Following on from the Princess Diana grief-fest, the response to Linda McCartney's death shows Tony Blair's 'Young Britain' dancing to a slow march. Andrew Calcutt remains out-of-step
'She was someone who made a tremendous contribution across the whole range of British life.' On Sunday 20 April Tony Blair broke off from his peace mission to the Middle East to talk about Linda McCartney's death from breast cancer. Previous prime ministers did not interrupt affairs of state to mourn the demise of a pop personality. But pop stars and their insignificant others are as close to the hearts and minds of the current Labour government as union leaders once were to its predecessors. Furthermore, one of the oddest aspects of Blair's 'Young Britain' is that death seems to be what gets everybody going - especially politicians.
The exhaustion of traditional politics and decline of the old-time religion has left New Labour ministers desperate to find a new 'SNE' (shared national experience) which can bring society together. In their haste to establish a point of contact with our lives, they have hit upon death as the one thing we all have in common. Nowadays almost every death is elevated to a 'national tragedy' in the forlorn hope that this sad ritual will somehow reconstitute a sense of togetherness. The result is a sepulchral society in which politicians and media commentators have turned into ambulance chasers and professional mourners.
Blair's eulogy-in-a-soundbite bore no resemblance to reality. Lady McCartney was first and foremost the wife of Sir Paul. In her own right she was an instinctive photographer who never mastered the technical aspects of her profession, a bad singer (when Wings took the stage her microphone was mixed down; the bootleg recording of her singing 'Hey Jude' is sufficient explanation) and barely adequate keyboard player, and a proselytising vegetarian and cookery-book author who marketed 'meat-free' products, that is, tasteless TV dinners for veggies. A credible CV in certain circles, but hardly a 'tremendous contribution' to modern life. Yet Blair was only one of many who waxed lyrical about Lady Linda's considerable achievements.
At the Bafta awards on Sunday 20 April, Lord Puttnam's luvvies paid tribute. When she was alive Fleet Street dismissed Linda McCartney as 'barmy'. In death, however, she acquired the status of a saint. For three days the Sun led with the Linda story, culminating with the full text of Paul McCartney's farewell message ('Paul's poetry...is so gentle and loving'), and a special Sun 'Woman' supplement, 'The legacy of Linda', which carried the exhortatory headline 'Go veggie' (printed, helpfully, in green ink) above an account of how 'Caring Linda has changed the world' by turning people on to vegetarian 'food without fear'.
The broadsheets were equally effusive. In the Guardian, Maureen Freely described how her own earlier resentment towards Linda Eastman (hardnosed American chick steals the prettiest Beatle from Britpop girl Jane Asher) turned to admiration for 'the wife who wasn't a wife, the twentieth-century icon who never was'.
On Saturday 24 April the Guardian allowed singer and fellow-vegetarian Chrissie Hynde two more tabloid pages in which to say what 'My friend Linda' meant to her. The McCartneys, Hynde said, 'were the ones who made you feel that it's worth falling in love and being with someone'. 'I always had a kind of prejudiced dislike for rich people, but funnily enough I wouldn't regard those two as rich people...It's more of a frame of mind isn't it?' Hynde added that Linda 'was living proof that you don't have to get dragged down by all the bullshit', a subject with which Hynde is clearly familiar.
Declaring in the New Statesman (24 April) that 'to immortalise her for services to the veggie-burger would be to underestimate her influence', Mary Riddell took another two pages to commend her for developing, in the words of management guru Charles Handy, 'a portfolio marriage'. Along with many other commentators Riddell rated McCartney for staying married to the same man - something which billions have managed to do in the past. The message seems to be that Linda McCartney was so ordinary she became extraordinary.
The really extraordinary aspect of Linda McCartney's life is that British public life was so galvanised and obsessed by her death. In the Observer (24 April) Joan Smith was one of the few who recognised the morbidity of it all: 'The final straw was when we were asked to "go veggie" in tribute to Lady McCartney, begging the question of what we are supposed to do when our own friends and relatives die. Stop eating altogether? Revive the custom of suttee?'
