Belfast Telegraph

Gail Walker: Hoddle's illness and Leicester crash stark examples of how random life and death really are

 

I don't know that much about Glenn Hoddle. I know even less about Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha, the late owner of Leicester City Football Club. But as Hoddle recovers from his sudden serious illness at the BT Sport studios on Saturday, and as a city and the footballing community unite in grief for a figure who did much good for his chosen place, who became not just deeply embedded in a football club but in the life of tens of thousands ordinary people, it is hard not to be moved.

But by what, precisely? Simple humanity, certainly. Those of a cynical bent may call it rubbernecking prurience and dismiss the sight of strangers moved to tears as sentimental, but we should be glad of our capacity to be moved by things that don't directly concern us.

Because what we are really moved by is yet another example of the arbitrariness of life, of death.

When they awoke on Saturday morning, for Hoddle and Srivaddhanaprabha, it was set to be just another day, filled no doubt with the usual sort of routine - shaving, breakfasting, reading the papers.

For Srivaddhanaprabha, it may have been all about Leicester getting three points against West Ham. Certainly, he couldn't have imagined a catastrophe such as overtook his private helicopter taking off from the centre circle after the match had finished that evening.

For Hoddle, it would have been a Saturday that mixed business with pleasure, talking about football in the TV studio and then celebrating the fact it was his 61st birthday.

And within minutes of disaster overtaking both men, footage relating to each of the unfolding dramas was being shared millions of times.

Look. Here is the fireball at the football ground. Look. Here is Hoddle shortly before collapse smiling and playing keepy-uppy in the studio. It's easy - and not fair - to describe our compulsion to dwell over these images as ghoulish or mawkish, in some way unwholesome. It's more than that. We are stunned and horrified by the swift turn of fortune, chance, fate. How in the very midst of life we could be so close to death.

These two men were everyday fixtures in the lives of millions of people. Hoddle was still the English Maradona, the midfielder blessed with two equally-gifted feet, the original golden boy with the legendary mullet hairstyle and boyish good looks. Srivaddhanaprabha was for countless thousands the dream-maker par excellence - it was his vision and investment which made possible perhaps the greatest fairytale in the history of English (or maybe even world) football - bringing the Premier League title to Leicester, a club that only the most blind partisan could call glamorous.

You might ask the question: what has everyday mortality to do with such figures as these? To which the answer is "everything". Just like you and me.

That's unavoidable. Maybe it's the ubiquity of social media - everyone had a smartphone, everyone has a camera, everyone has a video, and an absolute mania for breaking the news first - but 'sudden death' now cannot be discreet. The more well-known the casualty, the faster the news breaks.

In 2016 - that year of multiple celebrity tragedies, from Bowie in January to George Michael on Christmas Day, which even as it was under way was being heralded as 12 months of unprecedented celebrity carnage - the number and frequency of demises made it feel as if death had just been invented. Maybe there really were more that year. Maybe there was a kind of celebrity plague wiping out our most beloved stars. Or maybe we just noticed them more. Or maybe what we think of as 'fame' has expanded so much that anyone in any way with a public profile stakes a claim on our time and drains our little reservoir of shock.

Of course, something else also occurred on Saturday and wasn't down to chance or arbitrariness, but to the kind of deliberate action of which only humans are capable. The massacre of 11 Jews between the ages of 54 and 97 at a baby-naming ceremony in a synagogue in Squirrel Hill, Pittsburgh, will strike its own chords here as we move through a week remembering the atrocities of 25 years ago, from Shankill to Greysteel.

And then, yesterday, there was the unspeakable tragedy of the Indonesian Lion Air flight, lost with all 189 passengers on board - yet another ghastly way to die, another failure of a technology upon which we have come to rely so heavily.

In our day, far-off disasters are brought right into our living rooms, indeed, thanks to smartphones, right into the palms of our hands.

What can we do? We watch the floral tributes growing bigger and bigger outside the King Power Stadium, read the tweets wishing Glenn a speedy recovery and the articles about the player in his pomp, say a prayer if so inclined, feel sorry for those loved ones in panic or bereavement, and we remind ourselves that this is what people do when they do the best they can with a fate beyond their control.

Gestures to hold back the darkness. Futile, but showing us at our most human. As the news broke on all those sudden events of Saturday - written large on the world stage - it will have brought to mind other sorrows, other tragedies. The colleague taken by an unexpected heart attack. The friend who woke up one morning to find out his legs couldn't support him due to a sudden illness. The acquaintance killed because someone didn't indicate. The loved one who suddenly "feels a little bit below par" and thinks that "they'll visit the GP soon if things don't pick up..."

Or indeed - another little detail (often overlooked) which marks us out from others on these islands - for how many people in Northern Ireland did events in Pennsylvania bring back the horror of slaughter in or about their own places of worship or recreation?

But, for all the bad news like this, it can't be true that there is anything new here. Maybe we have got so complacent with our high-tech lives that we think we are virtually untouchable. Mudslides and avalanches and earthquakes don't happen here. But sudden death does, prompted by the simplest and least dramatic of things - a faulty valve, a bad bend, a blocked artery, a drunk driver, a racist.

How can this happen when we are having such fun? Just going about our usual business? It's such a beautiful day... Of course, this is what we keep away from our children for as long as possible. It's the one big thing that no university education or small army of bodyguards or bank vault stuffed with fivers or any number of weapons can divert by a centimetre or delay for an instant. It's the human condition. This story doesn't end well.

Those of us who survive move among these things like complete innocents. The only thing we do know is that, some day, sooner or later, it will be you and me who will be the people at the centre of things, and for all the wrong reasons.

Belfast Telegraph

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