Celebrities fill a hole left in British society by the aristocracy. Peaches Geldof was a celebocrat — the outpouring of coverage following her death was inevitable, because we needed it to be.
Love without hope, as when the young bird-catcher
Swept off his tall hat to the Squire’s own daughter,
So let the imprisoned larks escape and fly
Singing about her head, as she rode by. — Robert Graves
The breaking news pre-empted stories on BBC Radio’s flagship news PM program for the announcement. The Guardian bumped its endless MH370 coverage to lead with Peaches — and left it up there, even when pro-Russian separatists occupied Kharkov and Donetsk and appealed for Vladimir Putin to invade the Ukraine. The Twitter parade began then, with the usual suspects — Susan Sarandon, Peter Andre, Mamamia — and then went further afield: Irvine Welsh, author of Trainspotting, expressed his sorrow, as did young Brit Left firebrand Owen Jones. Firebrand feminista Laurie Penny got in on the act, and, Christ of all people, Fred Nile. Cosmopolitan mourned her the way it knew best, by featuring a re-run of her “25 best outfits”, which then gave everyone the controversy they needed to have a barney.
That Peaches Geldof (pictured) had, the day before, instagrammed a picture of herself as a child with her mother — hopeless, suicidal fuck-up Paula Yates — was too good for the morning papers to resist. Though no cause of death had been announced, speculation immediately began on the effect of her chaotic early life, the teenage drinking and drugging years, etc. By morning, the sites of The Telegraph and The Guardian had racked up eight stories each, photo galleries, and the inevitable think pieces — “she was the perfect alternative role model,” said Daisy Buchanan, whoever she is. Which all of course generated a fresh round of articles on whether the coverage was over the top.
For anyone outside of the UK, I suspect the answer was not so much “yes” as “hell, yes”. Wire services and foreign corros took up the story because it was a Bob Geldof angle. The last time most people had heard of Peaches was during the Geldof-Yates-Hutchence breakup-custody-deathmatch at the end of the ’90s, when the trio’s naming practices appeared to have a hit a high not known since the days of Moon Unit and Dweezil Zappa. But for anyone in the UK, it was something else, which fuelled the compulsive coverage. The doings of celebrities are interesting to us despite ourselves, as are the doings of royals — but the British have perfected an ideal hybrid, celebrocracy. Celebrocracy is that strange condition whereby the children of celebs become more interesting than the celebs themselves — not in the car-crash-waiting-to-happen sort of way, but with a degree of inherent legitimacy.
Essentially, the British have never lost the habit of aristocracy — the idea that a class of people are not merely better than us, but that their role is simply to live, while the rest of us work — and celebs fill that role. The old idea that ancient families somehow generate people who are better, rather than luckier, can no longer be sustained — and just as it died (the last presentation of debutantes to the Queen occurred in 1958. 1958!), the celeb culture came along to save it. British culture continues to generate enormous amounts of genuine talent, which it exports, and that talent — their doings and their output — circulates and recirculates endlessly via the still-viable print/news site media, a public broadcaster that huge numbers actually watch, radio, umpteen subcultures, etc.
The effect is to turn the whole country — all but Northern Ireland and the most far-flung parts of Scotland — into one huge village, all in each other’s doings, all sharing to some degree the same triumphs, disasters, jokes and moments. And the celebrocrats parade through the tabloids, like the squire’s young daughter riding by — part of it all, but elevated, like us, but not. Lily Allen, Nigella Lawson, Peaches, the other skinny Geldof one, Pippa Middleton, Rachel Johnson, and others you’ve never heard of: Amanda de Cadenet, Tara Palmer-Tomkinson, and countless others, mostly young women. They fill the media in a way quite unlike Paris Hilton and Lindsay Lohan, as a sort of deathwatch-by-instalments. Hopes are invested in them; a sort of deference attaches. There’s bugger all you can do about it, at an individual level. That’s what a culture is.
“The problem is the culture that dictated her death would have meaning for so many, because her life had so much meaning.”
So they get to do everything, and publicly. By the time she died, Peaches had been a model, a party DJ, a photographer, a glossies columnist, a radio DJ, a TV presenter, a TV producer, a mother, and an advocate of a fashionable one-dimensional theory of parenting. She wasn’t that great at any of them — mothering aside, though a photo sequence of her dropping her baby while never ceasing to talk on her mobile was grimly funny until yesterday — but of course you don’t have to be great at any of those things. They’re the modern equivalent of gavottes and cantering, things the celebrocracy do. Every night as you stagger home exhausted on the Tube to a microwaved readymeal and a reality show in which ex-members of Westlife help violent teenagers save a private zoo, the Evening StandardLondoner’s Diary or DailyMail.co.uk keeps you updated on what the squire’s daughters are doing, maybe no more than a couple of kilometres away. Such a cultural system cannot survive unless at some point, people stop minding it — or never did in the first place. Young girls are favoured, and their only job is to exist. Actual talent would detract.
Peaches Geldof fit the bill because her dad had become a celebrocrat himself, by making a transition from his pretty ordinary music to pretty average charity management to being simply a figurehead. She was essentially in waiting to be the countess of Geldof. Short, doe-eyed, bottle-blonde, perky, she was endlessly photographed tracking out of either some Dalston grime club, or Annabelle’s, the St James’s disco where celebrity and real aristocracy come together, or gormlessly spinning discs at some party, with all the confident touch of someone patting an armadillo. But who could judge? If you’d been born to the celebrocrat purple, and London was your playground, wouldn’t you do one of everything? How great would it feel? As great as it always felt to be an aristocrat, I reckon. Soho, St James, Hackney, Vauxhall, old squares and pleasure gardens, with four centuries of elite abandon written into them, by slippered and stilettoed feet.
Which is why debate as to whether the coverage of her death was excessive or not was missing the point. There was no chance that it wouldn’t be marked by obsessive coverage — and real grief. Aristocracy only ever worked if there was an implicit idea that someone should get to have a life, to experience the world as a free being, unconstrained by necessity. The dream of utopia was that everyone would live like an aristocrat — ultimately drawn into Marx’s idea of communism, in which one would hunt in the morning, breed peacocks in the afternoon, discuss “critical criticism” in the evening. Once that dream died — kept alive to a degree in the ’60s — the existing structures were revealed unchanged. In such a historically defeated condition, celebrocracy is no imposition — but a necessary means by which culture works, a way of living.
So the deep and collective sadness around the death of a young woman none of us ever knew is not the problem. The problem is the culture that dictated her death would have meaning for so many, because her life had so much meaning. It is a sign of a failed revolution. The problem for Britain is that that revolution occurred and faltered in 1688. The problem for the rest of the world is that they are becoming dependent on it too, which is why the death of an unremarkable young woman echoes around the world, and untold thousands feel themselves reaching for Twitter, sending out trite unremarkable words, which fly, singing around her head, as she rides by.