The death of Margaret Thatcher should have been a chance to move on, were it not for the apparent idolisation of the former Prime Minister by David Cameron and, in Scotland at least, a competition between Labour and the SNP over who could distance themselves most from the Thatcher legacy.
Then came Heaney. His funeral was broadcast live on TV, not just a poet but a formidable public intellectual. He was a sane voice in the often dysfunctional politics and public life of the North and the Irish Republic. Heaney protested against both South African apartheid and British policy in the North. Two years after Mandela won the Nobel Peace Prize, Heaney took home the award for literature. The Nobel committee cited ‘works of lyrical beauty and ethical depth, which exalt everyday miracles and the living past’. What, though, happens when the past stops living?
The death of Mandela is of course a great tragedy, but the curious thing about his passing is the rush to remember events twenty years past without paying attention to the present. The world needs new Mandelas, and not just for the sake of renaming public squares and suburban closes but for the sake of changing a future instead of dwelling on the past. This is, after wall, what Mandela sought to do. It needs more Heaneys too, and whatever the sycophants of various political movements like to say the leaders they happen to have at the time can never be of either sort. You can’t copy greatness any more than teenage boys can become revolutionary leaders by wearing berets. It just ends up as a shallow simulacra of something that once was.
With Thatcher, Mandela and Heaney gone, it feels like now is the time to start living in the present and to leave the past where it belongs. Otherwise we do its giants, its villains and ourselves a disservice by fretting on their legacies.