CJ Sansom, the author of the Shardlake series of historical mysteries (and two standalone novels), has died and I am sad. I used to talk to myself severely about this kind of thing, ever since I found myself crying buckets when Diana died in 1997.

Grieving in any way for someone you did not know personally seemed to me mildly grotesque. As the sea of flowers around Kensington and Buckingham Palace grew and the Royal Family, including her sons, were forced outside to face the public, a deeply unadmirable form of self-indulgence emerged, cringemaking in its suggestion of inauthenticity.

And indeed performative sorrow (or genuinely performative sorrow, depending on how meta you’re prepared to get) is unforgiveable. And there’s a lot of it out there. Social media (which thank God did not exist in 1997 otherwise I think some kind of emotional event horizon would have been induced) all but begs for it, rewarding as it does extremes and extravagances of all kinds.

Forged in the Diana fire, my attitude remained set until faced with the extraordinary roll call of high-profile deaths that occurred in 2016.

George Michael, Prince, David Bowie and, perhaps less globally recognised but feeling most deeply personal to the nation whose language, mores and foibles she captured so exquisitely, Victoria Wood all passed away within 12 months of each other. And people were profoundly and genuinely moved by the loss of people who had given them so much, who had meant so much to them.

I’m too unmusically orientated to have appreciated fully the talents of Michael, Prince and Bowie. But they were so much part of my childhood, their influence so present by osmosis, that I felt the same disbelief that we feel when true loved ones leave us. I couldn’t bend my mind round the idea that they were gone. And for those whom their music had guided, supported, comforted or inspired them through life, the loss was greater still.

I was properly poleaxed by the death of Victoria Wood. There are not, I think, many people of my generation who make a living via (however vaguely) humorous writing that do not revere her, who do not listen to and sigh with longing at her semantic and rhythmic genius (every line she wrote is precisely weighted) and try to aim for the same sense of effortless wholeness, to effect the same satisfaction in the reader or listener as she always did.

Late in the day, but better then than never, I suppose I realised that we do know these people. They are not strangers to us. It would be ridiculous indeed to mourn, if we were somehow to hear about it, the death of someone we once passed in the street, beyond a small shake of the head at the all-round general embuggeration that mortality and the knowledge of it is.

But to grieve for someone we have come to know through his or her art (and this includes Diana, although her art doesn’t fall into any of the traditional categories), someone who has given us joy, or imparted knowledge or revealed new colours or possibilities in our worlds? That is not performative, or self-indulgent. That is rightful acknowledgment of a gift generously bestowed, a relationship built if not with the person then with a proxy as close as it could be, and a loss now endured.

When Hilary Mantel died two years ago, I texted a friend I knew loved her books (and admired her eloquence in speeches and documentaries and the clarity of mind that shone forth in everything) as much as I did and we had a cyber-cry together. Not too much, I hope – and we did feel that if ever there was someone who wouldn’t have approved of any kind of excess it was Dame Hilary – but, I also hope, not too little either.

With CJ Sansom I have pored over the obituaries of this very private writer, whom I “know” only through his clever, thrilling, loving and meticulously researched books that have given me 20 years of pleasure (as well as succeeding in imparting more understanding of Tudor politics and history than was managed during my entire school career) and spoken to friends who can’t believe there will be no more Shardlake conjured by – and this is the point of it all, of all those we miss – the only person who could conjure him and his world.

I know now that it is not strange or automatically inauthentic to grieve the loss of people we do not personally know. Or rather – it is very strange, and rather wonderful that we do so. That we can make connections across time and space than transcend the presence of flesh and blood. That we can have figures in our lives that may mean more to us, because they have given us more, uplifted us more, taught us more, than someone to whom we may be related by blood but who has treated us abominably.

How wonderful that we do not need to remain bound by accidents of birth, but that we can reach out to people above and beyond who are reaching out in their turn to us.

Doesn’t that give the love we do have for our friends and our families more value, doesn’t that give art its meaning, life almost its goddamn point, to know that there are other, greater bridges between us to be made than those constructed of mere DNA? That, to be sure, is nothing to mourn.

QOSHE - I used to scorn those who grieved people they had never met – now I understand - Lucy Mangan
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I used to scorn those who grieved people they had never met – now I understand

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05.05.2024

CJ Sansom, the author of the Shardlake series of historical mysteries (and two standalone novels), has died and I am sad. I used to talk to myself severely about this kind of thing, ever since I found myself crying buckets when Diana died in 1997.

Grieving in any way for someone you did not know personally seemed to me mildly grotesque. As the sea of flowers around Kensington and Buckingham Palace grew and the Royal Family, including her sons, were forced outside to face the public, a deeply unadmirable form of self-indulgence emerged, cringemaking in its suggestion of inauthenticity.

And indeed performative sorrow (or genuinely performative sorrow, depending on how meta you’re prepared to get) is unforgiveable. And there’s a lot of it out there. Social media (which thank God did not exist in 1997 otherwise I think some kind of emotional event horizon would have been induced) all but begs for it, rewarding as it does extremes and extravagances of all kinds.

Forged in the Diana fire, my attitude remained set until faced with the extraordinary roll call of high-profile deaths that occurred in 2016.

George Michael, Prince, David Bowie and, perhaps less globally recognised but feeling most deeply........

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