Written on: 2. 12. 2011 in the category: news

My response to the tragic death of Garry Speed

Note to readers: this Column was atrociously headlined, “Suicide is self-murder and must be made totally taboo”, or something like that, which is the opposite of what I actually said (see the end of this column).

Anyway, taboos are not consciously made; they are the creation of the collective unconscious, and it is because they work at a sub-liminal level that they are so very effective. Either way, here is my response to the tragic death of Garry Speed:

NO wonder a writer to the Letters Page on Wednesday sought, and was granted, anonymity on the subject of the suicide of Gary Speed.

In his small town, he reported, it was even proposed that a sports trophy be named after a local suicide victim. What would have happened to him if his identity had been revealed? For in the strange inversion of values that has occurred in recent years, what was once profoundly taboo is now almost hailed.

This is by no means a uniquely Irish phenomenon. The Nottingham Forest-Leeds United match on Wednesday began with a minute’s applause to honour Gary Speed, who had taken his own life. So how does one now hail a true hero?

There is, of course, no right time to write about suicide. In the immediate aftermath of one, if you strike a dissident note, you will certainly be tweet-lynched for your heartlessness. If you consider it when the topic isn’t in the news, it has no particular resonance.

But we cannot allow the e-mob, or other people’s emotions, to prevent us from talking about this, particularly now, with serious proposals to make Gary Speed BBC Sports Personality of the Year. Moreover, as the greatest recession since the 1930s grips the world, many people are drifting into despair. Suicide cannot be culturally tolerated as a proper way of coping with profound personal problems. I say nothing about Gary Speed. The only concerns for me now are his wife, Louise, and two sons, Edward (14) and Thomas (13), who are the very age when boys most desperately need their father. Not just his life ended last weekend. So too, for ever, did their childhoods. So too, for ever, did any proper sense of family Christmas. So too did any sense of peace and stability in their teenage worlds.

Serious bereavement is a rock in the stream of one’s life which ineradicably changes the course in which it flows. I lost my father to a heart attack when I was 15, and my life fell apart. I did not know a moment’s real happiness for the six years of pain and confusion and failure that followed. I pray that the death of Gary Speed will not be as catastrophic for Edward and Thomas as the death of my father was for me. But at least he did not choose that outcome. It is simply not good enough to respond to Gary Speed’s suicide by emoting about what a great man he was. Nor is it good enough for the media to join in this uncritical acclamation. His sons know little of his achievements. He was their father. That was what counted in their lives. How much did he think of them when he decided to take his own life?

We do not need to labour over the obvious; of course he was of unsound mind when he committed suicide. But we have removed the taboo from self-murder. That taboo, at least, added something on the scales in favour of survival. How many people — adolescents, say, who feel their lives are worth nothing — might now find the prospect of a tear-filled funeral and local celebrity quite an alluring prospect? Might not such a glamorous end posthumously validate the otherwise “valueless” — in their eyes — life that had preceded it?

On Tuesday, the ‘Daily Telegraph’ dedicated nearly seven pages to Gary Speed’s death. Two years ago, the same newspaper gave just half a page to Sergeant Olaf Schmid, GC, (posthumous), Royal Logistical Corps, killed in action while defusing IEDs in Afghanistan. Sgt Schmid toiled tirelessly to deal with bombs that might otherwise have killed his fellow-soldiers.

His stepson Laird will grow up knowing that Olaf, the only man he has ever called dad, gave his life so that other boys like him would not be fatherless. Laird might in time begrudge the sacrifice that was so one-sided and so unfair: but at least he can truly say that his father behaved with perfect selflessness. It is not possible to say this of a suicide. Moreover, it is wrong that society acclaims the man who kills himself above the stoic, the patient, and the long-suffering, and most especially above the still-living who have contemplated suicide, but who have decided that they could not do that to their families. These are the real heroes, who gave up a relatively easy death in order to live a far more difficult life, that they might faithfully serve others, in hardship, endurance and despair, when all personal joy had gone, and only a concern for others remained.

FAITH, hope and love: these are the cardinal human virtues. They also define a now deeply unfashionable concept: manliness. And since we can, quite rightly, no longer use the crude force of a pagan taboo as a control over people’s lives, then we must extol the positive, especially the moral concept that is the most noble of them all. Not for me, or you, or us, but for others; the concept that conveys faith, hope and love, which together go by that very simple and very male word, “duty”.