Thursday, August 2, 2012

US author Gore Vidal dies aged 86

US author Gore Vidal dies aged 86
1 August 2012 Last updated at 07:13 GMT

Celebrated writer and political commentator Gore Vidal has died aged 86, his family has confirmed.

He died at his home in Los Angeles on Tuesday evening, with the cause of death believed to be complications from pneumonia.

Gore Vidal produced 25 novels, including the best-selling Burr and Myra Breckenridge, more than 200 essays and several plays.

He also ran for political office twice and was a well-known commentator.

His nephew Burr Steers told US media that his uncle had been ill "for quite a while".

Sir David Frost, who interviewed Vidal, paid tribute to the writer saying he was "a great literary figure".

"He was also an outstanding subject for interviews," he told the BBC.

He was among a generation of literary writers who were also genuine celebrities - fixtures on chat shows and in gossip columns.

His circle included Tennessee Williams, Orson Welles and Frank Sinatra.

He was also closely linked to the Kennedy family, becoming a confidant of Jackie Kennedy, who was his stepsister.

Vidal ran for a seat in Congress in 1960 and again in 1982, but lost both times.

Legendary feuds

He wrote his first book aged 19 and later went on to become one of America's most distinguished authors.

But his career path was not straightforward.

His second book, The City and the Pillar, tackled homosexuality, making it highly controversial at the time.

Bookshops refused to stock it, and he was ostracised for most of the 1950s and forced to work under pseudonyms.

In the late 1950s he began to write under his own name again, working on the screenplay to Ben Hur, among other films.

Eventually in the 1970s and 80s he was widely feted for his historical novels based on the lives of US figures such as Abraham Lincoln.

But he was not always comfortable with the literary and political establishment.

He had long-running spats with his contemporaries, conservative pundit William F Buckley Jr and writer Norman Mailer, whom Vidal once likened to killer Charles Manson.

His feud with Buckley was legendary, with the pair coming to blows several times and trading insults on national television while working as pundits on the 1968 Democratic convention.

He once described Truman Capote as a "filthy animal that has found its way into the house."

Born in 1925, Eugene Luther Vidal was the scion of one of America's grandest political dynasties.

His grandfather, TP Gore, was a senator and his father a one-time Secretary of Aviation under President Franklin D Roosevelt.

He was also a distant cousin of former Vice President Al Gore.

He took his mother's maiden name Gore and used it as his first name.

The 20-year odyssey of Eva Peron's body

The 20-year odyssey of Eva Peron's body
By Linda Pressly BBC Radio 4

Three years after Eva Peron's death 60 years ago, her embalmed corpse disappeared, removed by the Argentinian military in the wake of a coup that deposed her husband, President Juan Peron. It then went on a global odyssey for nearly two decades.

Tall, silvery-haired and precise, Domingo Tellechea has a worldwide reputation for the restoration of art, antiquities - and human remains.

In 1974 he was the expert chosen to make the body of Eva Peron presentable for public display.

These were violent times in Argentina - government death squads targeted radicals, and guerrilla groups attacked so-called "agents of the state". So when he was approached in a bar, alarm bells rang.

"I was talking to a young man who worked there when two guys all dressed in black came in," he recalls.

"They flung the doors open and looked over at us. This was dangerous, because in those days people were being carried off and 'disappeared' and never seen again."

It was a relief when he realised the two men were official drivers, and he remembers how he was driven to the office of someone he knew, Oscar Ivanissevich, formerly Eva Peron's personal physician when she was alive.

"He said to me 'we've got a job for you; you've got to restore the body of Eva Peron'."

If he accepted, Domingo Tellechea knew there could be dangerous consequences.

"To do the work was to put myself in opposition to the people who made the body disappear and a lot of people really wished Evita had never turned up again at all. I knew it could bring me problems," says Domingo.

The people who made the body disappear in 1955 were military officers who took part in the coup that forced Juan Peron into exile.

