Wednesday, 1 January 2014

The departed

The dying of an old year, the birth of a new one – it’s a traditional time for taking stock, for looking both forward and back. A tradition that, I think it’s reasonable to assume, is older than almost every other.
The modern mock-druids may gather (rather fatuously) at Stonehenge at midsummer, but the ancient stones themselves are aligned not to the summer sunrise but to the midwinter sunset.
Mike Parker Pearson, the pre-eminent modern expert on the archaeology of Stonehenge, is convinced the site was a major centre of prehistoric pilgrimage. And that the enormous winter gatherings that seem to have taken place nearby ritualised the meeting of the living and the dead.
Ancestor-worship – or, if not worship exactly, then ancestor-awareness – seems to have been central to most early religions. As, indeed, is the case with most religions today. In fact, you could say that the relationship between life and death, the living and the dead, is what religion is all about.
So, though I don’t consider myself religious, I shall take a moment at this ritualistic time to celebrate a few of those we have lost since the winter sun last dipped so low in the sky. (It’s likely that as many future-famous people will be born in 2014 as there were famous departed in 2013, but we don’t know yet who they will be… )
Somewhere in that great concert hall in the sky, they've put together quite a supergroup. Lou Reed duetting on vocals with Reg Presley of The Troggs, the wonderful JJ Cale on guitar and Ray Manzarek of The Doors on keyboards. (I nearly wrote “the inimitable JJ Cale”, but that wouldn’t be true – Eric Clapton has made a long and lucrative career out of imitating him pretty accurately.)
That fine foursome got well beyond the classic rock-star checking-out age of 27: Cale and Manzarek were 74, Reed and Presley 71. Manzarek survived his more famous band-mate Jim Morrison by 32 years, Morrison being one of the 27 club, along with Brian Jones, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Kurt Cobain and Amy Winehouse.
The four would, of course, need a drummer to complete a perfect line-up. The recent passing of Richard Coughlan of Caravan at age 66 may not have been so widely noted, but he too was an excellent musician and would have fitted a rich sound-world well.
Another of this year’s lamented departed was also a keen drummer in his youth. Perhaps not quite keen enough, though.
Lewis Collins started drumming with his dad’s band when he was 13 and also joined a bunch of Liverpool schoolmates in a group called The Renegades.
On leaving school he got a job at a hairdresser’s, where one of his fellow apprentices told him his brother’s group was looking for a new drummer. Collins reckoned he could make a better living cutting hair, so turned down an audition with Mike McCartney’s big brother Paul’s up-and-coming band. Oh, the fickle finger of fate.
It was, of course, not as a barber that Collins came to fame, but as Bodie in the ITV cop show The Professionals. And he got that gig because the show’s creator, Brian Clemens, knew that he and Martin Shaw – who had already been cast as Doyle – couldn’t stand each other.
So are perfect partnerships made. Well, maybe.
Collins’s other great missed gig was playing James Bond. Producer Cubby Broccoli reckoned he’d have been too realistic. Too likely to spoil the glamorous ritual with a hint of real death.

Thatcher: no laughing matter

Two colossi of world politics took their final exits in 2013.
One was the woman who divided this nation like no one else – loved, or at least admired, by some, loathed by at least as many.
The other was the man who emerged from a long prison sentence to unite what had been the most cruelly divided nation on earth.
One was hailed – during his life and at its end – as scarcely less than a modern saint by people all over the world, of all colours and political shades. Even by those former Conservative students who had once decried him as a terrorist and called for him to be hanged.
The other the woman who did more damage to British industry than the Luftwaffe. Whose catastrophic sell-off of the country’s social housing stock in the 1980s still afflicts the lives of families who weren’t born then. Whose ill-considered Poll Tax led to riots, and whose death was almost as widely celebrated as mourned.
One a man who lifted up the poor and oppressed with astounding compassion and forgiveness.
The other a woman who scorned the working class as “the enemy within”.
All this you know. But there was a detail lurking in the obituaries of Nelson Mandela and Margaret Thatcher that struck me as something fresh – and which may help to explain all of the above.
Along with his many other qualities, several of those who knew Mandela well remarked on his warm sense of humour.
Not even her greatest admirer ever called Thatcher “warm”. And one of those great admirers – her long-time chauffeur Denis Oliver – revealed: “One thing she didn’t have was a sense of humour. I don’t think she knew what humour was.”
That, I think, says a lot.

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