Monday, March 2, 2009

Diarmid Cammell, 1945-2009

Today I received the incomparably sad news that Donald Cammell’s youngest brother, Diarmid Cammell, died this past Friday, February 27, at the age of 63. Becky and I both were fortunate to meet Diarmid some years ago, spending a couple of memorable occasions with him over bottles of fine wine, during the research phase of our book on Donald. We spoke to him on the phone many times during our research, during which he would frequently regale us with stories of his father, Charles Richard Cammell (1890-1968), whom he adored. I suspect that Diarmid’s appearance in this world was something of an unexpected surprise for his father, Charles Richard Cammell, who at the time of his youngest son’s birth was a few months shy of 55 years old; Diarmid’s mother, Iona, was in her mid-40s. Perhaps he was conceived during a celebration toward the end of the second world war.

Reading our book, however, one would think that Diarmid had very little to say about his famous brother, but that was due to Diarmid’s demand that we remove all references to him, and quotes by him, just prior to the book’s publication in April 2006, due to his extreme dislike of the controversial theory we put forth in our book, that his brother Donald suffered from Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD), the result of being sexually molested as a small boy. Diarmid demanded that we remove all references to the years of his youth, when he was a successful child actor on stage and in film, his later career as a photographer in both the UK and Europe, and his personal views of Donald’s films—he loved Demon Seed, thinking it Donald’s best film, had never seen White of the Eye, and detested Performance—he had a strong dislike of Mick Jagger based on a brief run-in with the rock star in the mid-60s, during an occasion when Donald had invited Mick to visit his parent’s home. We were allowed to include in our book a brief mention of his troubling and debilitating mental illness, but beyond this and very few other instances, very little mention of Diarmid remains in the published version of our book. But his views and insights are, nonetheless, reflected throughout, and he was an essential source of information and of contacts.

Diarmid Victor Charles Cammell was born in London on 21 July 1945, the third and youngest child of Charles and Iona Cammell. A precociously gifted child, he achieved early renown as a child actor, appearing on the London stage in one of Robert Bolt’s first plays, The Flowering Cherry (1958), which starred Ralph Richardson and Celia Johnson (and, later, Wendy Hiller), at age 12. Subsequently, he appeared in the Boulting Brothers’ sex comedy A French Mistress (1960), starring the French sex kitten Agnes Laurent, although was mistakenly billed in the film’s credits as David Cammell. He later appeared in an episode of Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Disney, The Prince and the Pauper: The Pauper King (1962). He also appeared on some LP recordings of medieval British plays issued in the early 1960s. When I asked him about his career as a child actor, he dismissed the whole thing, saying it was an “embarrassment,” and refused to talk about it.

In late adolescence, he developed a mental illness that plagued him the rest of his life. He told me it was manic-depression, and after one particularly violent episode, he was jailed for his behavior. One person told us she remembered him ranting he had “the power of God,” while another told us he at times could hardly care for himself. Certainly he had some form of mania, based on the anecdotes Donald’s friends and acquaintances related. In an email one time he referred to his illness as “the curse” of his existence. But in the 1960s, he became a reasonably good photographer, living for a time in France with Patrick and Mijanou Bauchau, whom he spoke very highly of, and for a short time with Donald and Deborah in Paris, this prior to Donald and Deborah’s break-up late in 1967. As I understand it, his first marriage failed; his second marriage also failed, but a lovely child was born, Karima. Because of his second marriage, he spent the majority of his life in the United States, in and around the Bay Area of San Francisco. He attended the University of California at Berkeley, studying both Arabian culture and the Arabic language; he would later serve as translator of Arabic texts for various scholarly studies.

I first met him in a pub in Berkeley in 1999, accompanied by his brother David, whom I had arranged to meet in San Francisco earlier that day. The night I met him, Diarmid was in fine form. He spoke of his brother Donald’s film career, insisting that Donald should never have given up painting, for which his talents were ideally suited. He talked about staying up all night helping Donald prepare for his first painting exhibition, in London in 1959. He strongly disliked Performance, claiming that the reason the film couldn’t get released was because Mick Jagger couldn’t act, which is why Jagger is in the film for so little of its running time (a controversial thesis, to be sure). He claimed on the first night I met him, and many times after, that he thought Donald’s finest film was Demon Seed, which he greatly admired; he hadn’t seen White of the Eye, and I don’t believe he ever saw it, or Wild Side, either. He spoke fondly of his visits to Los Angeles when he would stay with Donald and China in that little house on the hill on Crescent Drive, saying that he always appreciated the fact that on the occasion of his visits, Donald would always have fine bottles of red French wine available for consumption. But there was an age difference between the two, of eleven years, and Donald’s life took a much different direction than his. I believe the age difference separated him emotionally from his older brothers; brotherly love was there, but they were not extremely close.

