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Jane Kelly: The politicisation of grief makes us all alone


As presenter of the BBC’s Any Questions, David Jacobs once worried that women panellists were not always strong enough to deal with tough debate. He’d seen them sometimes close to tears. What would he have made of Jack Monroe, who describes herself on Twitter as, ‘Chronicler of things, mother, queer.’ On Saturday (July 1st) she managed to sob her way through most of the programme, not due to the debate but because the topics raised by the audience in Hungerford filled her with so much emotion.

Asked about the Grenfell fire she was rendered almost inarticulate by grief as if she’d lost a close relative. When the policy of austerity came up she was barely able to speak she was so choked with anguish, but finally managed to describe it as a policy of wilful murder. Finding language so difficult under her tide of emotion she resorted to adjectives such as, ‘crap,’ ‘bugger,’ ‘frigging,’ and ‘bollocks.’ Later, on Twitter she said she was puzzled that such words, ‘still counts as swearing on Radio 4.’

The BBC and those who think they do are a step behind; she has cottoned on that language is now all about feeling and the expression of a public consciousness rather than opinion based on facts. To be seen as genuine speech must come from the street and sound more like a teenage temper tantrum rather than anything thoughtful or nuanced. Grief in particular, with its inherent rage and sense of bewildered injustice, is no longer something private. It’s now a public statement of political intent. Its expression now defines our country.

We seem to have two acceptable types of mourning: ‘Keep Calm & Carry On,’ which although it was used in the war under the emblem of the crown, is now channelled through social media, that virtual infinite public square. It means we’ll cope in our own way with support from our countless virtual friends.

Then there is use of the real agora, home to Argos, Aldi, and most appropriately Clintons, the purveyor of greetings cards who go by the slogan, ‘Life celebrating Life.’ These concrete secular temples are now frequently strewn with sacred offerings of nylon teddies wearing cheerful scarves, fragranced tea lights and balloons, for some emblems of the good life.

Linda Woodhead, professor of the sociology of religion at Lancaster University, spoke on Radio 4 recently about the ‘democratisation of grief.’ She delighted in it and ‘the new place of women and young girls playing a leading role in it.’ She seriously calls them ‘the ritual leaders,’ believing  they are  ‘expressing our values of love, kindness, solidarity, and celebration of diversity, in a very impressive way.’

She applauds this new communal grief enacted in ‘the public space’ as a way of empowering women, the young and minority faiths. Or as she put it, sounding like an educated Max Bygraves; ‘It’s all about heart. There are hearts everywhere, on signs, balloons, there is a lot of creativity there (in), the expression of emotion.’

There has been a profound change in the way we mourn and commemorate. The funeral of the children and adults who died at Aberfan in 1966 took place in a public space, a hillside overlooking the town, but the service was led by Christian ministers from all denominations. It lasted thirteen minutes and was attended by 12,000 mourners. Other services were held in churches and chapels all over Wales.

The service for the Hillsborough victims in 1989 was in a Cathedral. The Catholic church in Liverpool still had influence, but at memorials held every year since in the stadium, that most public space, flowers and scarves are left as offerings by a million people. Princess Diana’s funeral in 1997 marked the apogee of the new mass emotionalism and grief as mass entertainment. The stiff upper lip and British sense of quiet decorum was gone forever. As the editor of the Daily Mail said to me in a lift: ‘I don’t know what’s happened to the country I used to know. ’

The expression of grief is constantly mutating. This populist mourning is no longer just an outburst of national sentimentality, filling the gap left by religion, the public response to sudden death and loss is now an adjunct to interest politics; rocking up to lay your flowers at the sight of a massacre now signals other allegiances.

The BBC describes Jack Monroe as a, ‘journalist and activist.’ Her public tears and those of many gathered around the Grenfell Tower may not have been entirely about personal pain but discontent with the government, the nation state and capitalism.

By the time we get to the memorial service for the victims of the London Bridge atrocity, the politics is plain; there was a bit of the Keep Calm & Carry On, with photos on social media of a lad escaping the attack with his glass of beer intact, but in the non-digital public space of Borough Market, as in Paris, Westminster and Manchester, grief was used to celebrate multiculturalism, if not open borders. It was all about sharing ‘solidarity,’ which is a remarkably insubstantial concept, no one has ever clearly defined. Standing in the dark with candles and banners is supposed to be about standing together, asserting our values  against ‘those who would divide us.’

