Two deaths have made the papers in the past few days. But the amount of space devoted to each in the Daily Mail (our most conservative paper) has been vastly different.
Now obituaries never just mourn death. They also celebrate an earthly life ended, and their length has to reflect the breadth of the path the deceased blazed through the lives of those still living.
Hence, looking at the coverage of the two deaths in question, a visiting Martian would be bound to conclude that one of the deceased made an immeasurably greater contribution to society, making the world a slightly better place.
After all, one death was covered on two full spreads in yesterday’s issue, not counting the actual obituary and a few OpEd pieces. The other death, on the other hand, only merited two column inches.
Then the antennae perched on the alien’s green head would twitch, and he’d actually read the articles. Having done so, he’d look around him fearfully, like a sane man accidentally finding himself surrounded by dangerous lunatics.
For the two-inch death is that of Professor Sir Peter Mansfield, a British Nobel Prize winner who pioneered the use of MRI scans. These pinpoint cancers, among other abnormalities, and thereby save lives.
The multi-spread death is that of the socialite Tara Palmer-Tomkinson, 45, found dead in her flat. What would have caused our hypothetical Martian to cringe is the fact that, upon perusing all those thousands of words, he wouldn’t have found a single one suggesting even a minuscule achievement.
Tara, Prince Charles’s goddaughter and close friend, spent her life in the society pages that gushed over her hopping from one party to another, from one nightclub to another, from one rehab clinic to another, from one bed to another – a wasted life fuelled by mountains of cocaine and everything else going down (or up).
Realising that he found himself in a place where such things are held in infinitely higher esteem than a life dedicated to saving millions of people, our hypothetical alien would flee back to his planet.
Those of us who regrettably don’t have that escapist option, might spend a minute or two pondering the lunacy we’ve created, the mess we’ve made of a once-sublime culture. For Tara Palmer-Tomkinson is a modern icon.
So what does our most conservative paper have to say about her? Actually, what’s there to say, other than the brief but exhaustive summary above?
Katie Hopkins, the vox-populist conservative columnist, proved she’s a better man than I am by managing to find quite a few things to say. Alas, clearly designed to produce a lachrymose response, her words only succeeded in eliciting an emetic one in me.
“There’s a beautiful, bonkers part of her in all of us,” writes Miss Hopkins. “It might be an age thing; we grew up with her, watching her, laughing at/with her. Watching her be brilliant in a bikini and snorkel, or all fur coat and tiny white knickers, wishing we could be half so brave.”
Miss Hopkins isn’t a stupid woman, and she holds generally sound opinions on most issues. Having thus developed her mind, she should now switch her attention to her taste, which is the aesthetic equivalent of mental retardation.
Then she might realise that the picture she has drawn is that of puke-making vulgarity, a low-life’s idea of high life. And I do wish she stopped speaking for “all of us”. Count me out, Katie. I’m a man of many sins and failings, but I can unhesitatingly assure you that there isn’t a single atom, never mind “a beautiful part”, of Tara anywhere in my body.
“How we would all love to be so free,” continues Miss Hopkins. “We took shelter in our safe lives and sensible jobs, thought buying a lottery ticket was a risk – and often lived vicariously through her, instead.”
How someone addicted to cocaine can be described as free beats me. Addiction of any kind is self-inflicted, and therefore the worst bondage of all. And a reference to buying a lottery ticket as the outer limit of a risk is a clear indication of the readership demographics Miss Hopkins sees in her mind’s eye.
Only mindless, socially challenged voyeurs have ever lived their lives through Tara. And neither I nor anyone I know has ever bought a lottery ticket either, although some of us, me included, haven’t always lived particularly safe lives.
“She really was Alice in Wonderland, and she lived a fantastic dream,” concludes Miss Hopkins. A tragic, terrifying nightmare is more like it.
For all I know, Miss Palmer-Tomkinson really was as delightful a person as the eulogies describe her. And no doubt she’s an icon for our time. But an icon is worshipped not for the image itself but for what the image conveys.
This particular image conveys a tragic message of a life of mindless dissipation, free of thought, reflection, spiritual quest. A life of vulgar hedonism, decadence and waste.
We should echo John Donne and realise that the funeral bells that toll for Tara Palmer-Tomkinson toll for all of us – but not in the sense in which John Donne meant it.
Tara Palmer-Tomkinson, RIP.