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Hashtag: Britain’s emotional meltdown

"I welcome the ability to show greater emotion, but Im not sure I feel the same about the idea that we have to, when responding to terrorism and tragedy," says Alastair Campbell. - Credit: Archant

Be brave, Britain. And don’t devalue grief with ostentatious displays

As Burnley and Spurs lined up before kick-off last Saturday, I turned to my neighbour and said ‘who’s died?’ Both teams, not just the players but managers and coaches too, were wearing black armbands. Then, once the teams were announced and the stadium announcer fell silent, as Burnley manager Sean Dyche motioned to his substitutes and backroom staff to line up shoulder to shoulder on the touchline, I assumed it must be a Burnley death we were honouring. But surely I would have heard?

Dyche’s Spurs counterpart, Mauricio Pochettino, looked momentarily confused. So did the referee. As he called the captains together to toss the coin, it was clear that Dyche had been misinformed in thinking there was to be a minute’s silence. He held his arms out as if to say ‘what’s going on?’ and then, as the ref continued to prepare to get the game started, Dyche’s entourage returned somewhat embarrassed to the bench, and the match got underway.

So what was it that he thought we were supposed to be commemorating with a minute’s silence or applause? It turned out that it was the victims of the murderous attack on Westminster Bridge a few days earlier. The Premier League had seemingly felt it should be marked. Some felt a minute’s silence would be the right thing to do. Some felt not. Black armbands at all clubs was the compromise, and someone clearly forgot to tell Dyche. Or perhaps he just thought, another game, another minute’s silence, minute’s applause, minute’s something or other to commemorate something or other or someone or other.

I do not have the stats to hand, nor even know if they exist. But we do seem to be having more and more moments of commemoration and reflection at sporting events. Not just former players and managers, but fans who have passed away too, get remembered before and during matches. It must be confusing for the players. Twenty minutes to go, a key phase in the match, and suddenly the whole crowd is applauding because a picture has gone up of a fan or former player who died last week, aged 70. For the anniversary of the death of former Everton player and manager Howard Kendall last year, there were no fewer than four separate bursts of a minute’s applause, reflecting important numbers and dates in his career. It prompted this from one Evertonian, GladysBlue, on a fans’ forum.

‘I’m sick to death of every single game turning into a memorial clap for somebody. We go the game to escape the harshness of reality outside of Goodison and take comfort in 90 minutes of letting go of life’s problems. We did a memorial to our greatest manager last season when he died. Do we really need to do another one? Perhaps something at half time, a collage of his success at Everton would be more fitting. It isn’t just Everton turning into this, it is every game at every ground we have to observe an applause for something or other. Let’s get it back to why we go there – to watch football.’ I am with him on this one.

I think most accept that Armistice Day plays such an important part in our national life that it should be acknowledged at major events around the time of November 11. It is always incredibly moving when a packed stadium falls silent to remember our war dead, and an important way of ensuring younger generations appreciate and understand the enormity of what our fathers and forefathers went through. Also, when true legends of a club pass away, it is right that we pay respects. But legend is a much overused word – there are not that many that truly merit the label – and whether for former players or for events outside football, we are rendering such displays of respect almost meaningless in their frequency.

I am all for people being open about their emotions, and was pleased, if somewhat surprised, to be asked to make one of the films commissioned by the Heads Together campaign headed by Prince William, his wife Catherine, and Prince Harry, about the impact of my own mental health problems on me and my partner Fiona. But there is a big difference between being open about our feelings, and wanting to unite in the public expression of the same feelings at any and every opportunity.

I have two worries about this with regard to the Westminster attack. The first is that part of the purpose of such attacks is to get us to over-react. The media almost always over-reacts, because with so much space to fill, a fast-moving, dramatic, unexpected breaking news story is too good an opportunity to fill it, and generate the staple diet of much of the modern media, which is fear. Social media then allows for the amplification of over-reaction, as Facebookers and Twitterers rush to share hashtags, or, in the case of the Westminster attack, let the world know they are safe, let the world know, as television presenter Phillip Schofield did, that they are ‘marching defiantly across Westminster bridge’, let the world know, as dozens of MPs did, that they were in lockdown and full of praise for the security services. It all felt a bit formulaic and me-too-ish.

I had a similar sense of queasiness when 44 heads of state and government went to Paris in the immediate aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo attack in 2015, linked arms and walked in solidarity with the French, and millions around the world declared ‘Je suis Charlie’. I worried that the terrorists would be chief among those taking comfort and strength from the enormous reaction. There was also something of a social media fascism creeping in. I remember getting people on Twitter criticising me for not joining in the emotional hashtagery.

We are coming up to the 20th anniversary of Princess Diana’s Paris car crash and there is no doubt the reaction to her life and death changed the way we grieve and react publicly to major events. I welcome the ability to show greater emotion, but I’m not sure I feel the same about the idea that we have to, when responding to terrorism and tragedy. And I can’t help wondering whether and how we would have got through wars as bloody and deadly as the two Great Wars if we had been in 2017 emotional mode, rather than 1914 or 1939.

My second concern about Hashtag Britain relates to whether we really do express what we feel, or whether we are just constantly looking for things to express ourselves about, and join in with the latest thing to get emotional about. During the week following Princess Diana’s death, I can remember walking from the Palace to Number 10 after a meeting, and stopping to talk to two young couples in tears, who talked of Diana as though she was their best friend. I would love to know whether they really care about her now, and what other people and events have moved them in the same way since.

London mayor Sadiq Khan may have been criticised by President Trump’s son for saying ‘terror attacks are part of living in a big city’. But he is right. They will be part of our lives for some time to come. Last month’s attack was a dreadful tragedy for some and will change the world forever for people who were genuinely close to those who died, who deserve both sympathy and support. But we cannot allow ourselves as a country to go into emotional meltdown every time something dreadful happens. We do actually have to keep calm and carry on.

P.S. at the risk of contradicting my own argument, and given I have got this far without even mentioning the disaster that is Brexit, a word of thanks and praise for my near neighbour Mike Lowndes, who was spotted on March 29 walking down our street wearing a dark suit, a white shirt and black tie. When my partner Fiona asked him whose funeral he was attending, he said ‘Britain’s’… It was Article 50 day. That really is something to mourn, but at least we still have the chance to kill off Brexit and bring back Britain.

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