Yet, as someone said approvingly on Any Questions? on Saturday, in a question about Trump asserting ‘our values,’  ‘Britain has no values of its own any more because so many different cultures live here.’

The church is no longer central to public memorials. It’s left to ‘curate’ the bit of public space left to them. Its job is now to help individuals in the vast crowd who gather to do what they want to do. Faith leaders have become facilitators of emotion, using the event to further a multi-faith ‘agenda.’

In Manchester the memorial service was dominated by Tony Walsh, a popular street poet. He read his poem about Manchester:

We make brilliant bands

We make goals that make souls leap from seats in the stands

And we make things from steel

And we make things from cotton

And we make people laugh, take the mick summat rotten

And we make you at home etc etc

The cotton and the steel are long gone and Manchester is famous for violent crime rather than hospitality, but in this world of greeting card affections reality is out of place. Memorials do not so much commemorate the dead now as praise the living and offer them a fantasy of how life is. This is not about aspiration for a better future, it says the future is now; Manchester is a lovely place, Christians and Muslims in Britain love each other and get along really well.

As Professor Woodhead put it, ‘The people held the grief. People don’t have to ask permission, they are doing it themselves.’ In fact they are doing it under the influence of others. With the church safely dethroned, they are doing it the way Woodhead and others on the liberal Left like very much; celebrating diversity, the new post-Christian religion of Britain.

The Church of England, which is also passionate about diversity, has joined in this public babble, (‘narrative’ in the new language) they have decided to connect with the British public through pink balloons, flowers and condolence card mottos, giving assent to this labile culture of thinking without thought and grieving without feeling.

Rather than going door to door with a tin, any number of causes can now be supported by calls to public emotion through social media and political interest groups prosper in the same way. The righteous are seen grieving and lamenting, those who don’t cry hard enough are regarded with suspicion.

Surprisingly though, without any religious input there are increasing injunctions to pray. After the Grenfell fire no politician could appear on TV or radio without holding up the discussion while he or she claimed to be praying for the victims and their families. After the London Bridge attack one hospital had a notice up about praying for the victims. Usually the only religious notices allowed in NHS buildings indicate the way to the Muslim prayer room. Christian chaplaincies have usually been renamed to disguise their faith origin. One where I used to work is now known as ‘The Sanctuary.’ The name was changed so that it could be used by Muslims.

But this sort of popular praying has nothing to do with going down on your knees and exhorting God or Allah. Dr Bex Lewis, a senior lecturer in marketing at Manchester Metropolitan University, with an interest in how the digital world affects belief, told the BBC recently that some people were disturbed to think the repetition of that word at scenes of public grief might be some kind of order. ‘It cannot be an instruction,’ she said.

She needn’t have worried. Professor Woodhead is certain this no longer means that people believe in God. Its ubiquity is ‘all about inclusivity,’ and that mysterious thing ‘solidarity.’

After all the noisy outpouring and wild signalling of communal fellowship, what happens to the people who are actually getting up each day to face the loss of  daughter, son, father, leg, arm, speech, eye? After the popular catharsis and the celebration of solidarity are they visited by the public mourners with more balloons and bears, consoled by digital friends? Perhaps their church ministers call round, but that is rare these days as there aren’t enough vicars to do such work.

As the Christian idea of the Resurrection and life after death has faded and is no longer taught, genuine grieving must be very hard and lonely these days. It is much more important to be alive and healthy enough to get out into the market place to help ‘curate the space.’ By doing so you are empowered to declare your allegiances whatever they are, express your anger at perceived injustice, and hold onto the idea of Britain as a nation united by its values, even if those values are different for each individual.

If none of that is to your taste, or you feel genuinely incapacitated by grief, better stay in bed, or get on with your work as they did in the old days, well away from the party going on outside. No one knows how to deal with having a miserable face around. In the condolence book in Manchester an eleven-year-old girl wrote: ‘We are together, no one is alone.’

She doesn’t yet know it yet, surrounded by balloons and teddies, but in our bitterly divided society where we no longer even have a common language, her words have never been more untrue.

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Jane Kelly
Jane Kelly
Jane Kelly was a journalist with the Daily Mail for fifteen years. She now writes for the Spectator and the Salisbury Review.

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