Amid a sea of tributes to Christopher Hitchens – including the invention of a genre of journalism, the “then I woke up with a terrible hangover, while the Hitch had already filed a 3,500-word essay on G K Chesterton” article – there was one that stood out.
It was by Salon’s Glenn Greenwald, and it used Hitchens’s death to ask: when is the appropriate moment to question the career and legacy of divisive public figures?
Noting how the Hitch had been one of the few to speak ill of Ronald Reagan during a fiesta of Republican-patrolled grief in 2004, Greenwald wrote: “To allow significant political figures to be heralded with purely one-sided requiems – enforced by misguided . . . notions of private etiquette that bar discussions of their bad acts – is not a matter of politeness; it’s deceitful and propagandistic.”
It’s a question that left-wingers must ask themselves about Margaret Thatcher, who will apparently be awarded a state funeral when the time comes. There will be huge pressure not to criticise her actions – and point out their effects today – in the days after her death. Show some respect. Think of her family.
It’s a tempting argument, but wrong. Politicians are public property. They must submit to being pilloried by cartoonists and columnists in office and having their legacy fought over once they step off the stage. Their death should not be a signal for immediate canonisation but one for unblinkered reflection on their life.
I was only seven when Thatcher left power so I don’t have any visceral feelings about her (although the mere mention of her name is enough to send my mother, a woman so mild-mannered she uses “Bugs Bunny” as a swear word, up the wall; I suspect my coal-miner grandfather would have a few choice words, too). And if I’m honest, if she were a left-winger, I’d probably argue she deserves a state funeral as our first female prime minister. So I can’t get worked up about that: let the right give her a state funeral, as long as the left doesn’t have to pretend to be sad that she’s gone.
A scan of the words that entered the dictionaries gives you a flavour of 2011: Merriam-Webster has “bromance”, while Collins has “clicktivism” and “unfollow”. As portmanteaux are all the rage, here’s my nomination for next year: humblebrag, or boasting under the cover of humility. The Humblebrag Twitter account is full of US reality stars saying, “SOOOO weird to see my ugly face on a billboard LOL,” and thespians sighing, “Damn, the last time I cried I was paid for it.” My favourite is this, from Malcolm in the Middle’s Frankie Muniz: “Just involved in a major car accident . . . In my own driveway . . . Involving two of my own cars.” Tiny violin time.
When I heard that North Korea was to be ruled by the 27-year-old Kim Jong-un, my first thought was: great, there’s a leader of a nuclear power who’s younger than me. More ammunition for my mother this Christmas. Over in Pakistan, Bilawal Zardari Bhutto is co-chairman of the Pakistan Peoples Party with his father, President Asif Ali Zardari. His birthday is 21 September 1988 (1988! Surely only actors in Skins were born in 1988!). As the sun sets on my twenties, I’ve had to get used to pop stars and footballers, then novelists and TV presenters, being younger than me. Next on the list, it seems, are the people with access to weapons of mass destruction.
Private lives, public deaths
A few years ago, an acquaintance committed suicide by jumping from the roof of a restaurant in the City. This spectacular exit ensured that his death was reported in every national newspaper – making what was already an agonising time for his family and friends even harder, as reporters sniffed around for any hint of sex or drugs or dodgy dealings to explain why a talented young man would choose to end his life. On 27 November, another man with seemingly everything to live for – the football manager Gary Speed – was found dead at his home.
Aside from a long-lens picture of his house printed on the Mail website, I had thought the media were showing commendable restraint in their reporting. Then, two days before Christmas, the Times ran an extraordinary editorial (which, even more extraordinarily, was reprinted in full in the next day’s Daily Mail) arguing that the Leveson inquiry into press standards was inhibiting the tabloids from fully exploring the circumstances of his death. “Mr Speed was a person of power and influence . . . Suicide is, or at least should be, a matter of public concern. And, since his death, the internet has lit up with unsubstantiated rumours.”
To which the rejoinder must be: we have coroners’ courts for a reason; by and large, they do the job of investigating causes of death a lot more carefully and soberly than newspapers. And if the Times believes this to be a matter of such burning public interest, why should it be left to the tabloids to investigate it?
A woman’s wit
Last year, I wrote about the paucity of funny women on TV. Three bits of good news: the first is that Sarah Millican’s latest DVD, Chatterbox, has sold 150,000 copies – a record for a female comedian. The second is that the BBC devoted 90 minutes to a Victoria Wood retrospective in a prime Boxing Day time slot.
The last is the continuing success of the columnist Caitlin Moran, whose autobiography, How To Be a Woman, was the book I referred to most in conversation this year. For the first time I can remember, here was not just a funny woman but a funny mother. Mums are many things in popular culture – organised, put-upon, loving, harassed, nagging – but I can’t recall one being hilarious before. Things are looking up.