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It’s not just because I’m older that I am reading more of the obituaries than ever in my past. At least, I don’t think so. I seldom read local newspaper obituaries (in part because the delivery here is too sporadic to make it a habit), and I don’t regularly share death notices on social media unless they are of very well known figures. But I do admit I think seem to notice these reports more these days than in years past.
It’s not a fear of death, either, just an awareness that it’s closer than it was and that it comes to us all, great and small. I try to keep in mind the words of Marcus Aurelius, that great Stoic, who wrote among other thoughts in his Meditations, Book VIII:
He who fears death either fears to lose all sensation or fears new sensations. In reality, you will either feel nothing at all, and therefore nothing evil, or else, if you can feel any sensations, you will be a new creature, and so will not have ceased to have life.
Cicero had some pithy things to say about aging and death too, but I’ll leave them for another post.
It strikes me most melancholy when someone among these dead contributed in some memorable way to my own life, to my own culture, upbringing, values, entertainment or beliefs. We have lost their continued wisdom, their continued contributions to our culture; their future output is stilled. For those closest in time to my own age – writers, actors and rock stars many of them – I notice their passing more than I do that of younger artists and musicians. true, few have had a direct, personal impact on me, but they touched me nonetheless.
For no apparent reason other than it struck me to do it, I started looking online for notices of deaths in 2017 only last week, combing through the lists posted online for familiar names. Here are a few that stood out.
This site, – one of several such – lists 22 literary talents who died in 2017, but the list isn’t complete. Among them were Brian Aldiss, John Berger, Robert James Waller, Colin Dexter, Jimmy Breslin, Sue Grafton, and William Peter Blatty – all writers whose works I read and whose books I still own. I picked up an Aldiss novel to add to my to-read-again pile just a month or so ago.
Michael Bond, died: creator of Paddington Bear, which I read to my daughter. I was more of the Pooh bear child, myself: Paddington didn’t get published until 1958.
On that list is also Robert Pirsig, author of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, a book that had a large impact on my thinking when I first read it in the mid-1970s. I keep meaning to re-read it, and to read his second book, which I have never owned.
Tom Harpur, whose writings on faith and religion I frequently read, even when I did not share his views or faith. But his book, The Pagan Christ – still on my shelves – was certainly a different take for him and that intrigued me.
Stuart Mclean died in 2017. Probably every Canadian knew of Stuart’s Vinyl Cafe stories. I used to tune into his show on weekends to catch up with the ongoing saga of Dave and Morley. I miss his gentle wit and his storytelling skills. And he played the ukulele, which elevated him in my eyes.
Johnnie Bower died – he was the goalie for the Toronto Maple Leafs and was still in the net around the last time I watched a hockey game on TV. June Rowlands, a councillor in Toronto when I lived there, and later the first woman mayor of Toronto. Gord Downie, lead singer for The Tragically Hip, who I listened to in the late 1980s. Skip Prokop, drummer and founder of the band Lighthouse. Betty Kennedy – a familiar name to every Canadian who watched Front Page Challenge on TV. Goldy McJohn – keyboard player and founding member of Steppenwolf, another band I got to see live and review when I worked for the Ottawa Citizen.
Celebrities and actors died in 2017, too. Adam West played Batman in the campy TV series of the 1960s, a contemporary of the original Star Trek series, both of which I watched. Roger Moore, one of the better James Bond portrayers. William Christopher, who played Father Mulcahy on the TV series ‘M*A*S*H’ that ran 11 years and still remains one of my favourites (we re-watched the entire series start to finish in 2016). Jerry Lewis and Don Rickles both made me laugh, although Lewis less so. So did Dick Gregory, but he also made me think and his voice for civil rights was powerful in the 1960s. John Hurt. Mary Tyler Moore. George Romero, whose classic horror film Night of the Living Dead gave birth to a whole new school of B-films (and which I have on DVD in both B&W and colourized versions). Robert Hardy, who I first saw in the delightful BBC series, All Creatures Great and Small and last in the Harry Potter films. Martin Landau, who I first saw in Hitchcock’s North by Northwest.
Musicians: Greg Allman, J. Geils, Tom Petty, Charles Bradley, Glenn Campbell and Chuck Berry. I had a chance to meet and briefly interview Berry in the late 1960s when I was the music reporter at the Ottawa Citizen. Until I saw his show and met him, I wasn’t really a fan of the 50s’ music, but seeing him and the others live at the revival music event made me appreciate it and them. I didn’t know Bradley’s music until about two years ago, when I mistook his gravelly voice for James Brown and immediately bought some of his albums on iTunes. Walter Becker, co-founder of Steely Dan, a favourite of mine. Malcolm Young, co-founder of AC/DC. Peter Sarstedt, whose song 1969 Where Do You Go To My Lovely I loved and even taught to my ukulele group a couple of years back. Fats Domino.
Nat Hentoff died. Anyone who has followed jazz and appreciates it knows of Hentoff’s writing. Somewhere upstairs on my bulging shelves, I have at least one of his books on the history of jazz.
Hugh Hefner, founder of Playboy magazine died in 2017, too. The sexual revolution would have just been a sporadic guerrilla clash without him. I read it for the articles, of course.
Peter Osborne: back in the days when we still had cable TV, we regularly watched him introduce films on Turner Classic Movies. His shows replaced Elwy Yost on Saturday Night at the Movies, which we tuned into for many years until his death, in 2011.
Christine Keeler, whose name I remembered from the early 1960s when she was the focus of the “Profumo affair” in Britain. One of my earliest memories of paying attention to politics.
Charles Manson – locked up in prison for life after his cult gang brutally murdered actress Sharon Tate and others in 1969. His story shocked my generation and darkened the era. I read by Vincent Bugliosi’s book the murders, Helter Skelter, shortly after it came out, in 1974. It began for me a fascination with the growth and psychology of cults, conspiracy theories, fanaticism and how people could be persuaded to believe in and follow such wacky, dangerous ideas.
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