Archive for the 'Obituaries' Category

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.

I can count on two imperial hands the people I have met with his 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, PH, Tony Meale, SR, Reg Ngonyama, JG, HV, SP, AT, TC, WN, AM, DM.    (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 SR encountered another PH, 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 another yet 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.




RIP: IHT

This week the death was announced of The International Herald Tribune, and her replacement by the International Edition of The New York Times.   Born in Paris in 1887, the deceased reached maturity in 1967, when she became jointly and equally owned by The Washington Post and The New York Times.  From then to 2003 were her glory years, perhaps because neither newspaper parent was able to impose their own, provincial culture on the cosmopolitan IHT editorial team in Paris.   Here is Hendrik Hertzberg:

The first time I ever went anywhere outside the United States was in 1960. I was seventeen, I was by myself, and I was in Paris. At the earliest possible moment, I did four things. I sat down at a little table at an outdoor café. I ordered a glass of red wine. I lit a Gauloises. And I opened up my copy, freshly bought, of the Herald Tribune. Only then did I no longer feel like a tourist or a high-school kid. I was suddenly something better: an American in Paris.”

But no marketing manager can stomach a brand he does not control, so the NYT broke up the marriage with The Post in order to take full control of the IHT in 2003.  The IHT was never the same since.  Editorial control seemed to shift from Paris to Manhattan.   The content seemed suddenly to be centred on events in New York, instead of on the world itself.   New Yorkers don’t like to think of themselves as provincial, but they often are.  The arts section is now a mash-up of the NYT arts section, for instance.

And for all their prizes, the editors of the NYT seems to lack some basic newspaper management skills.  Why change the font?   Why, one has to ask, must the cartoon page shift its position in the paper from day to day, like some permanent floating crap game?     Now, in just a few days under its new name, the newspaper’s op-ed page has shifted elsewere in the paper.    It seems that the editors mis-understand the nature of a newspaper – indeed, THIS newspaper – in the life of its readers, if they think we don’t care about such matters.

Now, instead of a paper written for and by English-speaking readers around the world, it has become a paper written by journalists in New York City for readers from New York City.  The world’s loss, alas.




The death of Enos Nkala

The death has occurred of Enos Nkala (1932-2013), co-founder of ZANU, former Zimbabwean Senator, and ZANU-PF Minister in the government of Robert Mugabe (1980-1989).  As Minister for Home Affairs, he was chief prosecutor of the Gukurahundi, the brutal genocidal campaign waged by ZANU-PF against supporters of PF-Zapu and the people of Matabeleland.    This prosecution was undertaken despite Nkala being Ndebele himself.   In a more just world, he would have died in prison.

The Telegraph obituary of Nkala is here.  The writer says:

Nkala became Mugabe’s most feared enforcer after the collapse of an uneasy coalition between the ruling Zanu-PF party and Joshua Nkomo, the leader of the Zapu party. This was essentially a truce between Zimbabwe’s two largest tribes: Mugabe’s majority Shona people and Nkomo’s Ndebele. The deal fell apart in 1982 when Nkomo was ejected from the cabinet and accused of planning armed rebellion.

This supposed plot was almost certainly an invention, but Mugabe retaliated in January 1983 by sending a special army unit to Matabeleland, the home of the Ndebele in western Zimbabwe. The Fifth Brigade’s task was to wage war on the population, eradicating Zapu and enforcing support for Mugabe by terror and violence.”

Well, either Joshua Nkomo was plotting against the government of Robert Mugabe while he was a Minister in that government or he was not.  At the press conference he gave in Salisbury (as it still then was) in February 1982 upon his dismissal, Nkomo was reported by Newsweek (February 1982) to have  admitted that he had indeed sought the assistance of the apartheid Government of South Africa to stage a coup and to overthrow Mugabe.   South Africa had, apparently, refused his request.

The crimes of the Mugabe regime against the people of Matabeland were genocidal and deserve to be punished as crimes against humanity.   It does not diminish these crimes in any way to say the truth – that Mugabe’s government was also right to be suspicious of plots by PF-Zapu and Nkomo to overthrow by illegal, unparliamentary means the legitimately-elected, majority government of Zimbabwe.   Later in 1982, somebody – and this was no paranoid invention of a crazed megalomaniac – blew up most of the planes of the Zimbabwean Air Force while they were parked on an airforce base at Gweru.  The plots and enemies of ZANU-PF were real.

 




RIP: Norman Geras

The death occurred today of blogger and philosopher of Marxism, Norman Geras (1943-2013).  He was a great fan of actor Montgomery Clift, so it is perhaps fitting that he missed dying on Monty’s birthday by just a few hours.




Jenny Biggar RIP

This is a belated tribute to long-time acquaintance, Jenny Biggar (1946-2008), for many years the Treasurer of the Budiriro Trust, a British-Zimbabwean educational charity.  I found the following obituary, written by Ann Young and published in the Loddon Reach Parish Magazine (July/August 2008, 1 (4): 16).

Jenny Biggar died on May 8th [2008] after a valiant fight against Lymphoma. All those who packed into St. Mary’s church for her funeral on May 19th bore witness to a life that had been well lived and truly Christian. It was a wonderfully uplifting service and a tribute to someone who had touched the lives of others, not only here, but across the world, and whose dying had been an example for us all.

Jenny was brought up at Manor Farm in Grazeley and attended the Abbey School in Reading. She was the middle child with two older brothers and two younger sisters. Family life was always central to her so it seemed natural that, when her mother died, she returned to the Farm in 1985 to look after her father and make a home for him. She had spent many years working in Africa, had read English as a mature student and was embarking upon a D.Phil at Oxford when she felt called back to her family. She quickly became a very active member of the Parish with jobs ranging from P.C.C. Secretary, to making curtains for the Church hall. She also worked hard for her two favourite charities – The Budiriro Trust (which maintained her links with Zimbabwe) and the B.R.F. She did some counselling work at the Duchess of Kent House and worked in the Estate Office at Englefield Estate.

Jenny was a wonderful cook and will be remembered for her soup at many Church events. She was a skilled needle woman and an accomplished musician, singing with the Farley Singers, the Dever Singers and the Church choir as well as playing the organ. She was also an intellectual with a deep love of literature.  She was honest and forthright in her opinions, but always with grace and good humour.  Throughout her life Jenny had more than her fair share of difficulties; she fought hard battles to overcome them and developed not only a stoical resistance to pain and discomfort, but huge inner strength. She gave so much to us all and will be sorely missed.”




Vale: Molly Clutton-Brock

Only the other day, I was reporting on revolutionary communists in the Rhodesia of the late 1950s.   One of those alleged revolutionaries, a founder of a non-racial co-operative farm and of rural health clinics, Molly Clutton-Brock, has just died aged 101.   Her obituary is here.   Her late husband, Guy, is the only white Zimbabwean buried at Heroes’ Acre national cemetery, outside Harare.




What we’re thinking

Christopher Weyant’s cartoon in The New Yorker (HT: SP).