As the old year of 2016 is now dying, here are some of my favourite pieces of writing about death.
This came to mind because of the very recent death of Richard Adams. The death scene which ends Watership Down – well, there must be a German word which describes knowing something is sentimental, yet still being moved by it. Disneyschmerz perhaps? The nature-loving agnostic imagines an afterlife with as false a comfort as angels escorting the departed to heaven yet a rabbit soul eternally scampering through the beech woods has great charm. By now the reader has come to like and respect Hazel and enjoy the rabbit’s eye view of the English countryside, in whose pockets between roads, housing and farms the rabbits make their lives.
One chilly, blustery morning in March, I cannot tell exactly how many springs later, Hazel was dozing and waking in his burrow. He had spent a good deal of time there lately, for he felt the cold and could not seem to smell or run so well as in days gone by. He had been dreaming in a confused way — something about rain and elder bloom ~ when he woke to realize that there was a rabbit lying quietly beside him — no doubt some young buck who had come to ask his advice. The sentry in the run outside should not really have let him in without asking first. Never mind, thought Hazel. He raised his head and said, “Do you want to talk to me?”
“Yes, that’s what I’ve come for,” replied the other. “You know me, don’t you?”
“Yes, of course,” said Hazel, hoping he would be able to remember his name in a moment. Then he saw that in the darkness of the burrow the stranger’s ears were shining with a faint silver light. “Yes, my lord,” he said, “Yes, I know you.”
“You’ve been feeling tired,” said the stranger, “but I can do something about that. I’ve come to ask whether you’d care to join my Owsla. We shall be glad to have you and you’ll enjoy it. If you’re ready, we might go along now.”
They went out past the young sentry, who paid the visitor no attention. The sun was shining and in spite of the cold there were a few bucks and does at silflay, keeping out of the wind as they nibbled the shoots of spring grass. It seemed to Hazel that he would not be needing his body any more, so he left it lying on the edge of the ditch, but stopped for a moment to watch his rabbits and to try to get used to the extraordinary feeling that strength and speed were flowing inexhaustibly out of him into their sleek young bodies and healthy senses.
“You needn’t worry about them,” said his companion. “They’ll be all right — and thousands like them. If you’ll come along, I’ll show you what I mean.”
He reached the top of the bank in a single, powerful leap. Hazel followed; and together they slipped away, running easily down through the wood, where the first primroses were beginning to bloom.
Shakespeare was much obsessed with deaths – 74 of them in his plays. Someone did a play which featured them all.
These death scenes though are mostly violent sword stabbings, with the occasional strangulation and poisoning so I’ll quote the death of Falstaff reported in Henry V.
ACT II SCENE III London. Before a tavern.
Enter PISTOL, Hostess, NYM, BARDOLPH, and BOY
HOSTESS Prithee, honey-sweet husband, let me bring thee to Staines.
PISTOL No; for my manly heart doth yearn.
BARDOLPH Be blithe: Nym, rouse thy vaunting veins:
BOY Bristle thy courage up; for Falstaff he is dead,
And we must yearn therefore.
BARDOLPH Would I were with him, wheresome’er he is, either in heaven or in hell!
HOSTESS Nay, sure, he’s not in hell: he’s in Arthur’s bosom, if ever man went to Arthur’s bosom. A’ made a finer end and went away an it had been any christom child; a’ parted even just between twelve and one, even at the turning o’ the tide: for after I saw him fumble with the sheets and play withflowers and smile upon his fingers’ ends, I knew there was but one way; for his nose was as sharp as a pen, and a’ babbled of green fields. ‘How now, sir John!’ quoth I ‘what, man! be o’ good cheer.’ So a’ cried out ‘God, God, God!’ three or four times. Now I, to comfort him, bid him a’ should not think of God; I hoped there was no need to trouble himself with any such thoughts yet. So a’ bade me lay more clothes on his feet: I put my hand into the bed and felt them, and they were as cold as any stone; then I felt to his knees, and they were as cold as any stone, and so upward and upward, and all was as cold as any stone.
The Hostess would have been accustomed to tend the dying at a time when the women of the household did the nursing.
