[lit-ideas] Re: The Glory That Was the Obits

  • From: David Ritchie <ritchierd@xxxxxxxxxxxxx>
  • To: <lit-ideas@xxxxxxxxxxxxx>
  • Date: Wed, 19 May 2004 11:39:34 -0700

    I have been cleaning out my mail box and, since cleaning things out is
to me much like writing--more fun done than in the doing--I have been
reading "Daily Telegraph" obits, left here by my father and stuffed away to
await a suitable day.  Now before Judy or someone lays into me with a "How
could someone who graduated from the left-wing University of Sussex read the
Daily Torygraph," I will acknowledge that there is in these pages a little
too much "little wifey-ness" for my taste.  This, for example, "Mary
Manningham-Buller, always a devoted wife, provided the sanctuary of a
notably happy home and family.  She also supported [her Conservative M.P.
husband] with grace and charm blah, blah..."

I hear a deep, Disney voice, "Welcome to the wonderful world of the Daily
Torygraph."

    But--dropping the Disney voice --it *is* a wonderful world.  Hubert
Robert Harry Gregg is not a name familiar to most people, right?  "During
the war Gregg served in the ranks of the Lincolnshire Regiment, and while on
leave in 1944 he composed 'Maybe It's Because I'm a Londoner.'  It took, he
later recalled, just 20 minutes to write.  The best known version of the
song is by Bud Flanagan, although it has been recorded by Arthur Askey (a
Liverpudlian), Danny Kaye, Kirk Douglas, Burt Lancaster and the Omsk
Siberian Choir (who sang it in Russian.)"  Who knew that somewhere out there
in the dusty racks of a used record store can be found the rare, very
collectible Omsk version of "Maybe It's Because I'm a Londoner"?

    The obit for Lise Villameur, who died at age 98, is the kind of
adventure story I read when I was a boy, a tale of heroism and Resistance.
But this one is true.  Under the code name "Odile," Villameur was one of the
first SOE [Special Operations Executive] agents dropped into France.  She
formed a Resistance circuit code named "Artist," which was headquartered in
the apartment she rented, next to Gestapo headquarters in Poitiers.  (She
reasoned that it was a busy street, on the way to the train station, so
comings and goings might be less noticeable there).  When the Germans rolled
up other local circuits--Scientist, Prosper and Bricklayer--she extricated
herself and returned to London to help train others.  When she recovered
from a broken leg--suffered while showing folk how to parachute--she
returned to France and worked just behind the German defenders in Normandy,
helping attack columns and so on.  One time she was stopped and searched
while carrying radio crystals.  They were not found.  In later life she
married an artist, Gustav Villameur and lived in St. Tropez.

    And then there is the obit for Alistair Cooke.  I once aspired to be
Alistair Cooke.  To me the parallels were clear: same first degree, non-U
background, voice that people like...  Only problem was, he had done an
excellent job of inventing Alistair Cooke himself, and wasn't likely to
relinquish the role any time soon.  Why "inventing"?  Alfred Cooke was born
in Salford, the son of a metalworker who later sold insurance and became a
lay Methodist preacher, and a mother from Lancashire who had a Protestant
Irish background.  During the First World War American soldiers were
billeted with the Cooke household in Blackpool.  On a scholarship to
Cambridge, Cooke listed his pet hates, "punctuality, spirits and the English
gentleman."  Perhaps these facts steered him towards America, but it was a
postgraduate bursary for scholarship at Yale and then Harvard which brought
him here.  He had a small role in the preparation of H.L.Mencken's "American
Language."  By 1934 he was in Hollywood and Charlie Chaplin was to be his
best man when he wed Ruth Emerson, great-grand-niece of Ralph Waldo Emerson.
On the day, Chaplin failed to show.  Perhaps by way of compensation, he
offered Cooke the job of assistant director on "Modern Times."  Cooke turned
him down.  

    The repeated theme in Cooke's obit was that the BBC, with whom Cooke was
in the final years on "distant and prickly terms," and British publications
gnerally, paid Cooke very little; it was the T.V. series "America: A
Personal History" and the accompanying book that made Cooke wealthy.  Two of
the things I didn't know: Cooke was invited to speak to address Congress,
one of only three people who were born outside the U.S. to have done so (the
other two were Lafayette and Sir Winston Churchill), and Cooke, a talented
jazz pianist, made a record in 1953.

    I bet I find it right beside the Omsk version of...

David Ritchie
Portland, Oregon 

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