Mon | Jan 22, 2018

Tony Deyal | At death's door

Published:Saturday | January 13, 2018 | 12:00 AM

The newspaper headline announcing the death of a former president of Trinidad and Tobago, Professor George Maxwell Richards, blazoned, 'MAX IS DEAD'. One of my Facebook friends was appalled. She called it, "Classless, uncouth and beneath the dignity of a rag" and was supported by more than 60 other people.

I can understand the sentiment.

When I was at university doing a degree in journalism, we all had to spend time trying to master the different skills and jobs that are the staples or backbone of the business. One of these is writing obituaries or articles that report the news of a recent death of a person with an account of the person's life, and if possible, information about when and where the funeral will take place.

I was in the obituaries section or our class newspaper when Sir Noel Coward died. Wikipedia describes Sir Noel as "the famous English playwright, composer, director, actor and singer known for his wit, flamboyance, and what Time magazine called 'a sense of personal style, a combination of cheek and chic, pose and poise'."

 

BITING WIT

 

I only knew Sir Noel for his biting wit. He was not an opera fan and said, "People are wrong when they say opera is not what it used to be. It is what it used to be. That is what's wrong with it." Some of his other quips included, "I like long walks, especially when they are taken by people who annoy me", "I have a memory like an elephant. In fact, elephants often consult me," and "I don't believe in astrology. The only stars I can blame for my failures are those that walk about the stage."

Even though the Internet and Google were not around at that time and I was using an old Smith Corona, I proudly pounded out my story with what I believed was the crowning glory, a funny and appropriate headline befitting a famous and sparkling wit. I wrote, "Curtains for Coward." It was almost curtains for me. Our print journalism lecturer was livid. He fretted and fumed, cussed and quarrelled, raved and ranted about my poor taste and disrespect, my smart-aleck and impertinent approach to life and people, and went on for a long, long time. At one stage in the dressing-down, I wanted to tell him, "Prof, at least I made the deadline," but figured that would add to the bonfire of vanities that he perceived as my undoing.

I wonder what he would have done to the writer of the 'MAX IS DEAD' or other headlines that preceded it about other deaths throughout the world. The Sun: 'He was 42 and alone. KING ELVIS DEAD'. Sunday Express: 'The Queen Mother Is Dead'. The Dallas Times Herald: 'PRESIDENT DEAD'. Then the most deplored of all, 'Marilyn Dead' and 'Diana Is Dead'. In fact, another Diana headline was even worse than the previous one: 'Diana Was Still Alive Hours Before She Died'.

Of course, few people complained about 'Hitler Dead' or even 'Castro Dead'.

 

CONSERVATIVE CULTURE

 

The fact is that I can see both sides of the issue. We Caribbean people tend to be very conservative and what is called 'proper' about the way we deal with issues and personalities.

Below-the-belt remarks about a prime minister, and worse, his mother, in a region where people have been killed for insulting the mothers of their murderers, are inevitably frowned upon. Seeming to be too flippant about death is another.

When I was growing up, everybody listened to the death news on radio, and those who lived in areas where the newspaper was available and could afford one read the obituaries and death news religiously. It was a major subject of discussion in rum shops and taxis, even when we were not sure about the pronunciation of the names or facts. I remember a lady announcing, "All youh hear Dog dead?" It turned out to be Dag Hammarskjold, the UN secretary general.

I tend to be less religious and tell people that at my age, what I do is remain in bed until the newspaper is delivered and then quickly open it to the obituary page which I scan carefully. If my name is not in it, I get up and go about my business.

As I thought about the death news, the only radio station in Trinidad for a long time was Radio Trinidad. Its popular death announcements always ended, "Friends and relations are kindly asked to accept these intimations." For the benefit of the announcers who, it was assumed, already knew the words, the phrase was abbreviated.

A regional media hero, Frank Pardo, in his youth and anxious to get a job as a radio announcer, was getting a try-out at the station, and among his tests was reading the death announcements. After completing the last one with a long East Indian name which he pronounced perfectly, Frank then paused and said in his most English upper-class voice, "FARAKATATI." Frank was mortified but still got the job. He must have felt like the famous Hollywood producer, Sam Goldwyn who said, "If I could drop dead right now, I would be the happiest man alive."

People like Frank who dealt with death using the appropriate tone and demeanour are now absent, lost, or presumed dead. We have entered a different world where respect, manners and gentility seem to be lost. One of my favourite jokes is about an army sergeant major. His lieutenant told him, "Look, Private Smith's mother is dead and I want you to break the news gently to him." The sergeant, who was in charge of the daily parade, started with his ritual inspection of the troops. "Straighten your hat, Brown! Jones, your shoes are dirty. One hundred push-ups. Smith, your mother died last night."

Poor Smith. He collapsed and had to be taken to the hospital.

A few weeks later, Private Smith's father died and again the sergeant major had to break the news to the poor man. His lieutenant warned him, "I'm watching you. I want you to break the news gently to Smith. Remember what happened the last time, so if you mess up this time, you'll be demoted to corporal."

Out on the parade ground, the sergeant major called his men to attention. "All those whose fathers are still alive take one step forward," he roared. Then he shouted, "Private Smith, where the hell you think you going?"

- Tony Deyal was last seen recalling the words on a dentist's tombstone: "Stranger approach this spot with gravity, John Brown is filling his last cavity."