Perspectives: A Review of 2012
by Peter Byrne
(Swans - December 17, 2012) Whatever else it brings, old age grants us short-term survival. We are still around, fondling small satisfactions. Writers launched into longevity will inevitably end up writing obituaries of one sort or another. It's notorious that victors write history to their taste, and in his lesser and self-centered way so does any graybeard scribbler. The privilege goes with the shrinking terrain beneath his feet.
There are dangers. You can hear oldsters congratulate each other on New Year's Eve. Their enemy has been done out of another year. It's the one finger salute for the geezer with the scythe chased by the diapered infant in those January 1st editorial cartoons. One-upmanship shows through the aged merriment and vindictiveness is just around the corner. I once knew a physician in a large city who worked for an insurance company. He had to certify deaths, whether they were, so to speak, legitimate. His job made him familiar with the municipal morgue. He told me that his nonviolent way of facing the daily "slings and arrows of outrageous fortune" was to imagine anyone who annoyed him stretched out on a slab. The doctor was, in his way, planning obituaries.
Apart from the risk of using an obit simply to get his own back, the writer is trammeled by a convention. The illustrious always fill the list of the remembrance worthy. They get the space and the detail, as if their last breath was ambrosia. For a change, let's roam among the year's dead -- not the "passed away" or "departed," for heaven's sake -- and make a bouquet of common weeds instead of overblown blossoms.
Demise by Social Media
Amanda Todd died at fifteen. The Canadian schoolgirl killed herself. Weeks before her death she posted a video on YouTube telling how she had been cyber-bullied. In a month the video had been viewed a million and a half times. Amanda's ordeal began when a man in a chat session induced her to send him a picture of her bare breasts. He then circulated it online. Teasing at school ensued. She fell into depression, took to alcohol and drugs, and was too upset to leave her house at all. Gradually she got better. Then the topless photo appeared again on Facebook and the teasing resumed. Amanda changed schools for the second time. Again she recovered and went back to chatting, which led to her having sex with an old acquaintance. His girlfriend was informed and raised a gang that attacked Amanda at school, beating her to the ground. Amanda went home and drank bleach. Quick stomach pumping saved her, but returning from the hospital she found scurrilous accounts of her misfortunes on the social networking sites. Her family took her to live in another city.
Amanda began cutting her body. She had counseling and was given antidepressants. An overdose sent her back to the hospital. When she arrived home this time she took her own life. Hackers got busy and soon named Amanda's tormentor, a man thirty-two. After he received thousands of Facebook death threats, the police proved him innocent. Their further investigations were hindered by endless postings of false information. Scams appeared claiming to raise money for Amanda's family. Two hundred and fifty-thousand students observed a minute of silence in Toronto. A million Facebook users marked "like" on Amanda's memorial page. In New Zealand, however, a seventeen-year-old boy was being investigated for desecrating it. Attack posts haven't stopped. One from a self-described former classmate said, "I'm so happy she's dead now."
Demise by Poetastery
William Walker died at ninety-nine. He was thought to be the oldest surviving Battle of Britain veteran. In August 1940 his Spitfire set out with other aircraft to intercept a large formation of German bombers accompanied by Messerschmitt fighters. His plane was shot up and he bailed out over the Channel. A fishing boat picked him up. On shore a crowd gathered and an old woman stepped forward and presented him with a packet of cigarettes. When a surgeon prized a bullet from his ankle, to everyone's surprise it shot up and hit the ceiling.
Walker went back to work as a brewer after the war and took to writing poetry. He became the oldest ever first-published poet. One of his poems was called Our Wall. "Behind each name a story lies / of bravery in southern skies [...] Though many brave unwritten tales / Were simply told in vapor trails." That creaks as poetry. So does "History became a shining activity on your forehead / Every scene was witness to your heroism and honor. / Your memories are left with me, I am crying." Those lines are Mohammed Zaman Mozamil's from Poetry of the Taliban, edited by Strick Van Linschoten and Kuehn. Each writer spoke of the defense of his homeland from foreign invaders. William Walker's lines have been carved on a stone memorial in England. It's not inconceivable that, ninety-nine years from Mozamil's birth, lines like his will grace a monument in Afghanistan.
Demise by Job Stress
Anthony "Tony" Capo died at fifty-two. His heart couldn't keep pace with his profession. He had served his apprenticeship as an extortionist, loan shark, and -- his special turn -- as a home invader dressed as a cop. By the late 1980s he became a soldier of the DeCavalcantes Mob family of New Jersey. They had been looked down on by the Gambinos and Colombos of New York as country cousins. However, the DeCavalcantes abruptly rose to the top of the crime and entertainment industry when the TV series The Sopranos used them as its model. The F.B.I. had to act and its method was to turn someone inside the Mob. Tony Capo was the man. He had found his larger destiny and would eventually rat on the bosses of the DeCavalcante, Colombo, and Genovese families and throw in a stenographer who was leaking information from the Manhattan office of the US Attorney.