It was taken in the middle of the night from the Buenos Aires headquarters of the CGT - the largest Peronist trade union in Argentina - where it had remained since the embalming process was finished.

Those who supported Juan Peron believed its removal was part of a systematic attempt to erase Peronism from Argentina, and Evita was the movement's most powerful symbol.

When she was alive she had generated huge popularity for Peron's government, primarily through her work for the poor.

But while she had been adored by millions, she was loathed and despised in equal measure by anti-Peronists. Some of them maintained Evita's embalmed remains had to be removed for their own safety.

Once the corpse was taken, its improbable odyssey began.

It probably spent time in a van parked on the streets of the capital, behind a cinema screen in Buenos Aires and inside the city's waterworks.

Almost certainly, it was stored in the offices of Military Intelligence. But wherever it went, it is said that flowers and lighted candles appeared. Clearly a secure, long-term solution was needed.

In 1957, with the covert assistance of the Vatican, the remains of Eva Peron were taken to Italy and buried in a Milan cemetery under a false name.

Evita was far from Argentina, but she was not forgotten.

"Where is the body of Eva Peron?" asked graffiti that appeared in Buenos Aires. Her power as a symbol of resistance grew.

In 1970, the Montoneros - a Peronist guerrilla group - kidnapped and killed the former president, General Pedro Eugenio Aramburu. They targeted him partly because he had overseen the initial disappearance of Evita's corpse.

By 1971, the military had been in and out of government for over 15 years. But Argentina was economically depressed and far from peaceful.

An attempt was made to try and "normalise" politics. The Peronist Party was legalised, and it was decided the body of Eva Peron would be returned to her widower who lived in exile in Spain.

She was disinterred, driven across Europe, and delivered to Juan Peron at the home he shared with his third wife, Isabel, in Madrid.

Carlos Spadone is a well-known businessman in Argentina. In 1971 he was a confidant of Juan Peron, and was one of the first to see the body in the Spanish capital.

"General Peron, the gardener and I took the body out of the coffin," he remembers. "We lay it on a marble-topped table. Our hands got dirty from all the earth, so the body had to be cleaned.

"Isabel took care of that very carefully with a cotton cloth and water. She combed the hair, and cleaned it bit by bit, and then blow-dried it. It took several days."

The end of one of Evita's fingers was missing. It is believed this was removed after the coup of 1955 because the military wanted to verify these were actually the remains of Eva Peron. Carlos Spadone also thought the body had been repeatedly hit.

"There was a large dent in the nose, and there were blows to the face and chest, and marks on the back," he explains.

"There had also been a serious blow to one knee; but I don't think she had been strung up or whipped, as some people say - I don't believe that."

In 1973, Juan Peron and Isabel returned to Argentina. Juan Peron was elected president with his wife as vice-president.

When he died suddenly the following year, Isabel took over as president and she oversaw the repatriation of Evita's body from Madrid to Argentina

Domingo Tellechea began the restoration of Eva Peron's corpse in a crypt in the presidential residence of Los Olivos on the outskirts of Buenos Aires. The closed coffin of Juan Peron lay close by. He remembers this was a complicated job.

"The feet were in a very bad way - because the corpse was hidden in a standing position. She had one part where there was a wound - I couldn't say if it was made by a weapon, but it was caused by something. That part of the body looked pretty ugly."

Domingo thought the remains might have been squeezed into a coffin that was not big enough.

"If you have a body that's preserved for some reason, even if it's a political or ideological enemy, it's still a preserved body," he says.

"If you crush it into a too-small coffin, or squash its nose, what is that? It's an offence against the corpse. But it wasn't my job to say what caused the damage, although it definitely had no bullet wounds."

But essentially, the original embalming work had stood the test of time.

"There were a lot of marks on the outside of the body, but what you noticed was the internal conservation of the body, because it was very well done," he says.

While he worked on the restoration of Evita's remains, the government of Isabel Peron began to plan the building of a national monument - an Altar of the Fatherland - that would contain both her and the closed coffin of Juan Peron. It was never to be.

