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There were times in 2013 when it seemed every week brought news of the death of another famous or distinguished individual.

Few, however they view the world politically, can deny that Margaret Thatcher and Nelson Mandela were iconic figures. Both will have their lives picked over by historians for years to come. My own awareness of what they represented began at a young age: in a sense, they’ve always been with me. So it seems strange that they are no longer here.

I suppose the older I get, my 30s racing away from me, the more world leaders I am exposed to – so their deaths are going to have more significance to me than to even the most clued-up 21 year-old student of international politics. Likewise, every new film I watch or book I read adds to my accumulated experience, and nearly all are going to familiarise me with an actor or a writer whose death will one day give me a few moments, or more, of sombre reflection.

In the world of music, news of the deaths of two very different figures jolted my equilibrium in 2013. First, Lou Reed, who I discovered in the 1990s via one of THE great albums, The Velvet Underground and Nico. Then, at the other end of the spectrum, John Tavener, whose Song for Athene touched my youthful mind as I watched Princess Diana’s coffin leaving Westminster Abbey (and led me to his earlier work, The Whale).

In the world of books, we lost the admirable American crime writer Elmore Leonard. How many of today’s young or middle-aged novelists will still be producing the goods as octogenarians? But for its impact on me, the passing of Seamus Heaney cast the longest shadow. He showed that the earthy, commonplace experience can be turned into a poem every bit as affecting as verses inspired by epics or musings on love. Look at this description of his father digging potatoes in the Northern Irish countryside:

“The cold smell of potato mould, the squelch and slap
Of soggy peat, the curt cuts of an edge
Through living roots awaken in my head.”

Before I end this final blog of the year, I should point out that I rarely find obituaries depressing. Rather, they remind me of what it’s possible to pack into a precarious human existence. And that’s something to celebrate.

sunlight through clouds

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