All year long those who listen to the ABC’s Classic FM have been ‘remembering’ the birth years of three composers — Verdi, Wagner and Benjamin Britten — 1813 for the first two and 1913 for Britten. The year built up to the past week’s salute to Benjamin Britten, whose birthday was Thursday, November 22nd. As it happens, BB is not one of my favourite composers, but I listened with interest to a lot of his music I had probably never heard before, and raised him up a few notches on my scoreboard.
Then I realised that November 22nd was also the day on which President Kennedy was shot in Dallas in 1963. It was said at the time that everyone would remember where they were when they heard the news, but that moment is lost to my memory — though I do remember where I was at the end of 1966 when an American PhD student said to me ‘Did you know that your Prime Minister has drowned?’. Kennedy was a mythical, romantic figure to me, and I think that Barack Obama today has something of the same attractiveness to the young. Neither seems to me to have been an especially effective President.
Was Kennedy’s death the day that post-war confidence began to die? I don’t think so — not in Australia, anyway. I was first in the USA in 1965 and 1966 when opposition to the war inVietnam was growing quickly, and it may be the case that in that country the assassination of Kennedy, his brother Robert, and Martin Luther King did have that apocalyptic feeling.
My morning’s reading usually include On Line Opinion, and it had a little piece on the 22nd reminding us of two other deaths on that day in that year, those of Aldous Huxley and C. S. Lewis, both authors I had read a lot in my youth — initially for their science fiction. And that made me wonder who else had died on that day whom I would have known by name. There turn out to have been quite a lot. I can find another half-dozen or so to add to those of 1963:
Mae West (1980) I don’t think I have ever seen a film in which she appeared, however.
Jack Fingleton (1982) And who said that cricket is boring? I’m thinking of the second day of the current Test in Brisbane.
Michael Hutchence (1997) INXS was important as a band when some of my kids were into bands.
Emil Zatopek (2001) He won the 5,000 metres, the 10,000 metres and the marathon at the 1952 Olympic Games. No one else has ever done that, and he is regarded as the greatest runner of all times, in the opinion of many.
Frank Fenner (2010) A very nice man, a microbiologist who ought to have won a Nobel Prize.
Svetlana Stalin (2011) Stalin’s daughter, whose departure for the USA in 1967 caused headlines.
Bryce Courtenay (2012) I met him shortly before he died and heard his last speech, which was light-hearted and enjoyable.
That’s not a bad list. What about those who, like Benjamin Britten, were born on November 22nd? That produces another interesting list:
George Eliot (1819) I mentioned Middlemarch recently. A fine novelist who loved to editorialise.
General Charles de Gaulle (1890) Goodie or baddie? It depends on where you are placed in French politics.
Hoagy Carmichael (1899) Great songwriter, whose ‘Lazybones’, ‘Heart and Soul’ and ‘Stardust’ were among the first songs I learned to play on the piano.
Doris Duke (1912) She was always in and out of the news when I was young. Her great wealth came from her father, who once had a monopoly of the American cigarette market, when the first cigarette-rolling machines became available. in the 19th century.
Terry Gilliam (1940) an actor and film-maker whose zaniness was memorable.
Billy Jean King (1943) a great American tennis-player, and the great rival of Margaret Court. I only ever saw them play on television.
Boris Becker (1967) another of the ‘arguably the greatest’ of the postwar tennis players. I watched on television a great match of his with John McEnroe. I can’t remember who won.
Sport also provides Oscar Pistorious (1986), while theatre and film give us Peter Hall (1930), Geraldine Page (1924), Mariel Hemingway (1961) and Scarlett Johansson (1984). All in all, that’s a pretty impressive list for one day.
And that made me wonder whether, if I were to look at every day would I find an equivalent number, because on the whole it seems unlikely that there is anything special about 22 November. The 22 names of the 22nd, for each day of the year, would give me over 8000 names. So I tried my own birthday, which produced Barack Obama, the late Queen Mother, Louis Armstrong, Shelley, Raoul Wallenberg, and Venn of the diagram, and seven who had died on that day whose names I knew. That’s about half as many. Now I wonder what the average for the year would be, but I’m not going to check.[Trivial footnote: Memory tells me that someone decided to check on the astrological assertion that natural leaders are born under the sign of Leo. This sceptic searched the French Who’s Who and found that, allowing a fairly generous definition of leaders, that they were born in about the same proportion in each month.]