Archive for the 'Obituaries' Category

Our life is but lent

“Our life is but lent; a good whereof to make, during the loan, our best commodity.  It is a debt due to a more certain owner than ourselves, and therefore so long as we have it, we receive a benefit; when we are deprived of it, we suffer no wrong. We are tenants at will of this clayey farm, not for any term of years; when we are warned out, we must be ready to remove, having no other title but the owner’s pleasure.  It is but an inn, not a home; we came but to bait, not to dwell; and the condition of our entrance was finally to depart. If this departure be grievous, it is also common; this today to me, tomorrow to thee; and the case equally affecting all, leaves none any cause to complain of injurious usage.”

Robert Southwell SJ: The Triumphs over Death.

Paris life



Gift of God

Villa Diodati Geneva

Villa Diodati Geneva

In his personal memoir, Dance of a Fallen Monk, George Fowler describes a person he met when a late teenager who had an enormous influence on his personal development and his life. This person, whom Fowler calls Adeodatus Nikos, is a young man, not much older than Fowler, who was immensely well-read, particularly in matters spiritual and religious. Nikos is an engineer assigned to work for several months in the boondocks town in Montana where Fowler is at school, and they quickly become fast friends. Fowler is devastated when his older friend is killed in a car accident soon after leaving the town.

Interested to know more, I searched on Nikos’ name but found nada. I soon realised his name may be a pseudonym, particularly as Adeodatus could be translated as “Gift of God”. Fowler says the death happened in June 1946. There were 683 recorded deaths in Montana in 1946, of whom just 4 were of people born between 1918-1922 (inclusive). The most likely candidate is perhaps Pedro Santos, aged 25 when he died on 25 June 1946; Santos may have been from the Philippines. The name “Pedro Santos”, of course, would translate as “Saint Peter”.  Fowler says that Nikos had two older twin brothers, both of whom were already married when Fowler met Nikos.

Meanwhile, I recalled that John Milton’s close teenage friend was named Charles Diodati (c.1608-1638), which surname also translates as “Gift of God”.  Diodati also died young, when Milton was traveling abroad. Upon learning of his friend’s death from Diodati’s uncle in Geneva, Milton wrote a lament, Epitaphium Damonis, published in 1645. I wonder if Fowler knew about Diodati when he came to write about his own friend.

The image shows Villa Diodati on Lake Geneva, built originally for a relative of Charles Diodati. Byron and friends rented this house in the summer of 1816.

Transitions 2015

People who have passed on during 2015, whose life or works have influenced me:

  • Yogi Berra (1925-2015), American baseball player
  • Ornette Coleman (1930-2015), American jazz musician
  • Robert Conquest (1917-2015), British kremlinologist
  • Malcolm Fraser (1930-2015), Australian politician
  • Jaako Hintikka (1929-2015), Finnish philosopher and logician
  • Lisa Jardine (1944-2015), British historian
  • Joan Kirner (1938-2015), Australian politician, aka “Mother Russia”
  • Kurt Masur (1927-2015), East German conductor
  • John Forbes Nash (1928-2015), American mathematician
  • Boris Nemtsov (1959-2015), Russian politician
  • Oliver Sacks (1933-2015), British-American neurologist and writer
  • Gunter Schabowski (1929-2015), East German politician
  • Alex Schalck-Golodkowski (1932-2015), East German politician
  • Gunther Schuller (1925-2015), American composer and musician (and French horn player on Miles Davis’ 1959 album, Porgy and Bess).
  • Brian Stewart (1922-2015), British intelligence agent.

Last year’s post is here.

London Life

In solidarity with the people of France, and in support of human civilization, Trafalgar Square an hour ago:


(Photo Credit: Boris Johnson, Mayor of London)

Transitions 2014

People who have passed on during 2014 whose life or works have influenced me:

  • Amiri Baraka (LeRoi Jones) (1934- 2014), American poet
  • Charles Barsotti (1933-2014), American cartoonist
  • Sid Caesar (1922-2014), American comedian
  • Al Feldstein (1925-2014), American artist and editor of Mad magazine
  • Nadine Gordimer (1923-2014), South African writer
  • Stuart Hall (1932- 2014), British cultural theorist
  • Philip Seymour Hoffman (1967-2014), American actor
  • Rik Mayall (1955-2014), British actor and comedian
  • Tony Meale (c. 1963-2014), Australian wit
  • Pierre Ryckmans (Simon Leys) (1935-2014), Belgian-Australian political analyst
  • Maximilian Schell (1930-2014), German actor
  • Peter Sculthorpe (1929-2014), Australian composer
  • Pete Seeger (1919-2014), American folk singer
  • Eduard Shevardnadze (1928-2014), Georgian politician
  • Horace Silver (1928-2014), American jazz pianist
  • Edward Gough Whitlam (1916-2014), Australian statesman
  • Robin Williams (1951-2014), American comedian and actor
  • Neville Wran (1926-2014), Australian politician

Last year’s post is here.

In memory of fast wit

There is always a particular sadness when someone one has known since high-school dies.  If the friend dies young, then the absurdity and the fundamental lack of fairness of our earthly existences are manifest again.  If the friend dies in middle age, however, there is a different type of unfairness, since at least they were able to fulfill some of their potential, even if not all.  If the friend dies near to 50 and is recently married and with a young child, then it seems that what was not fully realized includes their relationships with their family.  In other words, it is not only unfair for the friend that they died before their time, but unfair for their family, whose lives also will now include tragedy.