The Death of the Mrs Proudie from The Last Chronicle of Barset by Anthony Trollope
Trollope wrote 6 volumes about Cathedral politics in Barsetshire. One day in his club he overheard two men complaining that he was reintroducing the same old characters, including Mrs Proudie and how tired they were of it. So he told the men that he would kill her off that day.
Mrs Proudie of much reforming Evangelical energy has dominated her husband the bishop to carry out her will to the point of utterly humiliating him so they are now bitterly estranged.
Mrs. Proudie’s own maid, Mrs. Draper by name, came to him and said that she had knocked twice at Mrs. Proudie’s door and would knock again. Two minutes after that she returned, running into the room with her arms extended, and exclaiming, “Oh, heavens, sir; mistress is dead!” Mr. Thumble, hardly knowing what he was about, followed the woman into the bedroom, and there he found himself standing awestruck before the corpse of her who had so lately been the presiding spirit of the palace.
The body was still resting on its legs, leaning against the end of the side of the bed, while one of the arms was close clasped round the bed-post. The mouth was rigidly closed, but the eyes were open as though staring at him. Nevertheless there could be no doubt from the first glance that the woman was dead. ..
The bishop when he had heard the tidings of his wife’s death walked back to his seat over the fire, ….. But there was no sound; not a word, nor a moan, nor a sob. It was as though he also were dead, but that a slight irregular movement of his fingers on the top of his bald head, told her [Mrs Draper] that his mind and body were still active. ..
She had in some ways, and at certain periods of his life, been very good to him. …..She had never been idle. She had never been fond of pleasure. She had neglected no acknowledged duty. He did not doubt that she was now on her way to heaven. He took his hands down from his head, and clasping them together, said a little prayer. It may be doubted whether he quite knew for what he was praying. The idea of praying for her soul, now that she was dead, would have scandalized him. He certainly was not praying for his own soul. I think he was praying that God might save him from being glad that his wife was dead.
(As a strict Protestant, Bishop Proudie would not pray for a soul whose destiny is decided at death.)
A Very Easy Death by Simone de Beauvoir
After a long agony of being treated for cancer, Simone de Beauvoir’s mother finally dies. Her sister, Poupette, is at the death bed. De Beauvoir was an atheist, her mother a devout Catholic.
Maman had almost lost consciousness. Suddenly she cried, “I can’t breathe!” her mouth opened, her eyes stared wide, huge in that wasted, ravaged face: with a spasm she entered into coma..
Poupette rang me up: I did not answer. The operator went on ringing for half an hour before I woke. Meanwhile Poupette went back to Maman; already she was no longer there – her heart was beating and she breathed, sitting there with glassy eyes that saw nothing. And then it was over. “The doctors said she would go out like a candle: it wasn’t like that, it wasn’t like that at all,” said my sister, sobbing.
But, Madame,” replied the nurse, “I assure you it was a very easy death.”
“Maman” though religious did not ask for a priest – de Beauvoir concludes:-
“She knew what she ought to have said to God – “Heal me. But Thy will be done: I acquiesce in death.” She did not acquiesce. In this moment of truth she did not choose to utter insincere words…
Maman loved loved life as I love it and in the face of death she had the same feeling of rebellion that I have. During her last days I received many letters with remarks on my most recent book: “If you had not lost your faith death would not terrify you so,” wrote the devout, with rancorous commiseration. Well-intentioned readers urged, “Disappearing is not of the least importance: your works will remain.” And inwardly I told them all that they were wrong. Religion could do no more for my mother than the hope of posthumous success could for me. Whether you think of it as heavenly or as earthly, if you love life immortality is no consolation for death.
A devout Christian, C S Lewis did take consolation in his wife’s immortality though the whole of A Grief Observed is about the despair and misery at his loss of faith he undergoes after her painful death (cancer again). He longs for her undeath but at the end thinks she has been transfigured into something resembling pure intelligence, away from her torturing body:-
How wicked it would be, if we could, to call the dead back! She said not to me but to the chaplain, “I am at peace with God.” She smiled, but not at me. Poi si torno all’ eterna fontana.
