Do you know where you where the day that Elvis died?
Can you remember what you were doing when you first heard the news about Diana, the people’s princess?
Despite the litany of famous loss in 2016 do you recall the dates of the deaths of Alan Richman, Victoria Wood and Robert Vaughn?
I do. I was at the hospital holding my new-born daughter in my arms. As you can imagine this death was a particularly poignant one for me.
I can. We were on holiday in France. It was morning and on seeing her face and dates on the television screen in the breakfast room I thought: ‘She must be dead.’
I do. 14th January. 20th April. 11th November.
It all started with JFK. At that time I was fascinated by all things American: the Space Race, the military, the ‘movies’. It wasn’t the human tragedy and the grief that got to me but rather the drama of it all and of course the blood. In my defence I was a scabby-kneed eight year old boy with as much sensitivity as a block of wood. But, this tragedy sparked an interest in the lives and concerns of others that I hadn’t had before and I like to think it was a positive emotional turning point for me.
Having always had a good memory - for names, for dates, for places – I have since then added year on year to my own specialist subject of celebrity death dates and details. I always make sure I can summon up a couple of personal stories, alongside anecdotes of their public presentations of self. A favourite colour of a film star, a politician’s childhood experience, the time that a particular music artist shared a story of first love, the name of a footballer’s beloved pet. I haven’t been and would never go on Mastermind to prove my expertise but I’m pretty sure that I’d do very well. My grandchildren think me morbid and shudder at what they call my ‘party trick’. Not least because my knowledge only extends to the deceased and I am unable to chat with them of the sins and saintly behaviour of the popular stars of the moment. My friends laugh and more than one has thought they were being wittily original (they weren’t) when asking: ‘Did you never think of collecting stamps or football cards instead?’ For me though this preoccupation with the deaths, and the lives that proceeded it, of well-known strangers makes me a better man. I am interested in the personhood of those I catalogue in my head and not just the calm or gory details of their end. I aim to remember them as individuals with friends and family, foibles and charms whose life experiences, choices and chances can teach me something meaningful about my own.
Not at all famous myself, except to those who love and put up with me, I hope for my actions to be remembered a little by those whose lives I have only fleetingly touched. My small kindnesses - picking up dropped scarves and giving up a train seat - my sharing of learned wisdom - in casual conversations or interview - and the times I’ve given the easy gift of a smile to someone who needed it are not recorded or reported like those of household names. Neither, thank goodness, are the times I have been cruel or selfish or stupid. I don’t need, none of us do, for my identity and my actions to be burned in the consciousness of others. But, I hope my behaviour, both good and not so good, has made others reflect a little on their own. My predilection for memorial detail is curious I know but, I think, merely an extreme version of the acknowledgement that nobody is really gone, no one’s life is meaningless, whilst someone remembers them or something that they did.