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Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Fame, death and shock 2

Please read part 1 first! 
In case you're wondering, this isn't all about politicians or charismatic populist leaders. A brief mention of a couple more and we'll get to the business end of the story. Plus one I didn't think of.

   What about Che Guevara? No, not quite. Mao Zedong – the great Chairman Mao? He died at 82, no great shock. I walked past his wizened body lying in (parlous) state in Beijing in 1989, and don't remember great anguish in 1976 when he died. I do remember the doctored photos in of his funeral in China Pictorial, where the Gang of Four was obliterated spectacularly from official history, Mao's wife included. I'm not Chinese, so maybe I'm not qualified to judge anyway but I don't recall any great anguish and shock in the rest of the world.

   I can't elevate to anywhere near the status of JFK and Marilyn the deaths of tragic pop-culture figures whose untimely deaths sent a ripple rather than a tsunami through the world. Janis Joplin, Michael Hutchence, Amy Winehouse, and even the more fame-worthy Elvis Presley and Michael Jackson; they were all figures chewed up and spat out by fame, media, wealth, drugs and in some cases, I suspect, a sense of their despair – that they felt they had everything and yet nothing worth having.

   Steve Jobs (1955-2011)? Not quite. His death at 56 was not unexpected, and though he may have had more innovative brilliance to contribute had he lived longer, it's not quite the same. He doesn't quite fit my set of criteria, though the mourning was widespread. I suspect it was as much for his talents as for the man himself – maybe more.

   That leaves only two who stand out like beacons in my perception. I'm not sure which of them to put at the top.

   Diana, Princess of Wales, née Spencer (1961-1997). I have never seen such a vast outpouring of genuine and spontaneous public grief as at her death, and not just in Britain. The tragedy of what is known about her life only adds to the shock at the manner of her death. Comment here by me is superfluous, but we all remember those acres and acres of beautiful flowers sacrificed in tribute, as her mortal remains passed by.

   Lastly, there can only be one, and given my age you must surely have guessed it. John Winston Ono Lennon, MBE. John Lennon (1940-1980). Born, I see, on my mother's fortieth birthday.

   The strange thing is, I have no immediate yardstick for comparison with others on my list. The reason is that on the day of his murder, I was in Dhaka, Bangladesh. I was listening to the news on radio, and the Lennon item came up after several tedious reports on the wonderful things that Bangladeshi President, Ziaur Rahman, was doing to make Bangladesh into a great nation.

   Then followed just a brief mention of John Lennon's death. Maybe fifteen seconds of air time at the most.

   "Did you hear that?" I gasped to my friend. "John Lennon is dead."

   I got the feeling that John Lennon wasn't really on his radar.

   "The Beatles...."

   I gave up.

   It wasn't about the Beatles really. It was about the man, John Lennon, now lying dead in a morgue in New York, shot by a "disturbed man", creating with those bullets an emotional gap in the lives of so many people around the world. Mine too. 

   John Lennon wasn't just a singer/song-writer in a spectacularly successful pop band. He was John Lennon. And there I was in Dhaka, and it was just another day, cycle ricksha bells ringing and the incessant rumble of traffic all around. Why would it be any different for the auto-ricksha driver? Had his life ever been affected by one thing John Lennon had done? I doubt it.

   I took a long walk, past Jatiyo Sangshad Bhaban, the Parliament House, and thence to the reading room of the British Council Library. The overseas newspapers were full of the Lennon story. 

   One piece in particular, in the Straits Times (Singapore) got my attention. It was written by a young Chinese woman, and she poured her heart out over what John Lennon's death meant to her, there on the tiny island of Singapore.

   It was a beautiful story. If you happen to have in the magazine rack right there at your fingertips a copy of the Straits Times, probably 9 December 1980, please let me know. It said it all.

   So who did I miss out or insult, do you think? I'd love to know.

Postscript. When I write a blog piece, Tracey sees it for the first time only when she logs in, just like anyone else. This time, before posting, I was intrigued enough by the subject to talk with her about what her list would be.

Steve Irwin (1962-2006)
   She came up with one person I hadn't thought of; an Australian as it happens, who was regarded with considerable affection not only in Australia but much more widely, and whose death was reported throughout the western press. It's someone I would certainly have included had I thought of it first.

   If you don’t know him from the sketch, then there's not much use describing him or his bizarre death, is there? He can't be said to have had anywhere near the impact of some of the others, but worthy of inclusion, and a very sad loss to the world, I think.