The last words in Italian being Dante’s view of his beloved Beatrice in a blissful afterlife.
Lewis’s view of death is harsher in Till We Have Faces, a surprisingly feminist work. Orual the heroine is about to enter into single combat with an enemy which will decide the fate of their city. Her father, the king and a cruel brute, has been lying helpless with a stroke. She is in the royal Bedchamber, searching out armour.
And it was when we were most busied that the Fox’s voice from behind said, “It’s finished.” We turned and looked. The thing on the bead which had been half-alive for so long was dead; had died (if he understood it) seeing a girl ransacking his armoury.
“Peace be upon him,” said Bardia. “We’ll be done here very shortly. Then the women can come to wash the body.” And we turned again at once to settle the matter of the hauberks.
And so the thing I had thought of for so many years at last slipped by in a huddle of business which was, at that moment, of more consequence. An hour later, when I looked back, it astonished me. Yet I have often noticed since how much less stir nearly everyone’s death makes than you expect. Men better loved and more worthy loving than my father go down making only a small eddy.
How the world shrugs off our death is brutally stated by A E Housman’s in Is My Team Ploughing:-
So to all, a long and healthy life, and then a quick and easy death, causing the least amount of nuisance and hassle.
Things have been a bit depressing for many of us lately, so let me bring a little bit of joy into your lives, courtesy Thomas ‘Fats’ Waller, who was born this day in New York, 1904.
Here is the “Harmful Little Armful” himself in the 1943 film Stormy Weather, also featuring drummer Zutty Singleton, bassist Slam Stewart, Benny Carter on trumpet, Lena Horne and dancer Bill ‘Bojangles’ Robinson.
Fats died shortly after this was filmed, but you’d never for a moment guess that from the sheer joie de vivre of this performance of his own most famous tune:
The ONLY song for today. Dorham (1924 – ’72) was a somewhat neglected figure, whose misfortune was to have emerged just as Gillespie, Brown and Davis were stealing the scene. But on a good day (as here) he was their equal. A lovely version of a great song:
Above: Roy in 1942 with Anita O’Day in the Gene Krupa Orchestra
Jazz trumpeter Roy ‘Little Jazz’ Eldridge was born this day (Jan 30) in 1911
Roy was a tremendously exciting player, generally regarded as the link between Louis Armstrong and Dizzy Gillespie. He died (Feb 26 1989) a well-respected jazz elder statesman, but he never achieved much public recognition or made much money. Also, as a black musician coming up in the 1930’s he knew all about segregation and was sometimes refused service in joints that had his name up in lights outside …
Roy was a sensitive guy and had to put up (or not) with a lot of racist shit, especially during his stints with the otherwise all-white big bands of Gene Krupa and then Artie Shaw. In fact, on leaving Shaw in 1944 he vowed “As long as I’m in America I’ll never in my life work with a white band again.”
However, Roy always spoke well of Krupa, and the following contemporary press report may explain why:
Krupa Fined After Fight Over Eldridge
York, Pa – Gene Krupa used his fists two weeks ago to subdue the operator of a restaurant here who refused to allow Roy Eldridge admittance. Gene and his band were playing a one-nighter at the Valencia Ballroom … It was reported that the restaurant man made “unfair” and ungentlemanly remarks regarding Eldridge, and then asked Roy to leave the place. Krupa took offense. Words tumbled forth. Finally, Krupa and the restaurant man “mixed” with fists flying. Police were called, Krupa was arrested, taken to jail and fined $10. Then he was released.
It maked the first time the color line had been drawn on Roy since he joined Krupa’s crew … Musicians in the Krupa band applauded their boss for his action, although both Roy and Gene said they were “sorry as hell” the occasion arose where force was necessary to maintain right – Dec 15, 1941.
This time of year when we think of time passing.
Enter CHRONOS, with a scythe in his hand, and a great globe on his back, which he sets down at his entrance
Weary, weary of my weight,
Let me, let me drop my freight,
And leave the world behind.
I could not bear
The load of human-kind.
