(Apologies – this has taken a while to post. It’s no longer topical, but, believe me, at the time it was cutting edge stuff…)
Of course, in these days of 24 hour rolling news, a spectacular pegging-out such as Irwin’s is public knowledge long before the papers get involved, but I don’t think I’m the only person in the world who takes a macabre pleasure in overshooting the sports pages every now and then and ending up in the “Register” section of the broadsheets.
I don’t know about you, but I find myself dwelling a fraction too long over write-ups of deceased Flight Lieutenants from World War II or wizened scientists who invented some weird bacteria or other. Every so often you get a youngster gunned down in their prime and that strange shudder of mortality momentarily supplants the glib fascination. It is an unwelcome opportunity to wallow in one’s own failures - What if I die before writing that bestseller, playing football for England, or, heaven forbid, wrestling that 14-foot saltwater crocodile whilst saying “Crikey!” a lot?
What if the sum total of my life is consigned to a trite epitaph on a faded tombstone, a tucked away death notice in the Times, or even (shudder) the dark recesses of people’s memories?
To sum up: If I don’t get a crackling write-up with a poignant, spine-tingling conclusion such as: “He was to women as cakes are to Vanessa Feltz”, then, frankly, the whole thing will have been a colossal waste of time.
Because a good obituary is an art form in itself – creating an objective eulogy (if that’s not a non-sequiter) is a lot harder than it looks, and many eschew decent journalism in favour of gushing sycophancy.
So it’s always interesting to get a negative, caustic opinion amongst the asinine tributes. Unless, of course, that opinion’s come from Germaine Greer whose summation of Irwin’s contribution to humanity angered a lot people in the days following his death.
I wasn’t exactly expecting everyone’s favourite Aussie feminist to traipse out the kind of loving spiel offered by some of the tabloids, but it’s a little acerbic even for my sarcastic tastes. No doubt Germaine was expecting a lot of chuckling and back-slapping from her oh-so-liberal readers, but thankfully, what she got instead was a firm: “shut your fat, ugly cakehole and give the poor, recently deceased croc-botherer a break, you nasty old bag.” And quite right too.
The Female Eunuch: Nipples
A quick aside: I first encountered Greer as a lumbering pubescent oaf (me, not her). My mum, like many ladies of her generation, owned a copy of the Female Eunuch and, as it was the only book on the bookshelf with nipples on the cover, I was naturally drawn to it. Disappointingly, eagerly delving inside the volume, I was confronted with dull rhetoric on female empowerment as opposed to racy sex talk or, more pertinently, further nipples. So I binned it favour of Jilly Cooper and my sister’s copy of Forever, by Judy Bloom.
Anyway, Greer is on the slide. From important feminist icon, to desperate, grasping pseudo-celebrity who can only drum up work though being controversial or talking about penises whilst tutting in disgust. This is the woman who slammed reality TV then went on Big Brother – Doubtless she thought it was an incredibly clever and post-modern thing to do, but personally, I think the excuse to sit in her slippers sipping tea and moaning about things was just too good an opportunity to pass over.
But her attack on Irwin is not only monumentally misjudged given the timing, it is also merely discord for the sake of discord. Now is not the time for character assassination. Irwin was not a politician, a statesman, or even a cad or a bounder - he was a simple family man who people liked, which is evidently a crime as far as our Germaine’s concerned.
When Ted “Grocer” Heath popped his clogs a while back, there was much tongue-biting amid the sombreness. Frequent phrases cropped up such as “confirmed bachelor” and “…surrounded himself with lithe young men…” – Greer would probably have come out and called him a colossal fruit, and I concede it is a sizeable irony that protocol dictates caution at the very moment libel laws invite open season. But, while you can’t defame the dead, having a pop at a man who’s just come to a grisly and premature end while the tears are still fresh on his widow’s cheek is crass in the extreme.
What is immediately apparent from her article is that it’s easy being a critic.
I’m not commissioned to churn out smug left-wing drivel on the Guardian’s shilling, but I’d wager I could have knocked out a piece taking the piss out of Steve Irwin in my sleep – the man’s a walking cliché. It’s far harder to step back and offer intelligent observations without resorting to his obvious ingenuousness.
I have no particular affection for Irwin – I considered him borderline psychotic the way his eyes bulged and enthusiasm perpetuated - A khaki-clad, baby-faced maniac in rucked up shorts, I thought – But he was, at least, a doer.
I went to his zoo in Queensland not long ago, and wrote the following in my lovingly-crafted-but-soon-binned travel journal:
“Look closely and Australia Zoo is less a smart, well-run tourist attraction and more an Orwellian nightmare: Irwin is everywhere, leaping out of enormous billboards – eyes the size of dinner plates, wrestling crocs, cuddling his big-haired, equally psycho-wife – even advertising Toyota, for Chrissakes! The blond mullet, the short shorts, the devil-may-care attitude in the face of half a tonne’s worth of bristling, snarly-toothed reptile.
Round every corner TV monitors and loud speakers spout those famous bon mots: “What a little ripper!”, “Isn’t she a beauty?”
Even the educational posters on the walls of the cages are littered with Irwin-speak and great gurning pictures of that ubiquitous, ingenuous mug: “The carpet python can grow up to 3 metres in length – it is entirely non-venomous, feeding mainly on small rodents and constricting its prey… And isn’t this one a BEAUTY??!! Wow! You really wanna see this fella in the wild – he’s as thick as your arm!!!”
When the keepers (or should that be Thought Police?) mention the great man you can hear their voices thicken with excitement, the word “Steve” granted almost Messianic deference:
Punter: So how old are the cheetahs?
Keeper: These guys are only 12 weeks old
Punter: Wow, they’re adorable – what’s going to happen to them next?
Keeper (wringing hands lovingly, big soppy grin on face, almost imperceptible swelling in identikit Irwin khaki shorts): Well Steeeeve has great plans. He really feels passionately about making a difference. By bringing these cheetahs to the zoo, he’s pretty much single-handedly saving them from extinction…”
But before you tar me with Greer’s hypocrisy brush, I concede I laid it on thick. I poke fun. I’m a smug git. But he was alive then, so it was unkind, but fair comment. Sometimes it takes someone to die before you realise how beloved they are. I suppose it is the ultimate acid test. Not that it’s a huge comfort to Irwin’s grieving family, but the outpouring of public grief in the days following his death was nothing short of astonishing.
I was walking down the road on the way to work early the other morning when I encountered a street cleaner nonchalantly shovelling rubbish into his trolley whilst nodding rhythmically to Lionel Ritchie’s Three Times a Lady which was blaring from the ghetto-blaster balanced on his shoulder. I’d been feeling a bit blue until I saw that, but it cheered me right up. Watching Irwin is the same. He has that effortless ability to make you smile involuntarily – watching yet another talking heads show with Greer sneering about some poxy popular culture fad makes my fists clench and my temples throb.
On the BBC website, news on Steve’s fatal tangle with that stingray topped their most emailed and most read stats for an entire week. Who will mourn Greer’s passing? Feminists? Misanthropes? Fans of whiny, nasal put-downs? Will she have Russell Crowe blubbing like a girl at her funeral? Unlikely.
Then there’s the thorny issue of who gets to write her obituary. Personally, I’d give the gig to Richard Littlejohn.
Australia Zoo: Steve advertises Toyota, while idiot tourist takes on a big croc