x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

A time to mourn

Two high-profile deaths, one expected and one utterly unexpected, shocked in equal measure.

Two high-profile deaths, one expected and one utterly unexpected, shocked in equal measure. The passing of the reality TV star Jade Goody in a maelstrom of publicity happened quietly and in her sleep, for which we must be thankful. One of the most distressing episodes in her long drawn out battle with cervical cancer was her panic when the pain raged out of control. In the end, she just went to sleep and didn't wake up and there was a frisson of shock that such a larger-than-life character had really gone.

For all her faults, she was held in great affection by many people and it is significant that in her wedding dress with her bald head, she looked quite beautiful and ethereal. She is unlikely to rest in peace, however, as there is an unseemly scramble to make a movie about her life and to rush out an old autobiography with a new title. Catch a Falling Star, Goody's second book, has been retitled Jade: Fighting to the End. The publisher says the profits will go to her sons, but the family is not best pleased.

The actor Stephen Fry described Goody as "a kind of Princess Di from the wrong side of the tracks", which at first seemed to me to be an over-the-top sentiment, but it appears that certain sections of the public will not be denied its mourning spectacle with its mounds of fresh flowers, sad little notes, teddy bears and weeping fans, all captured for posterity by camera crews. One positive outcome of her death is undeniable. Some hospitals are reporting a 20 per cent increase in the numbers of young women coming forward to be checked for cervical cancer. Goody admitted that she ignored several letters warning her that she needed to have abnormal cells removed.

The death of the actress Natasha Richardson after a freak skiing accident is no less of a warning to others, in this case to seek immediate hospital treatment for head injuries. It shouldn't matter that she was beautiful, blonde and talented and deliriously in love with her handsome husband, the actor Liam Neeson with whom she has two fine sons, but it does make the pictures in the newspapers all the more poignant.

It was painful to witness the anguished look in Neeson's eyes as he mourned his lovely wife or to read about how Richardson's mother Vanessa Redgrave stroked her face and sang the song Edelweiss to her daughter in her last minutes. The veteran actress performed the song from The Sound of Music at her wedding. If ever there was a reminder that death does not respect humans, it was these two passings. It makes you want to go out and hug your children and your parents and anybody you care about and to live every day as if it was your last.

When I was a young reporter I covered the 40th anniversary of D Day in Normandy, France attended by the President of the United States, Ronald Reagan, and Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth ll. It was a solemn and dignified occasion and one couldn't help being moved by the sight of rows and rows of white crosses on beautifully tended graves, many of them looked after by French schoolchildren. As the wife of a former officer in the Parachute Regiment I was particularly interested in the airborne landings and went to a ceremony at Pegasus Bridge, near where the first paratrooper touched down. There I met a lovely old French farmer who claimed to be the first person to greet the soldiers as a young boy. Every year since then he held a party in one of his barns to entertain the surviving airborne troops.

What was so touching was the way those old soldiers were cherished by the local people, along with the dead, which is why, along with many others, I was so disappointed with the UK's Ministry of Defence for turning down an appeal from D Day veterans' associations to help the dwindling band of "old and bold" pay their respects one last time for the 65th anniversary on June 6. It was particularly galling that the UK prime minister Gordon Brown did not intend to go.

And then President Obama, with a sureness of touch, announced that he would be attending and, lo and behold, Mr Brown does a U turn and the funds are suddenly going to be made available to finance the trips. It was a huge misjudgement of public feeling by the UK government and for them to understand that ordinary people, while they might object to the wars, have always supported the warriors. The US has always recognised its obligation to the men and women it sends into battle, with its GI Bill, whereby military personnel returning from conflict zones get all sorts of help and retraining along with low cost loans to help set them up again. The UK government lags badly behind and, having closed its special military hospitals, it puts wounded servicemen into state-run National Health hospitals, where they are at risk of being abused by anti-war protesters.

In recent years the UK government's attitude towards milestone anniversaries has been that we can't go on making a fuss every five or 10 years about a war that ended in 1945. You've had your 60th and that's your lot. The row over the 65th just goes to show that if they don't, while there are still white-haired veterans prepared to pin on their medals proudly and remember fallen comrades, the politicians of whatever party will end up with very bloody noses.

The young Chinese concert pianist Lang Lang was in sparkling form after his brilliant concert at the Emirates Palace last week. A most engaging young man with oodles of natural charm and a maturity beyond his 26 years, he has not become big-headed or super-sophisticated despite having been feted in the world's top concert halls. At dinner, he enthused about the numbers of talented youngsters from China that will soon be snapping at his heels. He clearly spends a great deal of time encouraging them and he laughed about how they all think he's an old man. One young prodigy of about 13 played for him and then asked him for advice. "I told him to stop practising," joked Lang Lang. "I don't want them getting to be better than me."

Also at dinner was another superstar, the very modest Glenn Close, who describes herself firmly as an actress rather than an actor. "I know actor is a stronger word but I've always said actress because that's what I am," she said. Her husband David Shaw, a businessman in biotechnology, was off at a conference that evening. I asked her how her artistic life and his mixed and she said it was "challenging". "I am very much a right-brain artist and he is very much a left-brain linear thinker. We have to come up with a common language. With my people (she meant thespians) we tumble over each other and can finish each other's sentences. He is always telling me to finish my sentences."

In my interview with Andrea Bocelli published on Tuesday, I wrote about a concert version of the opera Faust he was to appear in at the Teatro Massimo in Palermo, Sicily. Unfortunately, a strike by opera workers scuppered both of the scheduled performances. Italian opera workers have been fighting with the government for several years now over public money to help theatre production. Consequently, national opera houses such as Milan's La Scala have suffered from last-minute strikes. Fortunately for Bocelli fans in the UAE, a spokesman for the Abu Dhabi Music & Arts Festival (ADMAF) assures me that the virtuoso's concert at the Emirates Palace on Friday will not be affected.