Married with three children, Tony played a good game of golf. A big man with red hair, he prided himself on his appearance and had a weakness for manicures. His bad temper was his principal professional asset. He once not only robbed a safe but shut the owner in it afterward. Another time Tony stabbed a Gambino associate in the eye because he broke into a conversation Tony was having with a woman in a bar. As a Mob hitman he did a number of murders but one stood out, that of his boss, John "Johnny Boy" D'Amato. When in 1992 it was decided D'Amato had to go, Tony and a driver picked him up at his girlfriend's flat in Brooklyn. D'Amato got in the car, sitting in the back. He said, "Let's go eat," and Tony twisted around and shot him four times.
The execution of a family boss should have waited to be approved by the Mafia Commission in New York. But once D'Amato's girlfriend, in a pique, denounced him as bisexual he had to be removed in a hurry. She told of their visits to Manhattan sex clubs where "Johnny Boy" cavorted with all comers. As Tony would testify in 2003, "Nobody's going to respect us if we have a gay homosexual boss sitting down discussing La Cosa Nostra business." Tony had become a government witness to avoid a life sentence for murder. With his wife and children he entered the federal Witness Protection Program.
The Sopranos script writers couldn't resist co-opting the D'Amato murder. Their character Vito Spatafore was killed by two of his associates who caught him at a gay bar. Joseph R. Gannascoli, who played the role on TV, suggested in an interview that the Mafia and homosexuality didn't mix. "Having never been gay or a mobster, I can still tell you that it's got to be hard," he said, "almost like a kind of triple life. Still, you'd figure even mobsters would be getting with the times. My feeling is it doesn't really matter if they're gay. So long as they earn."
Demise by Blind Vengeance
Adnan Farhan Abdul Latif died at thirty-six. He was a Yemeni citizen, married, with children. In 1994 his car crashed and he suffered a head injury that affected his nervous system and left him mentally disturbed. Too poor to pay for treatment in Yemen he sought it in Pakistan. He was arrested there in 2002 in a 9/11-inspired roundup of Arabs and soon found himself in Cuba, a prisoner at the US Guantánamo Bay naval base. He was held in extra judicial detention. Because Washington's "war on terror" operated outside the Geneva Convention and US domestic law, Latif could be held indefinitely without any charges being laid. And so he was. American political leaders competed with each other to show who could wreak the most painful vengeance. It was necessary to make someone pay for standing up to the New World Order. Anyone would do.
Latif was cleared for release by the Bush administration in 2007. However, he stayed put, in Guantánamo. He won his habeas corpus petition in the District Court of Washington, D.C. in July 2010 but the Obama administration immediately lodged an appeal against it. Moreover, the president who had as a candidate during his 2008 campaign promised repeatedly to close Guantánamo now acquired another arm against this sick-to-death prisoner there.
At Christmas 2009, a Nigerian named Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab was stopped before he could blow up a plane flying from Amsterdam to Detroit. On the pretext that he had been recruited in Yemen, the administration declared a moratorium on releasing any Yemeni prisoners from Guantánamo. This meant that fifty-eight Yemenis "approved for transfer" had become political prisoners and the Yemeni people were collectively guilty of a crime that a Nigerian attempted and failed to commit.
Wikileaks revealed a secret prison memo on Latif dated January 2008 that insisted, "Detainee is in overall good health." Why then had he been housed in Guantánamo's psychiatric ward where he was kept subdued but received no treatment? His neurological seizures occurred regularly. When his attorney David Remes officially asked for Latif's medical records and an extra blanket and pillow to cushion his falls, the request was denied. On one visit from Remes, Latif managed to slit his wrists using the sharp edge of broken veneer from a table in the visiting room.
Remes, himself despondent, released a letter from his client that was a howl of despair, signed, "Adnan Farhan Abdulatif while in the throes of death." He had not only been excluded from the American judicial system but written off by a Yemeni regime that toadied to Washington:
In July 2010 Judge Henry H. Kennedy Jr. ordered the Obama administration to "take all necessary and appropriate diplomatic steps to facilitate Latif's release forthwith." Judge Kennedy explained that no evidence had been produced to show Latif belonged to al Qaeda or any similar group. In other words the court decided that for a decade Latif had been telling the truth. September 10, 2012, Adnan Farhan Abdul Latif was found dead in a punishment cell. He had been held at Guantánamo for ten years, seven months, and twenty-five days.
