All dead, but still alive in endless time and endless art
Dylan Thomas: the bohemian culture that ate him up retains a stubborn appeal for modern layabouts. Photograph: Picture Post/Hulton
What are centenaries for? The cynic might suggest such events provide fodder for columnists desperate to ease brains into gear during the aftermath of protracted seasonal celebrations. The really big ones provide employment for curators and tour operators. You’re probably still wearing your “Benjamin Britten 100” underpants and your “Century of Vivien Leigh” T-shirt from last year.
Even the most grudging misanthrope should, however, admit that these celebrations can serve to educate the young and honour the distinguished dead. The current year will, of course, be dominated by commemorations of the first World War. There will be less uneasiness about acknowledging the many Irish dead than there was 50 years ago. The airwaves will be alive with documentaries about Balkanisation and the demise of the Austro-Hungarian empire. This seems very worthwhile.
It will also be intriguing to ponder the array of famous people whose centenaries are set to occupy space in this year’s features sections. In earlier decades these celebrations dealt almost exclusively with folk who had been dead for decades. Whole new eras had begun in the interim. Now, we quite reasonably note – sometimes nonchalantly, sometimes with astonishment – that, had fate been kinder, the person could still be with us.
Those who remember Patrick O’Brian (born December 12th, 1914), author of an untouchable series of nautical adventures, pottering about Trinity College Dublin in the late 1990s will find it easy to imagine him raising a glass to his own century. It helps that the Aubrey-Maturin novels finally escaped cult status and achieved mainstream success only during the decade before his death in 2000. The great man entered this century in positively voguish form.
Racially tinted battles
By way of contrast, it seems inconceivable that Joe Louis (born May 13th, 1914) could still be with us. The great boxer, a key figure in African- American history, survived until 1981. But our key images of the Brown Bomber date back to the 1930s. It was during those interwar years that – in racially tinted battles to compare to those of Jesse Owens – he fought two key fights against German bruiser Max Schmeling. Poorly served in later years by managers and tax authorities, Louis exists for us in black-and-white newsreel.
Sportsmen are unlucky that way. The primary career is usually over some time before middle age sets in. Unless the player has served time as a manager or pundit, he or she will often be memorialised as an avatar of distant times.