From Dryden’s The Secular Masque
Written for the seventeenth century rolling over to the eighteenth. It has the New Year resolution flavour about it at the end:-
All, all of a piece throughout;
Thy chase had a beast in view;
Thy wars brought nothing about;
Thy lovers were all untrue.
‘Tis well an old age is out,
And time to begin a new.
The Three Ages of Man by Titian in the National Gallery of Scotland
A poem which fits the weather as well as the time of year and one of my favourites by Thomas Hardy, who wrote beautifully about time passing and opportunities missed:-
They sing their dearest songs—
He, she, all of them—yea,
Treble and tenor and bass,
And one to play;
With the candles mooning each face. . . .
Ah, no; the years O!
How the sick leaves reel down in throngs!
And brightest things that are theirs. . . .
Ah, no; the years, the years;
Down their carved names the rain-drop ploughs.
Time, time, time
See what’s become of me
While I looked around for my possibilities
I was so hard to please
But look around Leaves are brown
And the sky is a hazy shade of winter..
Look around, leaves are brown,
There’s a patch of snow on the ground
(Simon & Garfunkel – they were young things when that came out)
Who knows where the time goes? Sandy Denny, who died far too young.
And from he who was born middle-aged:-
Chard Whitlow by ”T S Eliot”
As we get older we do not get any younger.
Seasons return, and today I am fifty-five,
And this time last year I was fifty-four,
And this time next year I shall be sixty-two.
And I cannot say I should like (to speak for myself)
To see my time over again— if you can call it time:
Fidgeting uneasily under a draughty stair,
Or counting sleepless nights in the crowded Tube.
From The Hobbit – one of the riddles
This thing all things devours:
Birds, beasts, trees, flowers;
Gnaws iron, bites steel;
Grinds hard stones to meal;
Slays king, ruins town,
And beats high mountain down.
And a picture from the 1976 Soviet edition of The Hobbit.
Have a good time while we mark time passing.
Frank Sinatra was born 100 years ago today.
He wasn’t the 20th century’s greatest singer: that accolade must go to either Enrico Caruso or Bing Crosby (or, maybe, Louis Armstrong).
But he was the first real pop star.
Despite stints with Harry James (his first band leader) and Tommy Dorsey (of whom Sinatra said something like, “He tought me everything about how to phrase a song”), Frank was never, really, a jazz singer. But this session with vibist Red Norvo, is probably the closest that Sinatra came to singing jazz:
Richard Williams in the Guardian: A Very Long Retirement
Ian Penman in the London Review Of Books: Swoonatara
Ludovic Hunter-Tilney in the Financial Times: Sinatra’s Way
Gary Giddins (always worth reading) on Jazz singers in general
My good friend Ricky Ricardi, archivist of the Louis Armstrong House Museum in Queens, NYC, commemorates the 65th anniversary of Louis’ recording of ‘La Vie En Rose’ (from Ricky’s blog ‘The Wonderful World Of Louis Armstrong’):
65 Years of “La Vie En Rose”
Louis Armstrong with Sy Oliver’s Orchestra
Recorded June 26, 1950
Track Time 3: 26
Written by Mack David, Edith Piaf and Louiguy (Louis Gugliemi)
Recorded in New York City
Louis Armstrong, trumpet, vocal; Melvin Solomon, Bernie Privin, Paul Webster, trumpet; Morton Bullman, trombone; Hymie Schertzer, Milt Yaner, alto saxophone; Art Drelinger, Bill Holcombe, tenor saxohpne; Earl Hines, piano; Everett Barksdale, guitar; George Duvivier, bass; Johnny Blowers, drums; Sy Oliver, arranger, conductor
Originally released on Decca 37113
Currently available on CD: It’s on “Satchmo Serenades” and about a thousand compilations.
Available on Itunes? Yes.
65 years ago today, Louis Armstrong tapped into his French side by recording two songs he’d perform for the rest of his career: “La Vie En Rose” and “C’est Si Bon.” What follows is a slightly updated version of my original 2010 posting on “La Vie En Rose” and I’ll be back in a few days with a fresh look at “C’est Si Bon.” Enjoy!
