Celebrities on both sides of the Atlantic seem to have been expiring in droves this year. David Bowie, Prince, Alan Rickman, Ronnie Corbett, Victoria Wood, Terry Wogan – the list keeps growing. By Christmas, it may number in the thousands.
How to explain this odd and apparently new phenomenon?
A theory currently circulating in medical circles, and which I can now reveal thanks to sources in the neurological disorders branch of the profession, is that there has been an outbreak of a long-standing but hitherto little-known disease called iconitis.
Iconitis is deadly, but for reasons that medical experts have yet to discover, attacks only those classified as icons and ‘national treasures’. Little else is known about the disease, which is believed to be viral and highly contagious. Indeed, until the last twenty years or so, most members of the public, and even many in the medical profession, were only vaguely unaware that the disease existed.
One reason is that in days gone by very few people achieved iconic status. As late as the 1940s rarely were more than a handful of celebrities awarded iconic status in a single decade. In that particular span only Winston Churchill, Franklin D. Roosevelt and arguably Clark Gable were so recognised. I am deliberately leaving Hitler and Stalin off the list. They qualify as icons but of a particularly unsavoury variety. Incidentally, both of those evil men eventually succumbed to what medical scientists now suspect were undiagnosed cases of iconitis. Yes, I am aware that Hitler committed suicide in his Berlin bunker, but it was almost certainly iconitis that drove him to that desperate act. Indeed, iconitis has been known to drive many of its victims to such depths of despair that they turn for relief to narcotics, alcohol, or obsessive craving for sex – and, yes, sometimes even to suicide. These traits are among the more obvious symptoms of this terrible, debilitating disease.
This makes all the more disturbing the growing evidence that icons are being created at an accelerating rate. Doctors blame the proliferation on the influence of newspapers such as the Daily Mail and the Sun, which ruthlessly exploit a yearning for role models by creating a sub-culture of hero-worship, an ether-driven intellectual paradise in which all critical judgement may be abandoned.
This utopian – or dystopian – universe now extends as far as the remote fringes of show business and sport, where singers who record a couple of hit songs are nominated for icon-hood, especially after performing their music on stage in the nude. Television newsreaders and presenters have been welcomed as icons, too, some of the ladies merely by crossing or uncrossing their legs in a suggestive or careless manner. Fashion designers and models abound, in both cases the quirkier, the angrier and even the nastier the better. So have single-role supporting actors of long-standing, often no more than one series. And then there are the footballers who, having played a handful of games for their national team, married a groupie, and had multiple affairs with others of that ilk, feel impelled to write an autobiography.
All these, and many, many more, qualify as icons these days.
Sometimes I wonder whether even I am myself an icon. Not that I have any reason to believe that I have been so afflicted, but a few years back I did get somewhere near the commanding heights of my profession, and was even elected to its Hall of Fame (as sponsored by a mischievously myopic industry newsletter). So, perhaps I too, however reluctantly and unwittingly, am an icon of sorts, though I am not aware of any of the known symptoms. (Please refrain from writing to me with your views, whatever they are; write to the Daily Mail.)
And finally, let me assure you, dear reader, that I have not the slightest wish, not a scintilla of desire, to enter the iconosphere, however loud the siren calls from within.
Most of those who populate it are so infected that they firmly believe that a generation from now people will still remember what they did to deserve the accolade, even though most of us will have forgotten a year from now.
Sadly, there is no cure in sight, so the disease is likely to thrive, unchecked, for years to come. A word of advice: if you find yourself with any of the above symptoms, seek psychiatric help without delay. It could save your life.