Belfast Telegraph

Despite being plagued by the demons in her life, Tara was a kind soul with unique grace

Even though she didn't make any significant cultural impact, death of 'It' girl proved a shock, writes Gail Walker

Gail Walker

By Gail Walker

It was one of those little memory splinters that cause a sharp and rather surprising flinch of pain, that - because of their very 'inconsequence' in terms of the great affairs of the world - make you gasp as you realise the fleetingness not just of life or fame but of memory itself.

Tara Palmer-Tomkinson wasn't a figure of any importance. Not really. She wasn't a politician, she wasn't an artist, she wasn't even - in any conventional sense - an entertainer.

So her passing wasn't that of Fidel Castro, David Bowie, Prince or George Michael. Or Alan Rickman. Or Debbie Reynolds. It wasn't even like those of Gene Wilder and Ronnie Corbett. These were genuine icons of - whether you like their work or not - cultural import. We may have differing views about their work but we can see their importance in the history books, in our music collections or on television.

Nor was Tara's death the clock-stopping pain of losing someone personally close to us. And yet... it mattered.

Tara was just an 'It' girl. The essence of cultural flotsam and jetsam. She was - in the phrase that used to be smart but is not a cliche - 'famous for being famous'. Nothing more.

There's unlikely to be a rush to republish either of her 'novels' - Infidelity or Inheritance. Not even The Naughty Girl's Guide To Life. It is doubtful if her largely ghostwritten articles for the Sunday Times, Spectator and Harper's Bazaar will ever be re-read after the next few weeks. Few will revisit her ad campaigns for Walkers Crisps and (weirdly) Kentucky Fried Chicken. Her spell as co-host of the ITV spin-off of I'm A Celebrity… or her cameos on shows like Blind Date, Cold Turkey, Bognor Or Bust will not become a staple of satellite television.

In truth there will not be 'Another Chance to See…' Tara Palmer-Tompkinson. And ironically that is what is so moving. The insubstantiality of it all.

I liked TPT. She was always a genial presence on TV with more than a touch of the old showbiz trooper, mucking in - whether that meant wearing thigh-high boots for the paparazzi or as patron of charities for bereaved children and autistic young people.

It would be easy to accept your lot in life when Prince Charles is your godfather, but Tara (below) threw herself into her own life - through the sheer force of her personality she made herself into one of the faces of the 1990s, the ultimate 'It' girl. Yet she did so with a knowing, often self-deprecating air.

I suspect that she wasn't fool enough to think the attention was hers of right or that it was going to last forever. She had the brains to know and to admit that she wasn't her public image and to charmingly 'confess' her insecurities and demons.

In the aftermath of her death many provided testimonies not just to her natural joie de vivre but to her wit and intelligence, her warmth and almost reckless generosity. In her last interview, published posthumously at the weekend, she talked of simple pleasures - being happiest at the family home with their dogs - and making her life count as a means of making amends to her parents. Here's the rub - as I said, in the great scheme of things, Tara may not have been of any great consequence, but on a more intimate level everyone who knew her loved her.

Often when terms such as gilded butterfly are bandied about, it's with a vague sense of censure and disapproval. But what's wrong with being a butterfly? They are lovely to behold and delightful in their seeming inconsequence.

At the very least they are an apt reminder that sometimes those who are most charming are not fated to live long. Tragically so it turned out with TPT.

She filled column inches, helped us pass an hour or two on television. She had an uncommon grace. The drug addiction which ravaged her septum was admitted, not ruthlessly exploited. Neither was her fear upon being diagnosed with a (non-malignant) brain tumour - just an interview or two.

The 'dark days' being highlighted by the Press now that she is dead were largely kept from the public eye - no endless reheats from Tara about struggling to make sense of it all.

Yet in the days since her death we've witnessed a subtle change of tone in the coverage: the news that her body may have lain undiscovered for five days, the image of a reclusive and frail TPT withdrawing from the world, weighted down with business difficulties.

There was also, sadly, a peculiarly vitriolic dismissal of her life, mainly on social media, simply because of the privilege that surrounded it, as if her life was somehow less valuable, less meaningful, because of the circumstances into which she was born. It is always remarkable that there is such anger out there and that it can be directed against such a harmless person; but that is part of the modern world.

In a way, it is all too predictable. Now that every moment of our lives, it seems, is up for scrutiny on social media, we are able to witness everything, from the very start of a career or even a life - that bright, optimistic beginning - right through to its often ravaged and distressing conclusion.

There are numerous examples of lives played out in the public eye, from sports people to movie actors to musicians, all the way from the glamour of the debutante's ball and the first red carpet to the gurney being wheeled out of some exclusive apartment.

Paradoxically, the celebrity crash-and-burn has come to mirror and represent those countless anonymous but equally disappointed lives lived in much less luxurious surroundings throughout these islands - what Thoreau called "lives of quiet desperation".

You don't have to be rich and cosseted to be harassed and beaten; but it is clear that riches may not be the protection against defeat we are told they are. It is equally clear that the vivid collapses of the wealthy and privileged, because they are so public and so dramatic, remind us of those silent deaths which occur all too frequently in our own communities and which, often, we are reluctant to examine because they are so painful, so raw.

In the death of Tara Palmer-Tompkinson, aged 45, with wounds in her mouth from cocaine abuse and with heavy personal debts, there is a window onto the sad secret worlds so many live in every day and from which escape, let alone rescue, is even less of a possibility than it was for her.

I think the appropriate response to that, if we can't prevent these tragedies - as it seems we can't - is not anger or disgust or self-righteousness, but simple compassion.

A little bit of that, more often, would do us all a lot of good.

Belfast Telegraph

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