Quite often in these pages, I write the sentence: ‘Another of the good old men has gone’.
Well, another of the good old men has gone.
The strange thing is that I was not going to write of it. Last night, as the news came in, I suddenly felt that the internet had got it all wrong. The wisdom of crowds can be magnificent at times like this. There is a touching communal outpouring, a coming together in regret. Passings are marked well, with restraint and elegance.
But I found something curiously grating about the response to Nelson Mandela’s death. There was a faint whiff of bandwagon-jumping, of one-upmanship, of sentimentality. Some of the things that were written were good and true and heartfelt, but some hit a false note. It was not just that idiotic spats broke out, between people of different political kidneys. It was not just that the Ukippers started singing their ugly song. It was that a morbid competition arose – who was saddest, who knew him best, who referred to him as Madiba rather than Mandela, in a rather proprietary way.
I felt not sad, but cross. I went into a fugue-like silence. I could not join in this untrammelled effusion.
When very great public figures die, the newness of the social networks are thrown into vivid relief. The etiquettes and the mores have not quite been worked out yet. If you do say something, on the Twitter or the Facebook, it can sound a little forced and phoney. Look at me, minding. If you say nothing, you have a heart of stone. The balance between the two is finely poised. I could not find the balance.
I had nothing to say. I went to bed, dry-eyed.
This morning, I told my mother. She did not know. Her power is still out. She has no news.
Then I did the morning chores, fed the horses, and returned to the kitchen to make hot soup for my cold, stranded, powerless mum. I put on the radio. Clare Balding was on Desert Island Discs. She was being funny and self-deprecating and human. And then she spoke of the time she was treated for cancer, and how she and her partner dealt with it, and this most articulate woman suddenly lost her words. Her voice cracked and broke, and there was that rarest thing on the wireless: silence.
It was that moment that unzipped my heart, and restored my humanity. So I stood, in a Scottish kitchen, making soup with split peas and barley, weeping for a great old gentleman and a brave woman, both. Then, not long afterwards, someone played Something Inside So Strong by Labi Siffre, and that was that. That song makes me teary at the best of times; today it finished me off.
Sorrowing for the loss of someone you do not know is a curious thing. Nelson Mandela did not belong to me. He was not my president or my grandfather or my friend. But perhaps the very great ones belong to everyone. Perhaps he really was that most unlikely of things: a true citizen of the world. And that was why everyone rushed to the Facebook and the Twitter, because he meant something to them and they wanted to give that meaning voice. They wanted to do something.
In my teenage years, my cohort had three heroes. They were an oddly assorted bunch. They were Che Guevara, Lech Walesa and Nelson Mandela. Everyone had Che pictures and Solidarity posters on their walls; everyone played Free Nelson Mandela by The Specials until the vinyl was worn thin. (We are back in the days of records, now.) Che, it turned out as we grew older and wiser, was a bit of a dodgy hero, and we were perhaps taken in by his great beauty. He looked as a revolutionary should look. Walesa and Mandela did not. They did not have the flowing hair and the romantic aura and the motorbikes. Walesa was a stocky fellow, who looked like a farmer. Mandela, from the old pictures before he came out of prison, was a solid man with a boxer’s face, nothing fey or fanciful about him. There were no Guevara sculpted cheekbones, no perfect profile, no dashing rebel hat. But those two unlikely bedfellows were shining beacons for the ideological teen in the raw and rampant eighties.
The really astonishing thing about Nelson Mandela was that he proved even more remarkable in life than he was in our young imaginations. He was unseen for so many years, and he went into the realm of myth. Usually, such humans are a crashing disappointment when they return to the theatre of the real. Few can live up to that weight of ardent expectation. But on that day when Mandela made the long walk to freedom, emerging at last into the bright South African light, he spoke not of vengeance or hatred but of forgiveness and peace. It was not just rhetoric: for every day afterwards he lived up to those words, steadily put thought into action. He turned out to be worthy of the burden of hero-worship placed on his shoulders, which may be the most extraordinary thing of all.
I really was not going to write about this today. I thought: everyone knows what they think, and everyone knows what they feel. My paltry scratches on a page mean nothing. A good old man has gone, and in some odd way it feels like a private thing, for all his public renown.
It was Clare Balding who made me do it. She was the one who made me cry and unlocked the door. (As I write this I am laughing, because it is such an unexpected juxtaposition. But sort of perfect too.)
Despite this, I still have a sense of hesitation, even of impropriety. Then I remember something else I always say here. Which is: the thing must be marked. That is why humans plant trees in remembrance or lay flowers or stand in silence. In my case, most often, the marking is made in my beautiful hills. It is in their eternal blue that I find solace and proportion. I drove into them today, as the sun shone again after the violent storms. To the west, Morven was entirely white. The tips of the silver birches were scarlet in the light and the air was high and thin with the promise of snows to come.
I looked out over this beloved country, and marked the thing which must be marked. On the way home, the South African national anthem came on the radio. I smiled. Everyone, I thought, does their remembrance in their own way, and that is exactly how it should be.