Vale Steve Irwin (1962-2006)


  1. You got it right Denis - even to the end when I was thinking "What about Steve Irwin?"

    For me, the death that stands out above all others was JFK. At that time the young, charismatic president seemed to offer new hope to a troubled world. That morning I was standing looking out of my dining room window - it was about 7.30. My house was on the banks of a river in the low-veldt of what was then, Rhodesia. Hippo were splashing around in a deep pool, in a wide river that was slowly drying up. The early morning sun was shining. The world was a wonderful place to be. We had the radio on on. As I ate my toast and marmalade the music stopped. A pause, and then: "The president of the United States, John Fitzgerald Kennedy, has been assassinated". For a moment the world stood still. And that moment, for me, remains frozen in time ... every detail of it.

    1. I must give the credit for that last entry to Tracey, Bob.

      As to JFK, we now know much more about the Kennedys and the blighted lives of that family and some who came into contact with them, but his image was built up to reflect a perfection that he never quite matched. His contribution to the world in the Cold War era is open to much debate, and justly so, but it was certainly a 'I remember exactly what I was doing' moment. That would have been a good criterion, I think. Was the death of a heroic figure one of those moments?

      Damodar used to say, "The function of the historian is to turn legends into real people." I never forgot that when I wrote biography. It doesn't necessarily mean 'bring them down' but it does mean to give them flesh and blood. That means acknowledging weaknesses, as Gandhi did about himself, and were often used in evidence against him.

      This subject seems to beckon every cliche out of me. Tragedy, blight, anguish, outpourings... and a few others I wince at using but can't conjure up suitable alternatives. Sometimes they're justified – or maybe I need a good sub-editor.

  2. Thanks Denis for the quotation: "The function of the historian is to turn legends into real people." A timely reminder for me. I have, for a couple of years now, been researching an aspect of history that interests me - and which I thoroughly enjoy. When writing, however, I now realise that I have been in danger of neglecting to "... turn legends into real people."

    That's your good deed for the day!


  3. " My favorite poem, my -- my favorite poet was Aeschylus. And he once wrote:

    Even in our sleep, pain which cannot forget
    falls drop by drop upon the heart,
    until, in our own despair,
    against our will,
    comes wisdom
    through the awful grace of God. "

    Robert F. Kennedy -

    Remarks on the Assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr.

    delivered 4 April 1968, Indianapolis, IN

    1. It's a beautiful poem, and totally appropriate as a requiem for a man like Martin Luther King. Thank you, and Aeschylus, and I daresay, a very good speechwriter to help RFK.

    2. I must add to this something you emailed to me which I did not know, and which adds to my estimate of Robert Kennedy's character:

      "FYI - Both Frank Mankiewicz, Kennedy's press secretary, and speechwriter Adam Walinsky drafted notes immediately before the rally for Kennedy's use, but Kennedy refused Walinsky's notes, instead using some that he had likely written on the ride over; Mankiewicz arrived after Kennedy had already begun to speak."

      Extraordinary, given the power of RFK's speech that it was virtually off the cuff.

  4. "The things we want, when we get them, we no longer want them."

    A famous Buddhist philosopher you might think said this, but no, it was Marilyn Monroe.

    1. I didn't know she said that, but it's a very human thing. "It is better to travel than to arrive." I guess that's another way of putting it, though I'm not sure the Buddhists would quite agree with it in that form!

  5. Is this the article?


    1. You are amazing! You know, I had this feeling, somewhere in the back of my mind, that someone was going to come up with this. Thank you so much.

      It also shows how something dragged from 30+ year old memory can also be skewed. For one thing, it is written by an Indian man, but because it mentioned the Singaporean Chinese woman, I transferred the memory to her. "Referred memory", rather like referred pain, I guess. The story itself rings totally true, and the date two days later I now understand.

      The tenor of the story leaves no doubt that it's the one that stuck in my mind. Utterly remarkable. The moral of this is the twists that memory can give to reality when the indisputable evidence is right there.

      Much appreciated. Are you my Ninja friend who drives trucks, or another shadowy figure?

    2. Thank you, Ninja, for finding that really beautiflly written article about John Lennon (by Ravindran Veloo). He quotes at the beginning from the Lennon song 'Things we said today' these words, that make me weep:
      'You'll be thinking of me, somehow I will know'

      and he says, "Dylan wrote for an age. Lennon wrote for the ages'.

      Julie M xx

  6. Dylan. Would that be Thomas or Bob? Anyway, it's a good line, but both Dylans would have an equal claim to 'the ages' I think.


    1. As an icon for the age, it would have to be Bob. Dylan Thomas just gets into the beginning of the age of my existence, but anyone who hasn't heard Richard Burton read Under Milk Wood hasn't quite lived. :)


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