Friends as well as family are sad, since we are unable now to enjoy the company of the deceased.  In the case of my school-friend Tony Meale, who has died quickly after an unexpected illness,  the pleasure of his company was particularly great.  He was one of the funniest people I have ever met.  All of his comments – razor-sharp and rapid-firing – were delivered with the deadest of pans, and thus were often confusing to those who did not know him well.   The straight face fronting the dry, sardonic sarcasm, of course, made any comment deemed offensive by the listener very plausibly deniable, which may or may not have been his intention.  His straight face may also have been because he did not necessarily see the humour himself.  I am convinced that truly eccentric people almost never believe themselves to be eccentric – they think it is they who are perfectly normal, and the other 99.9% of the population who are askew – and TM was perhaps one of these.  In any case, one did not ever spend long in his company before doubling over in laughter, something all of us who knew him experienced.  Perhaps he inherited his ability from his uncle, also renowned for being a mordant wit.

I can count on two imperial hands the people I have met with Tony’s rapid, razor-sharp wit.  Indeed, I want to list them here in order of encounter, for the benefit of any fifth millenium readers:   John McBurney, Pam H, Tony Meale, Steve R, Reg Ngonyama, Jezza G, Henry V, Si P, Andrew T, Trevor C, William N, Alister M, Cath W.    (I use full names only for those who have passed on.)    Although important only to me and (perhaps) to my close friends, I want to acknowledge Tony’s membership of this select and awesome circle.   On one never-forgotten occasion in Canberra almost 30 years ago one of these friends encountered another, and the verbal fireworks were stunning and immediate.  The two are very different in gender, age, education, social position, interests, and background.  One would not have predicted that they would spark as they did.   As part of a larger group, they first each recognized one another’s verbal dexterity, and then – instinctively, and without explicit co-ordination – engaged in a game attempting to outwit one another, with each utterance issued as both clever and funny reply to what came before, and as a challenge to the other to best it.   Were it were not for the fact that both their spouses were present, we would have thought they were  flirting, despite the generational difference in age.   The rest of us retired from the conversation as this duel proceeded, in laughter and awe.  It was similar, I imagine, to watching Dorothy Parker and Robert Benchley spark at the Algonquin.    They’ve not met since, and perhaps such a performance was a product of its particular moment, and could not be repeated.   TM’s untimely death brought that ancient evening again to mind.

And though the after world will never hear
The happy name of one so gently true,
Nor chronicles write large this fatal year,
Yet we who loved you, though we be but few,
Keep you in whatsoe’er things are good, and rear
In our weak virtues monuments to you.”

From Sonnet IV, To W.P., by George Santayana.

Transitions 2013

People who have passed on during 2013 whose life or works have influenced me:

  • Joan Child (1921-2013), Australian politician, Speaker of the House of Representatives, Commonwealth of Australia
  • Molly Clutton-Brock (1912-2013), British/Zimbabwean community organizer and anti-racism campaigner
  • Peter Geach (1916-2013), British philosopher and logician
  • Norman Geras (1943-2013), Zimbabwean/British political philosopher and blogger
  • Natalia Gorbanevskaya (1936-2013), Russian/Polish poet and political activist
  • Michael Heath (1956-2013), American USNavy SEAL and businessman
  • Fr Stan Hosie (1922-2013), Australian/American priest, teacher, swimming coach, life member of the Far North Coast Amateur Swimming Association, and co-founder of the third-world development charity Counterpart International
  • Doris Lessing (1919-2013), Zimbabwean/British writer and political activist
  • John Makumbe (1949-2013), Zimbabwean political scientist and democracy activist
  • Nelson Mandela (1918-2013), South African freedom fighter and political leader
  • Teresa Toranska (1944-2013), Polish journalist and writer.

Last year’s post is here.

RIP: Peter Geach

The death has occured of British philosopher and logician Peter Geach (1916-2013).

There is a famous story, perhaps apocryphal, of the logician Alfred Tarski, Polish-born but in American exile from WW II, asking his American City College of New York colleague Emil Post why he, Post, was the only prominent propositional logician who was not Polish.   Post replied that he was not born American, but had come to the USA as a child, and had in fact been born in Poland (although at the time part of the Russian empire).   It has seemed at times that Poland cornered the market in logicians and we find yet another example in Peter Geach.  According to his Guardian obituary, his maternal grandparents were Polish.

Long ago, I wrote an essay, in a logic course taught by Paul Thom and Malcolm Rennie, exploring a system of entailment due to Geach.  Then, as now, pure mathematicians mostly disparaged logic, and my university offered no further courses in the discipline that has since become the single most important to artificial intelligence and automated reasoning.   Universities are very good at preparing their graduates for the past; for the future, not so much.

RIP: Natalia Gorbanevskaya

Natalie Gorbanevska 19677

The death occurred last month of Natalia Gorbanevskaya (1936-2013, pictured in 1967), Russian poet and Soviet dissident, and one of the Moscow Seven,  brave opponents of the occupation by forces of the Warsaw Pact of Czechoslovakia in August 1968.  From 1975 she lived in exile, initially in Israel and then in France.  For most of this time she was stateless, and did not have a passport until 2006, when granted Polish citizenship.   As in the 19th century, Russia disowns its best and brightest children.  The Economist has an obituary here.  

There was more than this one protest against the invasion, with over 200 people involved in protests elsewhere in the USSR and across the Eastern Bloc.  A list of 160 Soviet protesters against the invasion, prepared by Memorial, is here.  The courage of the Moscow Seven and these others has been recognized by the Czech Republic, but not yet by the Russian Federation.   Indeed, Russia has still to apologize to Czechslovakia for the invasion. 

From Gorbanevskaya’s poetry (translation by Daniel Weissbort):

The crime has not yet been expunged,
the hour of truth has not yet struck.
logs in the stove still ticking over,
although the fire’s already out.