January 2016 was a cold month. The weather turned bitter as temperatures plummeted into the minuses, but for most people living in the UK, especially in the more northerly realms, this was hardly unexpected. I remember thinking as January 8th approached that it would be my friend Kiran’s birthday and that of David Bowie. The day came and went and they both had their birthdays and that was that. Except it wasn’t. On the morning of the 10th January I turned the news on – I enjoy hearing my fellow countryman Eamonn’s dulcet tones before starting work – and walked back into the bathroom. I was poised to brush my teeth when I thought I heard him say something about David Bowie in an odd tone and rushed out, toothbrush in hand, to hear him say Bowie had died. I watched the video of “Lazarus”, the song from his last album “Blackstar,” released over that weekend. It was spookily prescient, but Bowie obviously knew what was coming and as ever his life was his art.
I was shocked. I don’t usually react to celebrity deaths with anything but somewhat superficial emotions, after all I didn’t know them personally. The month proceeded with the loss of Alan Rickman and Glenn Frey of the Eagles and so on until the list seemed to be added to daily. On social media it was noticeable that people were hoping the month would end without any further major losses from the public arena, but that was not to be. For on the very last day of January 2016, Sir Terry Wogan departed so very unexpectedly. As Eamonn Holmes announced via Facebook “The Don is gone. He was the Head of The Murphia.” He was certainly that alright and so much more to an audience that reached way beyond his native Ireland – he was an Irishman who epitomised “the best of British” dare I say, although I’m sure some of my countrymen will object to that.
From Bowie to Wogan, my generation and the one ahead of mine, had lost two significant figures that weren’t just celebrities, they were people who moulded culture in such a way that if they hadn’t lived the world would be quite different. This is no exaggeration, and whilst you would not ordinarily put Bowie and Wogan together, in their individual ways they formed those of us who were teens in the 60s and 70s, and their early departure has pulled the rug from under our feet.
I’m not the only person who feels this; writer Kathryn Flett wrote in The Telegraph “those who were teenagers in the 70s will feel the loss of David Bowie the most,” and I almost sighed with relief, because I had an explanation for the feeling of being bereft that had shadowed me and my peers since the announcement of Bowie’s death. As she pointed out, it wasn’t just his music that changed our world, it was “his style, his soul and the challenge he posed to the order of our times.” Bowie helped many youngsters who would have stayed marginalised by society find a way to be the people they needed to be.
Terry Wogan helped people in a different way. It might be tempting to pass him off as an avuncular BBC presenter who represented the status quo. But, while it is true that he was no Ziggy Stardust, nor could his “Floral Dance” compete with “Heroes”, he managed to burst many a cultural bubble by stealth; his Eurovision commentaries were a study in the art form of ‘precision deflation’. If anyone else had said some of the things he did, there would have been a diplomatic incident.
He was also a master at playing music and creating a programme for his audience. In X Factor speak, he ‘owned’ BBC2. Mark Lawson opened up the ‘World of Wogan’ in a perceptive tribute in the Guardian, in which he calls him “the intriguingly subversive national treasure.” Lawson reveals that Wogan based much of his style on the work of Irish satirist Brian O’Nolan, who is also known to many as Flann O’Brien and Myles na Gopaleen, a truly subversive writer. He got the trick of creating memorable stock phrases from O’Nolan; “the present Mrs/Lady Wogan” and “coffin dodgers” are Woganisms many of us use.
His Janet and John stories, with their “sometimes eye-popping innuendo” as Lawson puts it, would have got other presenters fired. But that lyrical Limerick accent understood how you could be bold by speaking softly, and with a dimpled smile that you could sense even over the airwaves. Let’s not forget, he’s the man that labelled Lucy Ewing “The Poison Dwarf, ” a name that stuck for the whole run of Dallas.
It seems unlikely that we shall see their like again, at least not in a way that will impact the generation born in the 50s and 60s to anywhere near the same extent. January 2016 was a moment of growing up and letting go of the pillars that supported our generation. Thanks for the memories David and Terry – we hope your adventures are continuing beyond the stars.