Remembering P.J. O’Rourke

P.J. O’Rourke, the writer and humorist has died aged 74. He styled himself as a Republican but was generally loved by all sides of the political divide as an hilarious curmudgeon. According to his publisher the cause of death was complications arising from lung cancer. So not prostate cancer but I think PJ showed us how to live in a dignified manner with this dreadful disease and be funny at the same time.

If you’re not familiar with his work, it was not all political. One of his first books ‘Modern Manners: An Etiquette Book for Rude People’ contains the quote ‘A hat should be taken off when you greet a lady and left off for the rest of your life. Nothing looks more stupid than a hat’. As someone who regularly wears a hat this always got a laugh from me.

Back in 2008 he announced he had contracted a very treatable form of anal cancer. In an article in the LA times titled ‘Give me liberty and give me death’ he wrote in typical PJ style: ‘I’m told I have a 95% chance of survival. Come to think of it, as a drinking, smoking, saturated-fat hound, my chance of survival has been improved by cancer’. He also wondered why God couldn’t have given him a more dignified form of the disease.

I had the good fortune to meet PJ in Somalia in 1993. The US had sent troops as part of a peacekeeping effort to help the war-torn country. Incessant warfare had led to the destruction of the agriculture system and there was widespread famine.

Initially the troops were welcomed by the locals, though that welcome didn’t last long as anyone who has seen the movie ‘Black Hawk Down’ will know. At the time I was working for ABC News and where the marines go, journalists are sure to follow. Around thirty of us lived in a walled villa on the outskirts of the capital, Mogadishu. This was to be the first of my three visits to the country and definitely the most pleasant.

PJ showed up soon after I arrived. He was writing for Rolling Stone and doing radio slots for ABC. He insisted on chewing the local drug Khat, a kind of natural amphetamine, while the rest of us were drinking whiskey. He was utterly charming, and I discovered he had a great love of poetry. This will sound incredibly pretentious, but I remember he and I quoting half-remembered verses from WH Auden and WB Yeats at each other. Anyway, don’t blame me, blame the whiskey.

He went on to write about Somalia saying: ‘Imagine a weight-loss program at the end of which, instead of better health, good looks, and hot romantic prospects, you die. Somalia had become just this kind of spa’.

Now PJ has died, and the world is a sadder much less funny place for it. Following his first cancer diagnosis he looked at the nature of death and his own mortality and had a parting thought: ‘Thus, the next time I glimpse death … well, I’m not going over and introducing myself. I’m not giving the grim reaper first daps. But I’ll remind myself to try, at least, to thank God for death. And then I’ll thank God, with all my heart, for whiskey’.

Cancer got him in the end, but he remained a man who lived and died with dignity and perhaps a glass of whiskey in his hand. RIP PJ.

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