For the last couple of decades, “What a Wonderful World” easily wins the title of the most ubiquitous Louis Armstrong recording, being used in a countless amount of films, television commercials and high school reports (just check YouTube). But “La Vie En Rose” is definitely a close second. According to Imdb.com, it’s been used in at least eight major motion pictures since 1994, most notably in the Pixar classic “Wall-E,” as well as television shows, commercials, you name it. And anyone who has spent three minutes and 26 seconds in its presence can easily understand the phenomenon. You’d have to have the heart of the Tin Man (pre-Oz) to not be moved by it.
Of course, the song truly belongs to Edith Piaf, the legendary French singer who co-wrote it and made it famous to the point where a documentary and a feature film about her life each bear the title “La Vie En Rose.” Piaf apparently wrote the song in 1946 and sat on it for a while before she finally gave it a go in public, where it was received tremendously. In 1948, she sang her original French lyrics on a recording that was picked up in the United States by George Avakian of Columbia Records. I’ll let George tell the story, as he eloquently did in the liner notes to an Armstrong boxed set on the Hip-O label, “An American Original”:
“That same year, Edith Piaf took New York by storm an me by surprise. I was doubling as International and Pop Album director at Columbia in those days, and when Piaf’s manager told me she was coming back to New York despite a cool reception the first time ’round, I asked our Paris affiliate to send me samples of her interim releases so that I could try to choose something which might appeal to the American public. I recognized one melody as ‘You’re Too Dangerous, Cheire,’ a failed pop tune I had liked a couple of years earlier. The label said ‘La Vie En Rose,’ and the impassioned French lyric was far superior to wishy-washy English words I knew. We gave it a shot and to everyone’s astonishment but ‘Ay-deet’s,’ it sold a million copies.”
For those who aren’t familiar with it, hear’s Piaf’s original French version, courtesy of YouTube:
As of today, multiple YouTube versions have amassed over 20 million views, a testament to the lasting power of Piaf and that song in particular. But who is in second place? Ol’ Pops with just over 19 million views himself. As Avakian added, “Of the countless cover versions that followed, Louis’ was easily the best, and he never stopped singing it.” Read the rest of this entry »
A song for all Labour supporters tonight:
Nat ‘King’ Cole and George Shearing in upbeat mood
The woman who was simply the greatest singer in the entire history of jazz was born 100 years ago. Apart from her extraordinary voice (limited but highly expressive), she tends to be remembered for her “tragic” life, bad choices in lovers and her clashes with the authorities (she was even arrested on narcotics charges as she lay dying in hospital).
She made an extraordinary impression on all who met her, or even just heard her records. The British jazz critic Max Jones who met her and got to know her when she visited Britain in 1954 and then just before her death in 1959, is typical:
“Soon reports were coming in regularly of her deteriorating condition. At the end of May she collapsed and was taken to hospital, suffering from liver and heart complaints.
“Still harried by the authorities, she died in degrading circumstances at 3 a.m. on 17 July 1959, with 70 cents in the bank and 750 dollars in large notes strapped to her leg. She was, by her reckoning, only 44 years old. And I was halfway through a letter to her when friends telephoned to say she was dead. Though half expecting it, I was devastated by the news.
“But still, we have those many lovely or disturbing recorded performances. They will be a pleasure to my ears for the rest of my life and those of future generations for all time, I guess.”
The actor, Billy Crystal (who, it turns out, is the nephew of Commodore Records’ Milt Gabler, who recorded Billie singing ‘Strange Fruit’ in 1939), still remembers her.
Billie is well represented on Youtube, including her incredibly moving 1957 TV recording of ‘Fine and Mellow’ , a reunion with her old (platonic) friend and confidant Lester Young, after some years of estrangement. Then there’s the cry of pain and protest that is ‘Strange Fruit.’
But I prefer to remember the young, joyous and careless Billie of the mid-to-late 1930’s, as can be heard on this little gem from 1936 (below):
Billie even (playfully) puts drummer Cozy Cole in his place in the opening banter. Bunny Berigan on trumpet, Artie Shaw on clarinet.