Our BPD thesis, as put forth in our biography of Donald, both offended and angered him. As one who—despite his mental illness—believed in good old Cartesian common sense, he found our BPD thesis an instance of what he said was the “liberal disease” and thought that we had utterly no idea what his brother Donald was all about. He demanded that all references to him, and all quotations by him, be removed. But it is important to know that Diarmid was extremely conservative: he was, for instance, the English translator of Jean-Francois Revel’s post-9/11 attack on European complacency in the face of terrorism, Anti-Americanism (2003), a book whose purpose was to defend America against its European detractors. (Revel is famous for authoring many years ago the book Without Marx or Jesus, a positive social critique of the America of the 1960s.) Diarmid became a conservative reactionary in his final years, but then again, according to many individuals we interviewed during the writing of our book, so did his brother Donald.

According to Diarmid’s very good friend, Carol Staswick—a lovely person who wrote us this afternoon with the news of his death—Diarmid realized he had liver problems by the spring of last year and had made a valiant effort to get well. But it may have been too late, and in any case, after some months without alcohol, he went somewhat manic, and that drove him back to the wine, and to developing an alternative theory about his physical condition. He was never quite normal, she said, since some time in September of last year. I found some comfort in Carol’s observation that Diarmid seemed to be at peace with his life, and despite his illness he said he had enjoyed the past year. When she finally called the ambulance, several days ago, things went very fast, which, she said, “was merciful.” Diarmid died this past Friday, February 27, 2009.

She told us, though, that despite his frustration with our BPD thesis, Diarmid read our book and found it quite well done, and had meant to write us praising it, but alas, he never did; nor shall he ever. The last I spoke to him was probably three years ago this month. I feel deeply saddened by the news of his death; as I write these words, I feel like lead. I am thinking of his father’s second book of memoirs, Heart of Scotland (1956), in which he proudly speaks of his son Diarmid’s birth, and his son’s love of all things Scottish. And now I write of his death. I can think only of a paraphrase of the statement made by the Beat comedian Lord Buckley many years ago, that people are the flowers of life. Diarmid Cammell was one of the more unusual, but lovely, flowers I have happened to come across in this, the short stroll in the garden that we call our life. A wonderful photo of Diarmid as a young man can be found here, on his lovely daughter’s, Karima’s, blogspot, a site which I only found today. I’m so glad I did.


Castle in the Air said...

Dear Sam,
Thank you for your kind posts regarding my father and his recent passing.
I must say that I'm a little disturbed by your thesis pertaining to my uncle Donald (who was no doubt disturbing). I never know why creativity and bizarre/aberrant behavior needs to be explained away using acronyms.
My life is full of characters and I suppose I am more comfortable not trying to guess why.
At any rate, it was a pleasure to read a bit about my family and I am grateful that you are keeping track of these things.
With best wishes,

Michael Downes said...

I've often wondered what happened to Diarmid since meeting him by chance in London 40 years ago. He was going out with a beautiful girl studying at the French Lycee in South Kensignton. Couldn't understand why he broke off with her. I remember challenging him to a race down a London street - he only just won. Those were very innocent days.

Anonymous said...

Dear Sam,
Readers of 'Heart of Scotland' must be very few and far between these days, so as someone who has almost finished reading it I just wanted to say hello across the Pond. I got to the book via Karima's lovely book just out called 'Pirate & Hoopoe' and Cammell's connection with the Druid movement. I will be writing an article on this at some point which will go up on
Thank you for filling out some details for this research in your post.
Best wishes,
Philip Carr-Gomm

Schneido said...

I drove cab with Diarmid in Berkeley in the late 70s. Very charming and witty man. Good chess player (better than me). I was very sorry to read of his passing.

Schneido said...

I drove cab with Diarmid in Berkeley in the late 70s. Very charming and witty man. Good chess player (better than me). I was very sorry to read of his passing.