2018: Not Such a Good Year (Obituaries)

Aretha Franklin, a photograph from ‘The Guardian’

It was not a year of celebrity or otherwise notable deaths. The Grim Reaper must have saved them for a year sparse of spectacular executions by Trump buddies, which this year was not.

Aretha Franklin, the Queen of soul and a civil rights activist, and Stephen Hawking, both of whom lived amongst the stars, probably topped the international list of regular passings. Hawking was a great supporter of British Labor, of universal health care, nuclear disarmament, Al Gore’s presidential campaign, and anti-Brexit. He actively championed action against climate change.

Cartoonists did not fare well. It was farewell to Jeff Hook, author and illustrator of a book I loved as a child, Jamie the Jumbo Jet, and long time editorial cartoonist at the Herald Sun, the far right’s Larry Pickering at The Australian and The Bulletin (‘I can’t stand Muslims. If they are in the same street as me, I start shaking. They are not all bad [because] they do chuck pillow-biters off buildings,’) and The Age’s Ron Tandberg. Mark Knight’s reflection on US Open runner-up Serena Williams’s hissy fit at the umpire did not go down well in America (or Melbourne). The Herald Sun doubled-down and republished the cartoon the next day on its front page. Meanwhile, The Age’s Michael Leunig anchored Melbournians, like the Queen, and like Playschool, amongst the tumult of change generally, in Fairfax, and at the ABC.

Writers Peter Mayle (A Year in Provence was, in 1989, the original which spawned so many imitators, 5 years earlier even than Eric Newby’s A Small Place in Italy), Ursula Le Guin (an American exponent of high quality young adult fantasy), Melbourne historian and author of Cliff Hardy crime fiction Peter Corris, another Melbourne crime fiction writer Peter Temple responsible for Jack Irish, New York novelist Philip Roth, and Sir V.S. Naipaul the Trinidadian-English novelist and travel writer (including India; A Million Mutinies Now) came to a full stop. The poet Judith Rodriguez died in the same year that Melbourne’s poetry bookshop Collected Works, closed down (like Thomas’ [sic.], the Collins Street record store, and like how the Lygon Street Foodstore, no doubt one of the first non-pharmacies to stock olive oil in Melbourne, went into administration). Also the Israeli writer Amos Oz.

English historian, travel writer and media personality John Julius Norwich became history himself. He was the daughter of the rather wonderfully named Lady Diana Manners, a descendant of William IV, a hereditary peer, 2nd Viscount Norwich, an alumnus of Eton, Oxford where he took French and Russian, the Royal Navy, the Foreign Office and the BBC. He had a daughter with an American ballerina with whom he had an affair. He wrote many books about Venice and presented ‘The Fall of Constantinople’ and published a history of France shortly before his death. Not a bad record.

South African photographer and chronicler of Apartheid David Goldblatt, who moved from black and white into colour following the fall of Apartheid, died. So too painters Charles Blackman, famous for his Alice in Wonderland series, and Melbourne’s Frida Kahlao: French born Jewish Mirka Mora famous for family restaurants The Mora Café, Café Balzac, and Tolarno in St Kilda, whose hotel restaurant today features Ms Mora’s distinctive murals featuring her naïve fantastical figures.

Fashionistas Count Hubert de Givenchy who dressed Audrey Hepburn and founded one of the great fashion labels, and Carlo and Gilberto Benetton, two of the four Italian siblings who founded United Colours of Benneton with its daring ads celebrating diversity, departed.

French superchef Paul Bocuse died in the room he was born in, in his principal restaurant in Collonges-au-Mont-d’or. His fine dining classical cuisine restaurant empire once extended to Melbourne’s Daimaru. Anthony Bourdain took his life causing the whole world to scratch their heads at this unexpected turnup in the life of such a kind, apparently contented gentleman. He was a writer (Kitchen Confidential) and chef, but principally a television presenter who travelled the world using food as a vehicle to explore the human situation. His Ethiopia episode was beautiful. He even went to the Democratic Republic of Congo, up the Congo River, like Kurz, which is keen. (Congo’s President Joseph Kabila, son of the previous president Laurent Kabila, allowed elections to occur, 2 years after his final term ended. There were more than 15,000 candidates. Millions were unable to vote. Both the government and the election have claimed victory. The government switched off the internet and banned a key news organisation in the days after the poll. Here’s hoping we see the first democratic Congolese transfer of power.)

