Brave men of their word

Where the courage of Tom Lubbock and Héctor Abad Gómez came together was in writing unflinchingly in the face of death

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Two brave men are the subject of this week’s column. One I knew on and off for more than 30 years, never particularly well, although we were at school and university together; the other I could never have known, as he lived and died in Colombia while I was growing up in England. Tom Lubbock, the art critic of The Independent, who died a few weeks ago from brain cancer, was one of the most stubbornly individual people I have ever come across. He defied convention and authority from an early age; he was surely the most spectacularly, even ferociously, unkempt schoolboy ever seen at Eton, or at least not expelled from the place; at Cambridge he had the appearance of a late 19th-century Russian anarchist, rather like one of the characters from Conrad’s The Secret Agent, only much more gleeful. As a courageous and independent-minded critic he feared absolutely nothing, no reputation or institution or received opinion; Damien Hirst and Paul Gauguin were two artists he savaged in devastating essays in the last couple of years.

You might think the courage of Héctor Abad Gómez, the Colombian professor of public health assassinated by army-backed paramilitaries in 1987, and subject of a moving memoir (Oblivion, published in the UK by Old Street) by his son Héctor Abad, was of a somewhat different kind, or of a different order. Abad Gómez was not so much an anarchist as a socialist; he came to realise that the public-health problems he was confronted with in Colombia were primarily political in origin. He campaigned not just for health but for social justice, in the teeth of official disapproval, threats and eventually murderous persecution.

Where the courage of Tom Lubbock and the courage of Héctor Abad Gómez came together was in the way they faced death, their own imminent death. A couple of months before he died, Lubbock published a remarkable autobiographical essay about his experience of living, and dying, with the disease which was not only killing him but robbing him of the power of speech. You might think this would be almost unbearable to read but it wasn’t – or it was and it wasn’t. For a start it was a model of lucidity, as Lubbock’s writing invariably was – of lucidity achieved against unimaginable odds. And then it was also – another Lubbock trademark – entirely lacking in self-pity.

What you might have expected to emerge as the misery memoir to end all misery memoirs turned out to be a curiously impersonal yet beautiful, philosophical reflection on the way identity is bound up with language. As language left him, Lubbock described a journey into a strange country which practically no one has ever charted. As he was dying, he was also discovering – in fact corroborating what certain scientists and philosophers, without personal experience, had guessed – that thought can exist without words. And at the end Lubbock, unusually for him, moved from prose into poetry (he was a fine visual artist, and especially maker of collages, as a recent exhibition at the Victoria Miró gallery made clear).

The courage of Héctor Abad Gómez also shone most brightly as he approached his death. In the last few years of his life, having been forcibly pensioned off by the university where he had taught for more than 30 years, he threw himself, as chairman of the Committee for the Defence of Human Rights of Antioquia, into exposing the atrocities carried out daily as Colombia became the world’s most dangerous country (it is much safer now). As his son puts it, Abad Gómez had realised that the greatest killer of all, greater even than the diseases he had spent his life combating – cholera, malaria, TB – was violence. Abad Gómez wrote dozens of articles and letters naming and shaming and accusing those guilty of carrying out, or aiding and abetting, the torture and murder of people who had committed no crime. He began to describe himself as, and to outline the vocation of, poliatrist – the healer of the city.

It is a vocation Plato would have understood and approved, and Plato would also have approved this sentence from the last article Abad Gómez wrote, on the day of his death in August 1987: “We are living in a time of violence and this violence is born out of inequality. We could have much less violence if the world’s riches, including science, technology and morality – those great human creations – were spread more evenly.” Plato in The Republic, after all, had defined the bad rule of oligarchy as that in which the city “becomes two cities, one comprising the rich and the other the poor; who reside together on the same ground and are always plotting against each other”.

What Tom Lubbock and Héctor Abad Gómez had in common was the quality of being true to their word – writing unflinchingly and courageously in the face of death.

harry.eyres@ft.com

More columns at www.ft.com/eyres

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