can be hugely successful in spite of these crises. Ordinary people, in reality, can’t; they are more likely, therefore, to be depressed than consoled.

But the most important point is that the unctuous pseudo-compassion these confessions inspire is, in fact, a substitute for the real thing. Trauma now acts as an augmentation of celebrity. It merely provides one more way of talking about the famous – it is akin, in this respect, to the changes in David Beckham’s hairstyle.

Real compassion, in contrast, is continuous and for all people, because all people are, in the end, losers. A confessional, celebrity society invents rather than feels compassion. There is no cost involved in feeling sorry for celebrities, but there is a very high cost indeed in feeling genuine sorrow for the real people by whom one is daily surrounded. The cost is high because, in the end, everybody loses – to be human is to aim high and miss – and is, therefore, worthy of compassion.

Indeed, precisely because we all lose, the ultimate test of any society is its treatment of losers. In this, perhaps surprisingly, we are well behind the Americans. Although American society is often criticised for being unhealthily obsessed with success, in reality it has a noble tradition of celebrating failure.

This is a literary and social tradition, but is also now central to popular culture. The TV sitcom Cheers, perhaps the finest example of the genre, was entirely predicated on all of its main characters being big-time losers. “How would we know we were winners if we didn’t have you guys?” asks the conman Harry the Hat of the assembled human wreckage in the Boston bar. And The Simpsons is a brilliant, sustained homage to the consolations to be found in failure. Cold, success-driven individualism is, in the American imagination, counterbalanced by a warm faith in the value of the ordinary, failed life.

The Royle Family, the best-written UK equivalent, is, in contrast, stricken by the irredeemable banality of the lives it portrays. We may laugh with this family almost as often as we laugh at it. But in the end, their failure is a dead end. We do not want to spend time with them as we do with the Simpsons or the barflies in Cheers. We just want to watch them stew in their own juice. Or there is the sneering, relentless and absurd misery of EastEnders, eternally unredeemed by insight, pity or poetry. Meanwhile, our city streets are among the most threatening and uncivilised in the developed world. Fantasy, celebrity compassion has obviated our need for the real thing.

Grief for the loss of a child is absolute, unspeakable. It is offensive for outsiders to concoct consolations either for themselves or for the bereaved. Compassion also is an absolute, merely the essential attribute of the examined life.

Wallowing in celebrity suffering is just one more sign of how cold our hearts have grown.