Miscellaneous notable Australians passed: Dr G Yunipingu, the subject of an amazing documentary ‘Gurrumul’ which came out in 2018. Ron Walker, who was a Lord Mayor of Melbourne, chairman of the Major Events Corporation and promoter of Melbourne’s Grand Prix, a chairman of Fairfax, and with Lloyd Williams the original operator of Crown Casino; Hugh Wirth, the public face of the RSPCA, and the resident vet on 774 for 30 years; Ian Kiernan, the founder of Clean Up Australia which spread to 120 nations and involved tens of millions of volunteers around the world; Bonita Mabo, Aboriginal education activist who represented her late husband Eddie at the High Court’s decision.

Ted Mack, the ‘father of the independents’ who now play such an important role in politics, and who started out selling the mayoral Mercedes getting about instead in a 1951 Citroen at no expense to the public. Australia’s Grand Mufti died four months into the job; and Dame Beryl Beaurepair, establishment feminist (n.b. Melbourne University’s pool was named not after her but after her Lord Mayor husband’s Lord Mayor father).

David Goodall, a scientist who was still working well into his second century, took his own life aged 104. He was not terminally ill, nor suffering particularly insufferably by the standards of discourse on voluntary dying, but he no longer enjoyed his life and wished to end it while he was still in control. He could not have availed himself of Victoria’s newly passed assisted dying laws, the product of a long campaign by the Greens and Fiona Patten’s Reason (nee Sex) Party. But he went to Switzerland to die with an outfit called Eternal Spirit, which may have irked him since he believed not in the afterlife. Surrounded by his family, having been interviewed by Swiss police, he pushed a button, beginning the flow of the barbituates which killed him the moment the last movement of Beethoven’s 9th symphony concluded.

(Incidentally, Fiona Patten narrowly held her Senate place in the Victorian election despite eschewing the services of Derryn Hinch’s employee Glen Druery, the so-called ‘preference whisperer’. Voters must have responded to the humour of her campaigning (‘Don’t miss your chance to put one in my box.’) There was a long time when it was being reported that she had not been re-elected. During that time, Premier Dan Andrews offered her a job in the Labor government, by way of a thought bubble in an ABC radio interview, demonstrating the high esteem with which her parliamentary colleagues held (and hold) her.)

Professor Bob Baxt, one of the late Alan Goldberg’s readers, and an early chairman of the Trade Practices Commission, passed on. As did Brian Bourke QC, one of the best loved, oldest, and the longest standing active member of the Victorian Bar. His father was a publican, he started his career at Brew & McGuinness, and he wrote Liquor Laws.

Patrick Atiyah, the Sudanese born crown counsel of Ghana, and professor of law at the University of Khartoum died too, never having realised his ambition (in Australia or England, at least) to abolish the law of torts and replace it with a no fault compensation scheme (see The Damages Lottery). (He also had some other jobs, e.g. at ANU.)

Commodore Sir Laurence Whistler StreetACKCMGKStJQC was permanently stayed. He went to the Cranbrook School, a place of such privilege as does not exist in Melbourne. Like his father and grandfather before him, he was Chief Justice of NSW. His son, Sandy Street, is a Federal Circuit Court judge, as is his daughter and her husband, Silvie and Arthur Emmett, and all his daughters in fact graduated from Sydney Law School. He was a leader in the field of alternative dispute resolution, and his nickname was Lorenzo the Magnificent.

Alec (‘Ginger’) Southwell QC, a long-term Justice of the Supreme Court of Victoria and sometimes member of the Full Legal Profession Tribunal, passed away. Associates on Twitter nominated for inclusion in this list NSW judge Bob Toner (that is an obituary worth a read) and Qld judge John Muir, an outspoken critic of the appointment as Chief Justice of Tim Carmody by the ill-fated Liberal government. And I commend to you The Guardian’s obituary of English advocate and law journalist Sir Louis Blom-Cooper.

