Wednesday 23 October 2019

Hilary White: 'Room around the table for empty chairs at the great seisiun in the sky'

Some of the great and the good of cultural life - and Peter Stringfellow - took a final bow in 2018, writes Hilary White

Dolores O'Riordan (Photo by Nicky J. Sims/Redferns)
Dolores O'Riordan (Photo by Nicky J. Sims/Redferns)

Hilary White

We are entering an era where we simply have to accept that icons from yesteryear's Golden Age will slip away with increasing frequency. Some believe this is a combination of age and the decadent lifestyle fame served up during their 1970s peak. For others, it is simply the turn of the world.

For The Fall's arch curmudgeon, the spitting, sneering, chain-smoking Mark E Smith, there can have been few complaints when lung cancer felled him at age 60. It was a blow to his legions of fans, not only in the record stores and audiences, but also acts such as LCD Soundsystem that were influenced by Smith's lifelong post-punk mission. Smith, in turn, would have inhaled and exhaled some of the pop perfection of the Buzzcocks, the sizzling, seminal punk outfit whose leader Pete Shelley departed earlier this month, aged 63.

Two deaths in music seemed to carry more clout than any others. Both were women who had bent their demons towards the will of their music, to global success.

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When her death in August, at 76, was announced, many re-examined what Aretha Franklin meant to them. Inevitably, they felt the silencing of a voice that had soundtracked half a century. Nothing would be the same.

The other was equally eulogised, nowhere more so than in her homeland. While speculation had mounted about her health, shock still greeted the discovery of Dolores O'Riordan's body in a London hotel in January. Portraits of a troubled individual accompanied every obituary of The Cranberries' frontwoman, but the tribute that chimed loudest was the triumphant sparkle of Dreams through Croke Park as her native Limerick lifted the Liam MacCarthy Cup for the first time in 45 years.

Mental health and suicide continued to take their toll. Pleas for information about the whereabouts of missing Frightened Rabbit singer Scott Hutchison circulated before his body was found in Edinburgh in May. He was 36. The previous month, another suicide resulted in the death of the mega-selling Swedish DJ Avicii. The 28-year-old left millions to charity.

Celebrated US fashion designer Kate Spade took her own life in June, the 55-year-old's body discovered at her Park Avenue apartment alongside a note. But it was the suicide of another New Yorker that seemed to ripple through the world most resoundingly.

Whether you'd read his breakthrough memoir Kitchen Confidential or watched his hit TV shows No Reservations or Parts Unknown, superchef Anthony Bourdain was totemic, not only in both his knowledge of food and fascination with cultures far-flung, but also in his slightly rakish, dissolute appeal and pronounced bulls**t radar in an industry laced with the stuff. He died in June, aged 61.

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An accidental overdose claimed US rapper and producer Mac Miller. The 26-year-old had struggled with addiction for years, and despite riding high on the success of recent LP Swimming, he'd turned to a lethal combination of coke, booze and an opioid called fentanyl (linked with the deaths of Prince and Tom Petty).

With The Blades making a hugely subscribed return to the stage after a long absence, it was especially poignant to learn of the death of Laurence Cleary, the founding guitarist and brother of vocalist Paul. He was 60 and had been living in Japan since leaving the revered Dublin rockers in 1982.

Spoken of in similarly hushed tones was Castleblayney country legend Big Tom McBride. Both a veritable institution of the showband heyday but also a mainstay of the circuit whose career spanned five decades, he was honoured with a lifetime achievement award at the Irish Country Music Awards in 2016. Another stalwart who slipped away from us was the great Sonny Knowles. The Liberties crooner and king of Irish cabaret was 86.

If there is a heaven, it'd be nice to imagine Knowles and Big Tom sitting in on an impromptu seisiun with other noteworthies who died in 2018. Micheal O Suilleabhain, that great Irish composers and academic, who passed away at 67, might lead the procession. Accompanying him on a bouzouki might be Alec Finn, the De Danann linchpin who died at home in Oranmore Castle at 74. Nearby, eyes downcast in sublime concentration, would be the peerless Planxty hero and national treasure Liam O'Flynn on the uilleann pipes. He left us in March, aged 72.

Tapping a foot, his face abeam and a dram of something swirling in his hand, would surely be Garech de Brun. The Guinness heir and sultan of Luggala was 78 when he signed off in March on a life of era-defining cultural championing and exceptional hospitality by Lough Tay.

"Immeasurable and outstanding," is how President Higgins described the contribution of Tom Murphy following the peerless dramatist's death in May at 83. Long before he was named a Saoi of Aosdana in 2017, Murphy was crafting deeply illuminating reflections of the Irish condition. A fellow Aosdana member - one of its first, in fact - who passed on was Val Mulkerns, who at 93 could look back with pride on a catalogue of novels and short stories released to wide acclaim at a time when the fledgling State was light on box-office female novelists.

The pair's works, like many others here, would have been pieced apart tirelessly by Irish Times literary critic Eileen Battersby. Ireland's cultural landscape was rocked by recent news of her tragic death in a road accident. Notorious as she could be, Battersby backed her opinions with a rigorous knowledge and deep love of literature. Our thoughts are with her family at this time.

Philip Roth towered over 20th Century writing to the point that he became something of an archetype, that of the handsome, self-examining Jewish intellectual, as consumed with matters of lust as with history and politics. Aged 85, Roth succumbed to congestive heart failure in Manhattan in May. A week previously, Manhattan was the venue for another bowing-out by a monument of US fiction. Tom Wolfe, he of The Bonfire of the Vanities and The Right Stuff fame, was 88 and a former star of the New Journalism movement alongside Hunter S Thompson and Truman Capote. (While we're on Capote, the famous little black dress worn by Audrey Hepburn in the 1961 adaptation of Breakfast at Tiffany's was designed by Hubert de Givenchy, the French fashion designer who died in Paris in March at 91.)