Now that a British university has introduced an MA in 'death studies' and the trendiest new title in the bookshops is Girlfriend in a Coma, perhaps we are living in a suttee society. Welcome to what LM editor Mick Hume has dubbed 'Ghoul Britannia'.
Pop culture has always liked to dally with death, but it was never as funereal as now. In 'Boys' own', an article for Harper's & Queen, later reprinted in the Style Wars collection (Sidgwick and Jackson, 1985), Peter York described the jubilation of the punks at the Vortex club when they heard that Elvis Presley had died: '16 August is the night the Clash's famous little prophesy "No more Elvis, Beatles and Rolling Stones in 1977" seems to be coming on stream, because around midnight the dj tells them the King is Dead, and this almighty cheer goes up.'
Poor Danny Baker tried to remonstrate with them. But punk was all about dancing on the graves of Elvis and the Beatles (and their wives). Nobody wanted to hear about pop's heritage, and his impromptu speech got short shrift. In the early hours of Sunday 31 August 1997, by contrast, late-night clubbers were among the first to be asked to respond to news of the death of Diana; and the dazed grief of their vox pops set the tone for the bacchanalia of mourning that was to follow.
In any case there used to be a distinction between pop culture and public life. Pop and its pantomime of death was regarded as a 'phase' to be gone through before the serious business of adulthood. In 1977, when newspaperman Michael Leapman asked whether he should go to Memphis to cover the funeral of Elvis Presley, he received the reply 'sorry. Not a Times story'. Nowadays pop stars are always newsworthy in the broadsheets. By 1996, according to press historian Matthew Engel, editor Charles Moore was berating his staff for not putting the Oasis concert at Knebworth on the front page of the Daily Telegraph; and in 1997 pop and public life converged around the icon of Diana, 'the pop princess', whose death is said by press cuttings agency Durrants to have accounted for 'at least 40 per cent of all news coverage' in the month after it occurred.
With the death of Diana, the New Funeral has become a defining ritual of public life. Many of its elements are taken from the morbid side of pop culture. When Kurt Cobain died four years ago, 10 000 fans attended a candle-lit vigil and a memorial concert in scenes which prefigured the crowds that queued to sign the books of remembrance for Diana. MTV set up a telephone counselling-service and went into what one commentator described as 'day-long overdrive' - a prototype of the TV rescheduling which followed Diana's death. With its Cobain commemorative front cover, the following week's edition of the NME could have been a dummy for the special Diana issues of national newspapers. In previous decades the pop press reported the death of its stars as a straightforward news story. But in pop, and in public life also, death now often seems to be the focus for the meaning of life; and the coverage of Cobain's and Diana's deaths took on an oddly existential tone - even on the front page.
If Cobain's death was the pilot for Diana's, the funeral of Australian rock singer Michael Hutchence was the first of many sequels. The hour-long service was broadcast live from St Andrew's cathedral in Sydney, with sepulchral singer Nick Cave performing a song in the Elton John slot. Paul McCartney pre-empted this sort of pomp and ceremony by having the body of his wife cremated and scattering her ashes before anybody else knew what was going on. But then the 'secretive' manner of her death itself became an issue of public concern. Society, hooked on death, will have its fix no matter what.
Diana is the supermodel of Britain's 'death cult', and Linda McCartney has just walked down the catwalk behind her. Looking up at these icons of Ghoul Britannia is Tony Blair, who first achieved star billing during an early bout of mourning sickness. In May 1994, when the Labour Party clothed itself in widow's weeds after the death by heart attack of leader John Smith, it caught the public mood for almost the first time in 15 years. New leader Blair was cushioned by the outpouring of sympathy which followed Smith's death (the Tory Express devoted 16 pages to it, claiming that 'even the chimes of Big Ben seemed muted and mournful'). New Labour was forged in this funereal atmosphere, and Blair's PR machine has been feeding off the dead ever since.
New Labour's combination of 'youth culture' and death cult is pretty sick. Indeed, if public life has sunk so low that death is its only common ground, and mourning the only cause around which our rulers can rouse the nation, then we really are experiencing the Day of the Living Dead.
Andrew Calcutt's Beat: the iconography of victimhood from the beat generation to Princess Diana is published by Sheffield Hallam University Press
Reproduced from LM issue 111, June 1998