Thursday, 4 December 2014

The Death of Phillip Hughes: Cricket’s ‘Diana’ moment?

I remember the day Diana, Princess of Wales, died very, very clearly. The day began with a phone call from a mate I’d been out drinking with the previous night: “Guess who’s dead?!” he excitedly shrieked. “Errr … Frank Sinatra?” I mumbled, slowly regaining my senses. “NOOO!” was the reply. “Who’s the most famous woman in the world?” he prompted. “Ummm … the queen?”. “NOOO!”. “The queen mother?” I stumbled, really wracking my addled brain. “NOOO!! More famous than that!!” “Sorry” I said, not being able to process the fact that it could be a young person who had died, “I’m lost mate”. “DIANA! Princess Diana is dead!”

I was more flummoxed than shocked (in my old job as a police photographer I used to deal with the death of old and young regularly). The only detail (details at this early stage were scant) that bothered me was how it had happened?

A few days later, once the basic details had emerged, my mate and the rest of my gang went on holiday for a week or so. I forget – as an enthusiastic participant in ‘lad’s holidays’ – why I did not go, but not sunning myself in Spain left me to face the nation's disproportionate and inescapable outpouring of ‘grief’. The lads had returned, all suntanned and white-shirted, in time for us all to re-convene down the pub for England's World Cup qualifier with Moldova. As Elton John's 'Candle in the Wind' was played, yet again, I recall loudly uttering something along the lines of “can’t we just get on with our lives – please?”, only for the mate who had called that fateful morning to snarl in my face: “You’re out of order! She was the people’s princess!” Diana had truly become the outstanding symbol of emotional grandstanding.

This, it has to be said, was quite a departure from the emotional norms of British society (my mate is a sound and highly intelligent man). The normally reserved and carefully measured response to similar events obviously would not suffice in this case and countless bouquets of flowers, candles, signatures in books of remembrance and tears manifested from all sections of society. Blair’s canny aphorism; ‘the people’s princess’ (the spot Blair made the speech even has a plaque recording the event) worked so well, because it was – for the most part – true. 

Other societies react to death very differently. We have witnessed, largely thanks to our viewing the custom on TV coverage of Spanish or Italian football, British supporters increasingly adopt a minute’s applause in preference to the customary silence (rudely interrupted or not). In other countries, and this may well be true for ‘younger’ societies that lack a long history of stoicism such as the UK, emotion is dealt with differently.

Australia, and the cricket community globally, are mourning the death of the 25 year old international cricketer Phillip Hughes. His tragic demise from the impact of a cricket ball during a match at the SCG is cause for great sorrow, but has this tragedy – like Diana’s death – been overdone? Hughes appears to have been the ideal of Australian masculinity: ruggedly good-looking, a country boy made good, seemingly indestructible, and a thoroughly decent ‘bloke’. He was undoubtedly a talented cricketer but, statistically speaking, he was unlikely to ever become one of the game’s genuine ‘greats’ (I wish of course he was alive to prove me wrong). This has not stopped a Diana-like outpouring of emotion – seemingly stirred up by some sections of the media (four out of five of Australia’s free-to-air channels broadcast the funeral live) and, most disturbingly, by Cricket Australia themselves. Only a miniscule minority who are currently grieving ever met the man, let alone knew him well. While we have witnessed genuine grief amongst the cricket fraternity who did know him well, we are being confronted by Twitter campaigns by those who did not. I.e. #putyourbatsout and #63notout (the latter, which encourages the performance of a good deed, and may at least provide a minor legacy of some sort), and even the suggestion by Sky correspondent David ‘Bumble’ Lloyd that any score of 63 be applauded in Hughes' memory.

As the distasteful politicisation of wearing a poppy also ‘inspires’, I do not wish to feel obliged to publicly acknowledge the death of a soldier or a sportsman or woman. These are highly personal and what should, for the most part, remain private thoughts. Hedley Verity, the Yorkshire and England cricketer, who died of his wounds in the Second World War did not receive such tributes (he does however have a pub named after him), nor the more recent and, to my mind, more shocking sporting death of Ayrton Senna. And yet they are remembered and rightfully revered, but that a relatively unestablished cricketer is thought to warrant extreme ceremonies of public remembrance (potentially in any future innings) reveals a good deal about modern sport and society.

It has been suggested in the excellent blog by David Rowe, which exposes the public’s complicity ‘in the damage sportspeople can do to each other and to themselves’, that cricket’s primacy within Australian culture, in-part, explains the current outpourings of emotion. This may be so but, having witnessed a similarly disproportionate response within the Australian media (but, interestingly, not the public) to the premature death of the actor Heath Ledger, something else must be at play. I’m uncertain exactly what that is, but I have my suspicions, although Australia may be a special case, that our societal obsession with ‘celebrities’, and their role in sustaining an increasingly trivialised media, does play a significant role. Sport is, after all, a highly trivial phenomena.  

Today, celebrity culture is omnipresent, but how we choose to react to tragic events such as this, or the anniversaries of tragedies of the past, appears to be dictated by the media (and sports clubs or administrative organisations) - this unaccountable accident does not compare, either in scale or in media reaction, to the Hillsborough tragedy. In this case the tragic (criminal even?) death of 'ordinary' football supporters led to their public vilification. 

What do these ‘celebrities’ represent, and do they ‘belong’ to us 'ordinary' folk? Hughes may well have represented one future of Australian cricket, and his death, one hopes, may result in more measured forms of competitiveness in future, but does the fact someone is in the public eye provide us with the excuse to gawp at their death behind a veil of crocodile tears? The internet search engine Bing recently revealed that 2014's top internet search was Peaches Geldof who had done little of note prior to dying of a heroin overdose. Then of course there was the very public life and death of Jade Goody, blisteringly satirised by Charlie Brooker. Whether genuine or not, unless we knew the departed personally, there will always be an element of voyeurism involved in our ‘mourning’ of such celebrities. The media, as it is beginning to recognise in relation to mental health, need to reign-in the emotion and report events such as this in more measured tones.

Phillip Hughes deserves to be remembered, but as a son, a brother, and yes (for the rest of us), as a cricketer who died doing what he loved. Not as the poster boy of mass hysteria engineered to elevate the moral standing of cricket, nor boost circulation or viewing figures. 

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