Catchphrases · Home life

“Alive or dead?” (a January question)

About five years ago, on a Saturday in January, a friend and her daughter came to lunch. The Weekend Guardian that day had a feature called something like “Those we have lost”, pictures and stories of people who had died in the previous year. Our friend commented on how many of the deaths had passed her by. We also noticed that some of the obituaries were for people we assumed had died many years earlier, but had only died in the previous year. This led to a kind of parlour game, trying to recall whether the politicians, entertainers and sports stars we remembered from childhood were still alive or not. It wasn’t a competitive thing, and we didn’t feel that it was morbid, it was just a variant on the question “Where are they now?”

Most people of my age will remember clearly the deaths of Tommy Cooper and Eric Morecambe, if not the year. (They both died in the spring of 1984, April and May respectively.) And we might also recall the passing of Ernie Wise, though my wife couldn’t be sure, back in 2011, saying something like, “He’s alive, right? I’d remember hearing if Ernie Wise had died.” Sadly he’s passed on too, as long as ago as March 1999.

Just as time appears to speed up the older you get, so the number of deaths you hear about increases year on year. Paul Gambaccini has a feature on his Saturday night Radio 2 show called “A matter of life and death”: “someone born on this day, someone else who has recently passed away”. In 2012 he commented that the number of deaths was such that some weeks they had to “double up” on the latter part of the feature. He played “Hush”, written by Joe South and performed by Deep Purple, featuring Jon Lord. Both South and Lord had died in the preceding weeks.

I noticed at the weekend that the Golden Globes awards ceremony does not feature an In Memoriam section but the BAFTAs and the Oscars do. As far as I can see this January has so far passed without a “Those we have lost” section in any of the papers I read.

The phrase “Alive or dead?” has now become a shorthand for my wife and me when we hear of someone in the news who is no longer with us. Last weekend it was Ed “Stewpot” Stewart, whose “Junior Choice” radio show was a staple of my childhood. He was recalled in moving terms by both Paul Gambaccini and Johnnie Walker in their Radio 2 shows over the weekend. And yesterday, like everybody else in our world, we found out as soon as we woke up that David Bowie had died. There’s no chance of such news passing us by. Everyone from my generation, “from Ibiza to the Norfolk Broads” and beyond, will remember this.

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