When idols die, we mourn days forever gone

A time, a style, a companion - something's lost because they shape so much of what we are

Writers are dying, singers gone quiet, boxers falling. A final bell is going for a generation. Idols are never as invincible as they promised to be when we were children. Prince has passed, David Bowie is silent, Harper Lee has gone and Muhammad Ali is showing off his footwork to the angels. Every month it seems that we - the older generations - must put on our figurative black armbands again. We mourn people and yet also a time forever lost.

Idol is a child's worshipful word for those we simply admire as adults, figures who we see as faultless when young only to understand as we grow older that they are beautifully imperfect. Blind adoration is absent of value but to see a person as a whole, to appreciate they are built of weakness and yet wondrous, is a lesson in itself. The activist we cherish will take a stance we disagree with and the writer we inhale will push ideas we don't believe in. I applauded Ali and yet abhorred his bullying.

They are not gods but our flawed and favourite humans, who slept on our bedside tables (writer Henning Mankell, died October 2015) and gave us an earful of satisfaction (blues guitarist B.B. King, died May 2015). They are inventors, an Archie-comic cartoonist, mountaineers, thinkers, orchestra conductors, chefs. In an overstuffed memory, they are guaranteed a place.

Idols - for want of a better word - were our pleasures, our inspirations and our chaperones on journeys; they affected us, provoked us, disappointed us and altered us; they opened minds, doors and possibilities. Some people are only touched by others, others are moved, and among the more poignant stories on the recent deaths was a collection of memories in The New York Times titled: "Thank You, Mr Bowie. You Changed Our Lives".

We've all been there as well to this place of gratefulness. Harper Lee introduced me as a boy to the injustice of racial inequality and writer Andre Brink, who died last year, took me on pensive wanderings to South Africa in a time of apartheid. His novels were sometimes banned but as he once reportedly said: "Even in chains the many voices of the writer must continue to speak."

A final bell is going for a generation. (From top) Muhammad Ali, training in New Orleans in this photo from 1978, is showing off his footwork to the angels, David Bowie is silent, Prince has passed and Harper Lee is gone. PHOTOS: ST FILE, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, REUTERS

From books you can learn phrasing and yet also courage. From rugby players you can learn about collisions and yet also decency. I met Jonah Lomu, who died in November 2015, in my 30s through a television in India and it was love at first flight. When he ran, the earth trembled and a massive lesson was administered: you could be so large and yet so fast. He died at 40 in November and left an image hard to delete: a man with dying kidneys creating mayhem with a smile.

So much of what we are, our language, our tastes, our beliefs, our sense of geography, our concept of beauty, is shaped by strangers. Often we are given gifts which we do not adequately understand till later. In old footage, as footballer Johan Cruyff - who died in March - swayed past defenders, he resembled a willow bending in the wind and it was, I realised later, an education into the ethereal beauty of sport. Ali would do this, too, convincing me that boxing could have poetry, conceit could be amusing and athletes could be moral.

We mourn because something is lost, a person, a time, a style but also a companion. My friend Priya grew up to old Bollywood singers crooning into her ear every night through a small silver and red transistor but as they passed on so did a particular type of voice. Something ended as they died and it was her youth.

The idol belongs to everyone and yet he is mine. The writer and athlete and actor speak to me, their influence is personal, and so in death I feel - as you must - a private pain. And yet the idol as a public figure allows us to mourn together, for they connect us and remind us of our common humanity.

Ali runs like a thread through the life of white, black, Jew, Muslim, Christian, Singaporean, Ugandan, Australian. He lets us weep over him together and ruminate on that left jab and smile as Kevin Cosby, the preacher, said at his funeral: "Before James Brown said 'I'm black and I'm proud,' Muhammad Ali said 'I'm black and I'm pretty'."

Grief over the idol occasionally morphs into silly spectacle as TV channels conduct a 24-hour lament and a flood of RIP tweets sweeps through social media. It is as if everyone is suddenly a fan and we must all be suitably mournful and public with our sorrow. Death of the famous has become a performance.

And yet even as we often airbrush the lives of the dead and sleazily pursue autopsy results of a deceased singer, the week-long discussions on idols serve a purpose. For the generations who never knew them, it is a history lesson. If you love music, you must know of Prince's need to defy convention; if you enjoy sport, you must know the details of Ali's rebellion. Only when you appreciate their beauty might you understand why your parent is weeping.

The death of idols is a time of reflection and gratitude and a passing thought to our own mortality. All eras end, so will ours. Yet even us, the greying, who have lost a dancer and miss a singer, will soon find new heroes for always we need someone to symbolise what we value in society and always we want someone to influence us to be better.

Yet before we embark on new journeys it's somehow fitting if we spend a few days in lonely remembrance. Perhaps you watched Prince's Purple Rain, pulled out dusty albums, immersed yourself in Bowie and belted out songs at home in tearful homage. I spent all week looking at Ali in photographs, documentaries, essays, books, listening to his voice and watching his feet, tracing his life and inadvertently also mine. When lives end, we tend to return to beginnings. We look back to who they were, where they took us and what all of us have become.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on June 19, 2016, with the headline 'When idols die, we mourn days forever gone'. Print Edition | Subscribe