When the restoration was complete, the corpse was once again briefly displayed to the public next to her husband's coffin. Photos from the time show a queue outside Los Olivos, but nothing like the two million people who had filed past her coffin when she died in 1952.

Domingo Tellechea left Eva Peron looking unmarked and serene - as if she was resting peacefully. But he would not sleep so easily.

"There were threats… cowardly threats on the phone," he says. "The work I did on the body of Eva Peron was never mentioned directly, but it was the only thing it could have been."

Domingo says he did not feel safe at home without a weapon to guard his children.

In 1976, another military coup deposed the government of Isabel Peron and Argentina would descend into its darkest and bloodiest days - thousands of people would disappear.

Like so many other Argentines, Domingo Tellechea went into exile. He has built a hugely successful international career in art restoration, and still works 10 hours a day.

As for Eva Peron's body, in October 1976 it was finally taken from Los Olivos and placed in her family's mausoleum in Recoleta Cemetery in Buenos Aires. The operation was overseen by the dictatorship.

She lies five metres underground, in a crypt fortified like a nuclear bunker, so that no one should ever again be able to disturb the remains of Argentina's most controversial First Lady.

Evita's Odyssey was broadcast on BBC Radio 4 on Mon 23 July. Listen online at the above link. A download will also be made available as Radio 4's Documentary of the Week.

Australian outlaw Ned Kelly's remains to go to family

Australian outlaw Ned Kelly's remains to go to family - BBC

The remains of Australian outlaw Ned Kelly will be handed to his descendants for burial more than 130 years after he was hanged for murder.

The headless remains of Kelly, who led a gang in Victoria in the late 1800s, were identified last November through DNA tests.

The bones were found in a mass grave outside the former Pentridge Prison.

The site's property developers wanted to keep the remains but Kelly's family wanted the bones returned.

State officials have issued a new licence for exhumation, which means that the developers will not be able to keep the remains for display in a museum, Australian media reported.

"The Kelly family will now make arrangements for Ned's final burial," Ellen Hollow, a great-granddaughter of Kelly's sister, said in a statement.

"We also appeal to the person who has the skull in their possession to return it... so that when the time comes for Ned to be laid to rest his remains can be complete."

Ned Kelly was seen by some as a cold-blooded killer and by others as a folk hero who fought colonial authorities.

The bushranger killed three policemen before being captured in Victoria in 1880 and was hanged for murder at Old Melbourne Jail in November of the same year.

But his body went missing after it was thrown into a mass grave. The bodies in the grave were transferred from the prison to Pentridge Prison in 1929 and then exhumed again in 2009.

The exploits of Kelly and his gang have been the subject of numerous films and television series, including a portrayal by Rolling Stone Mick Jagger in a 1970 film.

Olympics 2012: The secrets behind national anthems

Olympics 2012: The secrets behind national anthems

They are songs of pride and patriotism, booming out at every international sporting fixture and medal ceremony. But behind the world's national anthems lurk some strange and surprising stories, finds Alex Marshal

From Revolution to Risque

Thanks to its rousing tune, France's La Marseillaise is one of the world's most recognisable anthems.

After it was written in 1792, the song quickly spread across Europe, inspiring revolutionaries from Greece to Russia. It has even been part of recent uprisings. It was sung at the Tiananmen Square protests in China.

Unfortunately, its composer never managed a similar level of success. Claude Joseph Rouget de Lisle wrote La Marseillaise in just a few feverish hours, after being asked for a song to inspire French troops preparing for war against Austria.

But over the next 44 years of his life, he never managed another memorable tune.

At one point, he even turned to writing somewhat bawdy lyrics, presumably because he was so desperate for money.

If you visit his museum in the town of Lons-le-Saunier in eastern France, you can see one of those songs on display. Unsurprisingly, half the words are hidden from view in case children are passing.

