In memory of fast wit

There is always a particular sadness when someone one has known since high-school dies.  If the friend dies young, then the absurdity and the fundamental lack of fairness of our earthly existences are manifest again. If the friend dies in middle age, however, there is a different type of unfairness, since at least they were able to fulfill some of their potential, even if not all. If the friend dies near to 50 and is recently married and with a young child, then it seems that what was not fully realized includes their relationships with their family. In other words, it is not only unfair for the friend that they died before their time, but unfair for their family, whose lives also will now include tragedy.

Friends as well as family are sad, since we are unable now to enjoy the company of the deceased.  In the case of my school-friend Tony Meale, who has died quickly after an unexpected illness,  the pleasure of his company was particularly great. He was one of the funniest people I have ever met. All of his comments – razor-sharp and rapid-firing – were delivered with the deadest of pans, and thus were often confusing to those who did not know him well. The straight face fronting the dry, sardonic sarcasm, of course, made any comment deemed offensive by the listener very plausibly deniable, which may or may not have been his intention. His straight face may also have been because he did not necessarily see the humour himself.  I am convinced that truly eccentric people almost never believe themselves to be eccentric – they think it is they who are perfectly normal, and the other 99.9% of the population who are askew – and TM was perhaps one of these. In any case, one did not ever spend long in his company before doubling over in laughter, something all of us who knew him experienced. Perhaps he inherited his ability from his uncle, also renowned for being a mordant wit.

I can count on two imperial hands the people I have met with Tony’s sharp and rapid wit. Indeed, I want to list them here in order of encounter, for the benefit of any fifth millenium readers: Pam H, John McBurney, Tony Meale, Steve R, Tererei Munyaradzi, Reg Ngonyama, Jezza G, Henry Van Demark, Si P, Andrew T, Trevor Bench-Capon, William N, Alister M. (I use full names only for those who have passed on.) Although important only to me and (perhaps) to my close friends, I want to acknowledge Tony’s membership of this select and awesome circle.

On one never-forgotten occasion in Canberra almost 30 years ago one of these fast-witted friends encountered another, and the verbal fireworks were stunning and immediate. The two are very different in gender, age, education, social position, interests, and background. One would not have predicted that they would spark as they did. As part of a larger group, they first each recognized one another’s verbal dexterity, and then – instinctively, and without explicit co-ordination – engaged in a game attempting to outwit one another, with each utterance issued as both clever and funny reply to what came before, and as a challenge to the other to best it. Were it were not for the fact that both their spouses were present, we would have thought they were flirting, despite the generational difference in age. The rest of us retired from the conversation as this duel proceeded, in laughter and awe. It was similar, I imagine, to watching Dorothy Parker and Robert Benchley spark at the Algonquin. They’ve not met since, and perhaps such a performance was a product of its particular moment, and could not be repeated.

TM’s untimely death brought that ancient evening again to mind.

And though the after world will never hear
The happy name of one so gently true,
Nor chronicles write large this fatal year,
Yet we who loved you, though we be but few,
Keep you in whatsoe’er things are good, and rear
In our weak virtues monuments to you.”

From Sonnet IV, To W.P., by George Santayana.

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