All dead, but still alive in endless time and endless art

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.

It’s a different business for cultural figures. The current centenarians played their part – or made their various excuses – in the second World War and then went on to fashion the art of a tumultuous era.

We will hear a fair bit about Dylan Thomas (born October 27th, 1914) over the next 12 months. The thirsty Welsh poet keeled over in New York almost 30 years before Joe Louis left the planet. But such is the rough-edged vibrancy of his verse that he still seems very much of our time. The bohemian culture that ate him up during the blitz years – all those sordid nights in Fitzrovia – maintains a stubborn romance for contemporary artistic layabouts.

The inimitable Alec Guinness (born April 2nd, 1914) occupies a more uncertain position in the current zeitgeist. The actor was always happy to be an old man. Think of him in whiskers for Oliver Twist or in uniform, bustles or clerical collar for Kind Hearts and Coronets. Unlike younger men such as Peter O'Toole or Richard Harris he had little interest in falling off barstools. But Obi-Wan Kenobi in Star Wars keeps him on teenagers' minds forever.

Groovy time
The tricky period for our centenarians was those troublesome 1960s. Straddling their 50th birthdays, the groovy time did not entertain fine actors such as Dorothy Lamour (born December 10th,

1914). Robert Wise (born September 10th, 1914), a great director of the postwar era, fought against the changing culture when his version of The Sound of Music became the most lucrative film of the decade. But Easy Rider and the New Hollywood soon swept Wise into the sidelines (and Star Trek: the Movie).

One among the 1914 mob did, however, survive the 1960s to gain ever-greater levels of cultural traction. William S Burroughs (born February 5th, 1914) left the planet for somewhere less frightening in 1997.

But his scratchy, infected voice and poisonous, unstable prose still seem as unsettlingly contemporary as they did when The Naked Lunch emerged more than 50 years ago. Is it a con? If those weirdly abstract novels had been a little easier to parse then – after a few critical deracinations – he may have seemed like old (black) hat by now. But we're still figuring out the old devil. They'll probably still be squinting awkwardly at his work in 2114.

That’s the way to do it, Bill.