Same song different country

od Save the Queen, published in 1745, became the first recognised anthem when it was adopted by what was then the Kingdom of Great Britain.

The tune became so associated with nationalism it was soon used by other countries for their anthems too, just with different words.

Liechtenstein still uses it today for its anthem Oben am jungen Rhein (Above the young Rhine). This has led to a degree of confusion when Liechtenstein have played England at football.

You could criticise Liechtensteiners for not having the imagination to come up with their own song.

But then you would also need to criticise the many countries that have taken inspiration from the tune of La Marseillaise for their anthem. Oman and Zimbabwe are two such examples.

A poor man's game

How much do you get paid for writing an anthem, a song that could be played for hundreds of years? Not much, and that is if you are lucky.

George Kakoma, the composer of Uganda's anthem, sued his government for lost royalties shortly before his death. In 1962, he was paid 2,000 Ugandan shillings for the anthem, or just 50p (US78c).

Dusan Sestic, the man behind Bosnia's somewhat sad anthem, did slightly better with 6,000 Bosnian marks (£2,500). He also wrote lyrics for the anthem. However, he'll never be paid for those as, in July, the Bosnian parliament decided to reject them after several years of debate.

Mido Samuel, the composer of the world's newest anthem - South Sudan's - earned nothing except pride for his effort.

Forced silence

Spain's anthem - originally a fanfare for the country's royal family - is famous for having no words. But there are several more without them.

Kosovo's does not have any because the government decided it could not risk offending Serbs who live in the country by having lyrics in Albanian (the language of the majority). What this actually means is that many in Kosovo ignore the song and sing the Albanian or Serbian anthems instead

Maoist Manifestos

If you listen to Nepal's anthem, you would come away thinking it is just a gentle folk tune with lyrics about how all Nepalis are "woven from hundreds of flowers" into one garland. But, in reality, it is one of the most political.

It was written in 2006, at the end of a 10-year civil war and a Maoist-led uprising against the country's king.

The stormy atmosphere at the time goes some way to explaining the treatment of Byakul Maila, the poet who wrote the words.

He had to undergo interviews to prove he was not a royalist, while officials and journalists combed through his background and interviewed friends and family. It sounds almost like he was on trial. His mistake? He had once edited a book of poetry that contained a contribution from the former king.

Some of the Maoists now running the country would still prefer to have a stronger, more revolutionary song as their anthem. During the civil war, they sang the left-wing anthem The Internationale.

Missing verses

Most anthems were originally very long, featuring six or more verses. Today, only a couple are likely to be sung. But the missing verses are often the most revealing about the history of a country.

Just take a look at the full anthems of South American countries. In those, you can see just how happy the countries were to be free of Spanish rule. In Argentina's, the Spanish get called everything from "bloody tyrants" to "vile invaders" who "devour like wild animals" anyone in their path.

In 1900, those lines stopped being sung to avoid causing offence.

100 million record sales and counting

If you read the list of people involved in anthems, three names stick out - Mozart, who wrote Austria's, Haydn, who wrote Germany's, and Lord Burgess, a calypso singer from New York who happened to write that of Barbados.

Most people probably don't know the name. But he has sold over 100 million records. Admittedly, only about 10 of those were under his own name, but he was the songwriter behind Harry Belafonte's greatest successes, including his version of Day-O and Island in the Sun.

He wrote the lyrics to Barbados' anthem simply because he happened to be on holiday in the country once and some people asked him to. There is a lesson in that story for any country looking for a new anthem - invite Coldplay to visit, and then politely harass them when they arrive.

Set to get longer

If anything is going to happen to anthems over the next 10 years, they are going to get longer as people look to make the songs more inclusive. In Israel, for example, there have been calls to change the anthem Hatikvah so it includes the country's Arab population as well as the Jewish one.

But it is hard to see how longer anthems will be accommodated. Under Olympic rules, anthems cannot last longer than 80 seconds so any new words would be in danger of not being sung.