I was in a monastery in Syria when I heard that Michael Jackson had died. "What a shame!" I thought. "What a sad life!" And then I went back to looking at icons. (The kind of icons that feature a Madonna and child -- I mean, a real Madonna and child, a Madonna-looking-good-at-1,500, not just at 50, and a child that wasn't "rescued" from the other side of the world.)
When I switched on the news at the hotel that night, I discovered that we were in the midst of a cataclysm. I can't swear that the besuited males on the Middle Eastern channels, sounding angry in Arabic, were debating the finer points of "Thriller" and "Billie Jean", but if they were distracted by fripperies like the Iranian election and settlements on the West Bank, nobody else was. The world was in mourning. They were twittering their (badly spelled) grief straight into CNN, straight into my hotel bedroom -- grief for a psychopathically arrested, self-hating, self-mutilating pop star they'd never met and were never likely to.
And so the freak show rolled on, culminating in an all-singing, all-swaying, all-weeping extravaganza in which his children, finally not swathed in blankets (even the one called Blanket) were encouraged to parade their grief. One of them (one who shares the name of someone nearly as famous as her father, but without the work, the talent, or the pop) was even pushed on to a stage to speak. Kind of. "I just want to say that I love him so much," she squeaked before breaking down. "Speak up!" hissed her aunt.
Which, of course, is the trouble. Nobody ever expected the Wacko memorial to be a triumph of dignity, taste or accurate historical record -- or indeed of the children-should-be-seen-and-not-heard model of child-rearing -- but poor little Paris, bereft of the only father she has ever known (and therefore, heart-breakingly, describes as "the best") speaks for us all. We no longer trust the contents of our heads and the contents of our hearts. It's only when they're vomited out into the public arena -- the blogosphere, the twittersphere, or "best", as Paris would say, the eternal Neverland of telly -- that they become real. It's only then that they count.
Luckily, Paris reached a worldwide audience about the same size as the population of India, so she'll know, in the tough years ahead, when more information leaks out about her deeply peculiar father, that her feelings were really real. Poor Shelley Sawers, whose Facebook entry was hastily removed after people rushed to congratulate her husband on his appointment as head of MI6, must now be wondering if he ever wore those Speedos. Did he meet that actress from Footballers' Wives? Did they have a lovely holiday? Not anguish in quite the same league as Paris's, perhaps, but who are we to assess another's grief?
Sorry, what a silly question. We're all reviewers now, all critics in the grand opera of How We Feel, an opera in which we're both participants and spectators. As Paris did, so do we all, splurging our heartbreak over lovers lost, scarpered or (let's be honest) just rather disappointing. "You should twitter" said someone to me the other day. To say, what? I'm a bit tired? I did my job? Isn't that what lovers (lost, scarpered or disappointing) are meant to be for?
If Princess Diana's death marked the official launch of the Age of Hysteria, Michael Jackson's surely marks its heyday. It's an age in which every issue in our lives is basted in a marinade of emotions so thick and lurid that we skim the facts, skip the argument and go straight for the sobs and the screams. MPs' expenses? Sack the bastards! Immigration and social housing? Send 'em back! Release of criminals with the surname Biggs? Throw away the key! Forget the brain. We don't need the brain. We're all heart now. Hearts panting wildly on stained, sticky sleeves.
This morning, one of my closest friends told me she has cancer. She was, she said, chastised by the consultant for being too calm. She didn't attempt a defence. She didn't want to attempt a defence. The word she could have used is "private". Quaint, old-fashioned, precious private. And please God, please Paris, please Shelley, please Wacko, not yet obsolete.