If you are in the public eye, it is probably best to die young


By Kenneth Roy

It is like buses. For long enough we have no obituaries in the Scottish Review and then two turn up at the same time – of the same man. We published them on Tuesday side by side, Catherine Czerkawska’s heartfelt eulogy and John Cameron’s spikier appreciation of Steve Jobs, on whose gadget I am writing this piece.

Opinion on the founder of Apple Computers is sharply divided, as subsequent correspondence has shown.  We have even been criticised for calling him ‘the great man’ in the contents panel, although when I wrote these words, a slight irony was intended. Was he truly a great man – one of the greatest of our time, as some have suggested – or was A N Wilson nearer the mark on Radio 4’s Today programme when he said that Jobs was a mere businessman who would be ‘forgotten in two minutes’?

I have a theory about this, and it is borrowed from the venerable R D Kernohan. He wrote in his SR tribute to Mary Levison – a third bus on the same day – that, for the biggest funeral, you should arrange to go at 55 and for the biggest obituaries shuffle off at 66. Mary Levison (to whom I was always grateful for her steadfast support of this magazine) was an influential figure in the Scottish church, but having reached the age of 88 she had gone on too long for many people to remember her.

Jobs does not quite fit the Kernohan prescription. He was 56 and by all accounts decreed that he should have a small funeral, which he planned with his customary attention to detail. He was 10 years light of being guaranteed the biggest obituaries (according to the Kernohan formula), yet he has already garnered almost as many column inches as Amy Winehouse, aged 27.

Still, there is something in the R D K theory. Would Jobs have been so mourned by Catherine Czerkawska and others had he survived to a ripe old age, and the gadget on which I am writing this had been superseded by one even more elegant and versatile? Would Jobs dead at 88 have had quite the same impact as Jobs dead at 56, cut off in his creative prime? A large part of the allure is surely the sense of a life cruelly abbreviated, making balanced assessment more difficult.

What we were mourning, of course, was promise unfulfilled. After years in the wilderness, a thoughly decent man appeared from almost nowhere and offered us the hope of rebuilding our shattered social fabric; and then, suddenly he is gone.

In Scotland, in May 1994, we experienced a classic example of this phenomenon with the death of John Smith at the age of 55. The opening words in the latest instalment of Chris Mullin’s diaries (‘A Walk-On Part’, Profile Books), are ‘John Smith is dead’, a sentence still with the power to shock 17 years after the event. Mullin goes on to describe the funeral:

We were in Edinburgh by 9.20am and walked together down the Royal Mile to the car park beside Holyrood Palace where coaches were waiting to take us to Cluny Parish Church, round the corner from John’s home in the south of the city. Everywhere photographers with long lenses. The surrounding streets sealed to traffic…For all practical purposes, a state funeral…So much grief for one man who never made more than the most minor impact in government. What we were mourning, of course, was promise unfulfilled. After years in the wilderness, a thoughly decent man appeared from almost nowhere and offered us the hope of rebuilding our shattered social fabric; and then, suddenly he is gone.

Another Scot who was held in great affection was the golfer John Panton. At one stage he was so popular that a drink was sold in his name. I am reliably informed that, if you ordered a John Panton in a bar, what you got was a concoction of ginger beer, lime and Angostura bitters. There cannot be many other Scots with a drink named after them – can you think of any? – and yet, when Panton died a couple of years ago, the obituaries were respectful rather than lavish (Alex Salmond’s being the best-informed and most insightful). Weeks elapsed before the Daily Telegraph got around to reporting his death, and then only in a few niggardly paragraphs, while the golf correspondent of the Guardian confessed that he had not realised what a significant figure Panton had been in the game.

There are two issues here of more general interest. The first is the familiar one – Panton had the misfortune, from one point of view, to live until a great age (92), which, as we have seen with Mary Levison and others, tends to be fatal to reputation. Had he expired at the age of 56 in the middle of the Seniors’ Open, he would have been all over the front page.

The other is the shortness of memory which is such a characteristic of the age. When Jimmy Reid died last year, the Glasgow constabulary had to be persuaded that the funeral was likely to be a large one and that a police presence would be desirable. No one at Strathclyde polis seemed to have heard of Jimmy Reid or, if they had, it came as surprise that he was so central a figure in the Scottish consciousness. As I have related before, there was the same sense of bafflement among the younger BBC staff at Pacific Quay. Fortunately, the magnetic personality of Jimmy Reid, and the symbolism of what he meant to Scotland and the Scots, ensured a huge send-off; but it was noticeable that the funeral got more space than the death itself; it took a week for the collective memory to be fully re-ignited.

‘Death is one of life’s great inventions,’ said Steve Jobs. It seems the distressing moral of this cautionary tale is that, by going at the height of his powers, he made a smart career move.


Courtesy of Kenneth Roy – read Kenneth Roy in the Scottish Review