I have no audio or video of any of my four grandparents. As they were all born in the first decade of the last century, this is hardly surprising; they didn’t live long enough to have smartphones pointed at them.
I suppose the only people of their generation recorded for posterity were those who worked in radio, film, television or music, or anyone who made the news. If your nan or gramps wasn’t some kind of celebrity, footage of them probably never existed, unless you had a cine-camera enthusiast in your bloodline. I don’t. No, this kind of remembrance was the preserve of a privileged few.
Have I missed out? Much as it’s nice to see photographs of my grandparents, if some footage did suddenly turn up, I think I’d feel uneasy about watching it. I would have to brace myself, put it like that.
This has been on my mind for a while. A couple of days before Christmas, I came across a tweet by a colleague at the BBC, the news correspondent Dan Johnson. “In the last few months of his life I recorded my dad talking about his favourite music and comedy, Desert Island Discs style,” he wrote. “It’s taken me four years to finish editing it – often in tears – but I’m so pleased I have it. Best wishes, whoever you’re missing this Christmas.”
I asked him to come on my radio show to talk about it. His dad was diagnosed with cancer in his early 60s and died at the age of 63. The recording, he told me, was his dad’s idea, and came at a stage when he was receiving treatment and the outlook wasn’t totally bleak. “We didn’t do any talking about the end of life or any looking back, really – apart from this suggestion which he came up with, thankfully – because I wasn’t going to be the one to take the situation there and add any negativity,” Dan said.
“Dad raised the idea that: ‘We could do this thing where I talk about the songs, the music, the albums, the comedians, shows and sketches that I’ve laughed at over the years. And that might be a nice thing for people to listen to.’” And it is a nice thing, a beautiful thing, actually, to hear Dan and his late father talking and laughing. “Just to hear his voice again is special,” he added.
A listener texted in to say that before his wife died, they went to a branch of Build-A-Bear and made one for each of their four grandchildren. All were fitted with a different voice message from their grandmother telling each grandchild what made them so special.
While I found this incredibly moving, I also winced. Was this too much? The word macabre sprang to mind. What would it do to those children to hear their late nan’s voice every time they picked up their bears? I suppose I’d have to ask them, but I strongly suspect they wouldn’t have it any other way.
Grieving, or at least remembering our loved ones, has changed for ever. Where once we had to use our imagination to remember how those we have lost moved and sounded when they were living and breathing, now that footage is on our phones and available 24/7.
While I have nothing like it of my grandparents, my kids will have plenty of film of their grandparents. And my grandchildren will have plenty of me. Quite what the poor things will make of 1,000 episodes of Working Lunch, 500 One Shows, 100 Match of the Day 2s and one Strictly Come Dancing, I know not.
Adrian Chiles is a broadcaster, writer and Guardian columnist