Demise by Diffidence
Barry Unsworth died at eighty-one. He was born in a pit village of County Durham where his father began his working life at thirteen in the mines. It was the part of northeast England that had given birth to the Industrial Revolution. In 1825 the Stephensons opened the Stockton and Darlington Railway that would bring coal to the new factories. It was not a part of the country where a boy could say he wanted to be a writer. Barry, however, was talented and determined. He won a place at both Oxford and Manchester Universities.
That Unsworth chose to be educated in Manchester would seem to have been a choice that would determine his life. He would remain in the working-class tradition, writing novels that reflected the region of his birth. In this scenario, on graduation in 1951 he would have joined the several young Northern writers who had already achieved some renown with proletarian themes: Alan Sillitoe, Stan Barstow, John Wain, and John Braine. However, Unsworth wrote his own script. He shunned them and their subject matter, choosing his first models from the American female writers, Eudora Welty and Carson McCullers. He not only turned his back on the north of England but on the UK altogether and went abroad as a teacher as quickly as he could.
"Look Back in Anger," John Osborne's title, was the battle cry of the young left then. Today we can look back with irony at the path Barry Unsworth wisely chose not to follow. Osborne himself ended as a drunken imitation of an English country squire. On his horse in lordly boots he cantered upward in the Brit class system. Alan Sillitoe began by writing about anarchic factory workers and finished with a number of properties he would visit in succession each year like royalty on tour. He attacked the Soviet Union, where he had repeatedly enjoyed celebrity treatment and book contracts. Then, visiting Israel as often as he had the USSR, he argued that any defense of Palestinians was anti-Semitic. Stan Barstow's working class novels gradually became fusty regional tales that echoed his dislike or fear of "a largely phony jet-age internationalism." He forsook the industrial north for life in pastoral Wales. John Wain shed his bib-and-brace overalls on entering Oxford University and became a freelance jack-of-all-trades never again out of his professorial suit and tie. His politics scurried to the far right like those of all these once "Angry Young Men." They not only made peace with the Establishment; they fought for a place in it. John Braine, who left school at sixteen for work in a factory, became a prominent British crusader for the war in Vietnam.
All of which, to return to our ironies, lets us argue that Barry Unsworth, who didn't march to the Manchester drumbeat of the 1950s, finished life with a worldview not unworthy of the illustrious Mancunian Friedrich Engels. Unsworth was a shy and retiring writer, not given to self-promotion and in consequence sidelined. His novels, however, were full of fierce energy. They were nurtured by landscapes dense with history. The themes were as vast as the eighteenth century slave trade and the decay of the Ottoman, Venetian, and British empires.
In an interview with Boyd Tonkin, Unsworth admitted that he had "lost a feeling for what life is actually like from day to day" in Britain. He no longer liked to return or write about the UK. "It seems to me in many ways a rather ugly little place, although this is the view of an outsider." And a glorious outsider he certainly was. He lived in Umbria by Lake Trasimeno. In 217 BC Hannibal had fought the bloodiest of his battles there on his way to Rome. This magic part of central Italy was far from publishers and their pocket calculators. It held memories of a larger barbarity that kept Barry Unsworth's historical novels from ever stifling in romance.
Demise by Interview
Francisco Fernández Fernández died at one hundred and eleven. A Spanish shepherd known as "Quico," he was reputed to be the oldest man in Europe. After sojourning as an immigrant in Argentina he returned to his native mountains. The salient memories of his life were to have been lost in the snow with his flock as a child and, in late maturity, being studied by the Harvard School of Medicine. His dossier there is difficult to come by. But interviews with the long-lived have become standardized and we can imagine this one with Quico:
To what do you attribute your longevity?
Red wine. Or alternatively: Total abstention from alcohol.
Is sex a factor?
Like sleeping. But watch out for the rams. Or alternately: Your ewe is an understanding companion on long nights in the hills.
Did yogurt help?
You kidding? On top of more sheep's cheese than I could carry? Or alternately: My secret is onions, sweet and raw, the kind the Argentines call Spanish.
And exercise, did you tango in Argentina?
I walked and recommend doing so as little as you can get away with. Or alternatively: Even on rocky terrain I'd clear a space and do my push-ups.
What do you remember of the Civil War?
The funny hats. Each side had its own. I could never figure out which was which. Or alternatively: On Sunday morning I stopped hiding from church and sat, grinning, at the café opposite.
What did you think of the people from Harvard?
They made bad coffee. Or alternatively: Smart. They wanted my nephew to work as janitor.
What do you think of life?
The better choice of the two. Or alternatively: You keep the alternative.
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