Yesterday in the pub I made the mistake of idly flicking through a copy of the Sunday Times - a newspaper I don't usually read unless I'm at my parents' for the weekend - and soon found myself reading a column by Camilla Long. This article was a closing flourish to a colourful week for Ms Long, a week that has seen her shift from respected (one must assume) film critic to a kind of online H-bomb. The chief reason for this, as those who've had better things to do might be unaware of, is that she's become rather worked up about how worked up everyone's getting about the death of David Bowie. All this riveting action has taken place, I need hardly add, on Twitter.
"FUCK OFF. Man the fuck up and say something interesting," was her opening gambit, followed by numerous other posts, few of which were any nicer. The inevitable torrent of bilious replies followed. Her Sunday Times article was less an explanation or apology for her actions, more the grinding of any emotional response to Bowie's death into a muddy puddle. Within its 800 or so words, she dismissed all social media reactions to Bowie's death as "fake" or "infantile", bafflingly refusing to acknowledge the existence of any middle ground between a) people who agree with her, and z) people who have been sending her online abuse. Worse, she attempts to regulate people's emotions by flatly stating that "there are so many more meaningful things to cry about". It's unclear what she's aiming to achieve. Perhaps she's hoping to become a new controversialist: a sort of Katie Hopkins with slightly better hair.
Anyway. The reason I'm mentioning this is that over the next five, ten, fifteen plus years, lots of rock stars are going to die. This is not a statement of murderous intent, it's just a scientific and mathematic certainty. Some of them will be very famous and universally loved. Some more "niche". But die they will. And not just rock stars: comedians, sportspeople, movie stars. All of these deaths will be accompanied by online reactions of some sort. To keep the number of spats like Camilla-Long-gate to a minimum, I think it might be worth remembering a few things. I'll start with a really obvious one.
1. If you don't want online abuse, don't tell 50,000 Twitter followers to fuck off. Online abuse is reprehensible, in all its horrid colours. But there's an element of "he who lives by the sword dies by the sword" here. If reading people's over-the-top reactions to something pains you, don't look at it. If it's hard to avoid it, deal with it some other way. Vent spleen at a friend. Text someone. But indiscriminately ranting at large numbers of people is going to solve nothing and improve no-one's life, least of all your own.
2. To perpetually insist that social media is not the "real universe" is to deny that the world is changing. Just because something passionate is written online doesn't mean the emotions that gave birth to it are "plastic" or "fake". Many people feel something - whether it is sadness, mirth, anger, whatever - and their way of dealing with it is to write something online about it. That's 2015. It doesn't mean people are wasting their time, or that they are necessarily seeking to "feel famous for 15 seconds". Naturally, there are swathes of online scribblings that are fake, or excessive, or with an ulterior motive. But that precisely mirrors what goes on in the non-virtual world, does it not?
3. Grief for famous people CAN be real grief. They created art that you loved, and now there won't be any more of that art. They wrote words that touched you, and now they're gone. They acted in your favourite films, they said things that made lonely people feel less lonely, they lived a life that inspired you, and now that life is over and you're sad. THAT'S OKAY. One of the more perplexing bees in Camilla Long's bonnet is her great issue with the statement "he [Bowie] was the soundtrack to my life". You know what? He probably was. That's how being a big music fan works. You discover them when you're young and you listen to them throughout your life, and when you hear their music it reminds you of stuff you've done, people you've met, places you've been, and so on. This is why you're sad, because the person who provided you with this channel to your inner memories and feelings has gone. And this, Ms Long, is irrespective of whether that artist is still making their best work, or indeed any work at all. I could say Nick Drake has been the soundtrack to my life, and there have been no new Nick Drake albums since 1972.
4. Showing your emotions is still good. It is a scientifically proven fact that letting your feelings show, whether through screaming or crying your eyes out, is good for you. Bottling them up is not. In response to a perfectly reasonable tweet which said, simply, "It is okay to cry", Camilla Long wrote "Only once or twice in life. The rest of the times [sic], pull yourself together." So... what? If I find myself crying at something, have I used one of my "cries" up? Have I only one left? I have absolutely no desire to return to a Britain where you can't hug a friend or cry at a film without being called wet or, worse, a "pansy". And who, exactly, decides what constitutes a "genuine" reason for crying? People cry at all sorts of things. Some when a parent or close friend dies. Some when they stub their toe on the bed. Others for practically no reason at all. No one has the right to tell you what you should and shouldn't cry about. And to say that tears over a celebrity death are automatically "synthetic" is puerile. When Diana died, I remained largely unaffected all week until her brother gave his eulogy at the funeral, at which I was - to use Camilla Long's most hated phrase - "in bits". And do you know why? Because it made me realise how much I loved my sister. And having had a good cry, I felt - hey presto! - better. Neat, huh?
In any case, to return to point number one, what damage does it do to anyone else if someone is waxing lyrical in a slightly embarrassing manner? If they want to make a twerp of themselves, that's their own affair. One of the good things about living in Britain today is that we largely have the right to do what the hell we want without having someone swearing at us. Most of the time, this works just fine: the UK can be a model of tolerance, but it's been said that an equally attractive quality is indifference, i.e. no one cares what you think, wear, do, believe, eat, drink, buy, say or write, as long as you don't harm anyone else in the process. I like this state of affairs. I also like moments when it seems that a large group of people are reading off the same page, just as they have been this last week with the almost universally warm response to the passing of one of music's most invigorating and exploratory artists. In his own dignified and measured way, I think David Bowie would be pleased at this response; I really think he would.