Evan Whitton, schooled at Truth and an editor of the National Times, died having exposed and reported on much corruption (including that the subject of the Royal Commission presided over by Sir Laurence Sreet, his report on which is here). The corruption by which illegal abortion was tolerated led to its decriminalization. He trained David Marr, Richard Ackland, Wendy Bacon, Anne Sumners and others. He was a unique voice on the Australian legal system (The Cartel: Lawyers and their Nine Magic Tricks; Serial Liars: How Lawyers Get the Money and Get the Criminals Off; Our Corrupt Legal System) and was well known to readers of Justinian. He was a pioneer of longform journalism.

Other great journalists who died included the aforementioned Jamal Kashoggi and the ABC’s Liz Jackson. She was a former barrister noted for work on ‘4 Corners’ and ‘Media Watch’. She reported on Somalia, winning a Walkley, and memorably documented her own deterioration with Parkinson’s disease. The Age’s Michael Gordon, the first journalist to voyage to Manus Island, also died prematurely, from a heart attack while surfing, not long into retirement.

It is in fact tempting to list The Age as a death of 2018, since it was swallowed up by Channel Nine in the biggest media shake up in Australia for 30 years.

Stephane Audran (Babette in that very early foodie movie ‘Babette’s Feast’) had her last meal, as did Bernardo Bertolucci while controversy lingered over him for not telling Maria Schneider of Marlon Brando’s plan to use butter in ‘Last Tango in Paris’.

It was a big year for deaths of Africans: Winnie Mandela; Pik Botha (the foreign minister during the height of Apartheid, not to be confused with President PW Botha); Girma Wolde-Giorgis, a long-time president of Ethiopia who saw peace declared between Ethiopia and Eritrea before he died, something he had worked hard for; former UN Secretary-General and anti-poverty worker Kofi Annan. Also Shehu Shagari, Nigeria’s first civilian leader to take office under a US-style constitution. Not to mention the Ugandan refugee Geoffrey Oryema, a star of Peter Gabriel’s ‘Real World’ label, and Algerian-French rocker Rachid Taha.

Barbara Bush, husband of President George H.W. Bush and mother of George W Bush died, as did her husband. American preacher Billy Graham, who used to receive 10,000 letters a week, made a point of never meeting alone with a woman and preached at meticulously organised ‘crusades’ (e.g. to a crowd of one million in Seoul), may have gone to heaven. ( I watched series 2 of the excellent ‘The Crown’ in 2018 in which the Queen’s fascination with Billy Graham was a feature.)

Finally, two great Tibetans died in the Dalai Lama’s home in exile, Dharamsala and San Fransisco respectively. Palden Gyatso’s story is more remarkable in some ways than that of Nelson Mandela (which was featured in a Melbourne Museum exhibition this year), as this extract from his obituary in The Age begins to explain of his torture between 1959 and 1992 in Tibet by the Chinese:

‘His captors made political prisoners pull ploughs as if they were “human yaks,” he said, and then beat them when they were too exhausted to work. He spent long periods shackled at the ankles and hanging by the arms from chains. Guards beat him with metal bars, whipped him and shocked him with cattle prods, he said. One guard jammed a cattle prod down his throat, shocking him unconscious and knocking out many teeth.

All Gyatso had to do to end the torment, he said, was to agree with his captors that Tibet was historically a part of China, and that it should remain so. “Of course, I would never say that Tibet is not independent,” Mr. Gyatso said in an interview with Peace Magazine in 1998.

Before he was released, he contacted a friend outside prison and asked him to bribe an officer for examples of the torture implements that had been used on him. He slipped out of Tibet for India that October, with the tools of torture hidden beneath his clothes.’

Lodi Gyari, a Buddhist Rinpoche, died without having achieved any success as principal negotiator of the Dalai Lama’s ‘middle way’, by which Tibet proposed from 2002 to abandon its objection to China’s illegal occupation of the nation, offering instead to accept a degree of autonomy within the state of China. China murdered his brother and fatally tortured his grandmother.

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