Emma Hannigan, who died, aged 45, in March, received a special posthumous award at the recent An Post Irish Books Awards, and it's not hard to see why. Thirteen years after doctors discovered a breast-cancer-causing gene mutation, Hannigan revealed she had run out of options, but was using her final hours to campaign via social media for Breast Cancer Ireland. In a couple of weeks, she had raised well in excess of €100,000. She also found the fortitude to finish her thirteenth novel.

The world of sport lost some lofty servants. Roger Bannister, who made history in 1954 by becoming the first human to run a mile in under four minutes, died, aged 88, in March. Trainer Mick O'Toole had a Gold Cup winner as well as several Cheltenham Festival winners during his long and storied career in racing. Renowned as a real character in that world, he trotted into the sunset at 86 after a short illness. Another soldier to go was of course Weeshie Fogarty, the East Kerry footballing institution who went on to become a legend of GAA broadcasting. There was sporting tragedy too as 32-year-old William Dunlop became the latest of that motorcycling dynasty to die following a race accident. Celtic and Man United midfielder Liam Miller fell to pancreatic cancer at just 36 years of age, warranting tributes from across the game, including David Beckham.

Some giants of the silver screen are remembered, among them a slew of century-defining directors. Nicolas Roeg, the English auteur who gifted us Don't Look Now and Walkabout, died in London aged 90. The Last Emperor director Bernardo Bertolucci fell to lung cancer aged 77 in November, just three days after Roeg. Another European great to leave us was the 92-year-old Paris filmmaker Claude Lanzmann. Shoah (1985), the canonical nine-hour Holocaust film he painstakingly filmed and compiled, is considered a masterpiece of documentary film-making.

On the other side of the Atlantic, Hollywood bade farewell to Penny Marshall (75), a ground-breaking cinema titan who gave us late-'80s/ early-'90s staples such as Big, Jumpin' Jack Flash and Awakenings. Oscar-winning One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest director Milos Forman (86) died in April.

From in front of the lens, meanwhile, several screen idols made their curtain calls. Burt Reynolds, the embodiment of brawny 1970s machismo, passed away in September, aged 82, following a heart attack. Similarly iconic was Margot Kidder, the original Lois Lane opposite Christopher Reeves's Superman. She was found dead at home, following an overdose. She was 69 and had struggled with mental-health issues throughout her adult life. Suicide was also the eventual ruling in the death in April of Austin Powers's diminutive 49-year-old co-star, Verne Troyer.

There are show-stealers in life worth cherishing. Often cited as the first Bond girl, Eunice Gayson was another icon who lit-up Dr No with that beehive and off-the-shoulder-dress combo. She was 90 when she died in London in June. Another was R Lee Ermey, who was unforgettable as the barking gunnery sergeant in Stanley Kubrick's Full Metal Jacket. He died in April, aged 74. Often the proprietor of the last laugh in the classic sitcom Frasier, John Mahoney portrayed Martin Crane with a mixture of old-school crankiness and twinkle-eyed cheek. At 77, he died in Chicago in February.

Straddling both were the shaded specs and moustachioed smirk of Marvel Comics demigod Stan Lee. Long before he was the purveyor of wry cameos in superhero films, the writer and publisher dreamed up some of the most enduring heroes in human culture since the zenith of Greek mythology. Aged 95, he shuffled off in November having conquered the universe.

Speaking of straddling, Peter Stringfellow, the UK nightclub mogul who amassed a fortune hosting devil-may-care evenings alongside a team of topless women, died of lung cancer at 77. That he should pass on in a year where attitudes to women in western society came under some much-needed scrutiny wasn't lost on some.

In this respect, it does more good to instead acknowledge the likes of Naomi Parker Fraley. She was 96 when she died in January, leaving behind the iconic 1943 war-effort character 'Rosie the Riveter', which she was the inspiration for. Or there's Linda Brown. After being denied a place at an all-white Sumner School in Kansas in 1954, the 11-year-old found herself at the centre of a landmark civil rights case that went all the way to the US Supreme Court, which ruled that segregation in schools was unconstitutional. She died in March, aged 75.

In August, meanwhile, weeks before Presidential hopeful Peter Casey shared his "unfiltered" views on Travellers, Nan Joyce, co-founder the Committee for the Rights of Travellers and the first in her community to ever stand in a general election, died. On a lighter note, Myrtle Allen, the Michelin-winning chef and founding matriarch of the Ballymaloe culinary empire, said goodnight after a lifetime devoted to elevating Irish food to a sphere of excellence.

While their Republican politics often grated, the funerals of former US president George Bush (who was 94 when he died in November, some seven months after wife and former First Lady Barbara) and Senator John McCain (who lost his battle with cancer in August aged 81) showed up just how far the tone of US statesmanship has sunk.

Yes, times are mad, but fear not if you feel completely baffled by the Trumpification of things. Even celebrated physicist and author Stephen Hawking (who died in March at 76, half a century longer than doctors gave him, following his motor neurone disease diagnosis) had to ponder when asked to explain the man's appeal. "I can't," Hawking told the interviewer. "He is a demagogue who seems to appeal to the lowest common denominator."

A simple answer from a brilliant mind.

Sunday Independent

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