RIP April 2018

The oldest living spider was snuffed out in April. Number 16, as it was known, probably died from a wasp sting. Plenty more were swept aside by the Reaper: some in suspicious circumstances.

It’s always interesting – revealing? – to see what catches the conventional media’s eye. That once-great magazine Time, now as cluttered with click-bait garbage as any other journal or newspaper, gave top-billing to the dead spider (snuffed out in Australia at the supposed age of 43), but you have to search it high and low for coverage of the death of Maksim Borodin, the Russian investigative journalist. He ‘fell’ from his fifth-floor apartment in Yekaterinburg at the age of 32. The suspicion is that he was pushed and murdered by people who resented his stories covering the shadowy Wagner Group, a bunch of mercenaries used by Russia in Syria as a “deniable asset”.

Borodin had already been hit on the head with an iron bar for daring to give an interview about the film Matilda, a costume drama which depicts the last Tsar as a bumbling fool. You’d imagine that correct portrait would go down well in today’s Russia – but the Russian Orthodox Church made the Tsar and his family saints in 2000, so anything that criticises the former royal family gets you into trouble with the Orthodox nutters. Borodin’s ‘sin’, the last straw for the Kremlin, was to confirm that Russia is using Wagner Group mercenaries in Syria. He had to be done away with – like so many journalists who have offended the Kremlin or its “deniable assets”. One day, perhaps when Putin is long gone, historians will set to work unearthing the circumstances surrounding all the murders that have been committed in his name – as they have done with Stalin.

efrain montt

“if you are with us, we’ll feed you. If not, we’ll kill you”

Speaking of scum…the appalling former dictator of Guatemala, Efraín Ríos Montt (pictured), breathed his last at 91. Montt took power by coup d’etat in 1982, and was himself overthrown by his minister of defence, Óscar Humberto Mejía Victores, in 1983. Montt told Guatemalans “if you are with us, we’ll feed you. If not, we’ll kill you.” The civil war there lasted 36 years and only ended in 1996; during it as many as 200,000 people were killed or went missing. It took until 2013 for legal proceedings to start against Montt, when he was charged with genocide and crimes against humanity. By then he was 87; he never served time.

Few memorable centenarians died in April, but one stands out. Gertrude Jeannette, who worked as a taxi-driver in New York City in 1942, died in Harlem aged 103. In those earliest days she used some of the money she earned driving a cab to enrol in a speech class, where she hoped to correct her stammer. The only class she could find that accepted black people was the American Negro Theater, where she studied alongside people such as Sidney Poitier. She was a formidable African American, who took up acting and writing for the theatre, as well as producing and directing. In the McCarthyite 1950s, she was ‘blacklisted’ from working, partly, she believed, from her association with the black singer Paul Robeson, who she helped rescue from a threatened lynching in 1949 at the Peekskill Riots. She was loyal – staying in Harlem to build theatre, when she could have moved to Hollywood – brave and energetic to the end.

“Put a bunch of Kiwis against a bunch of any other nation and I’m sure we’d come out on top.”

The oldest living German woman (at the time of her death on 9 April) was Edelgard Huber von Gersdorff, 112 years old; she survived polio, the Weimar Republic, both world wars, Nazism, and the Cold War but by the time she died was wheelchair-bound, almost deaf and blind. Vasilis Priovolos died aged 100; he had fought in the Second World War for the Greeks. Haddon Vivian Donald, a New Zealand politician, died aged 101. He fought in Crete and Egypt in the Second World and rose to the rank of Lieutenant Colonel. You can listen to a 2001 interview with him (14 minutes in) here. A tough man, even into old age, he said: “Put a bunch of Kiwis against a bunch of any other nation and I’m sure we’d come out on top.” The last person born in the 19th century also died: Nabi Tajima died on 21 April aged 117 years and 260 days. She was not in great shape by the time of her death. Karl Rawer, a German physicist, died at the age of 104; his early research helped Germany’s Luftwaffe with its shortwave communications. The Hungarian-Dutch potter and sculptor Judith Révész died the same day, 17 April, aged 102. “The living encyclopedia of India”, otherwise known as Naseem Mirza Changezi, who fought for independence from the British, died on 12 April; he was thought to have been 108. Anděla Haida made it to 104; she was the oldest Czechoslovak war veteran who, during the Second World War, served as a driver with the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF).

milos foreman

One of the greats of cinema, Miloš Forman (pictured), died at the age of 86. He is most remembered, perhaps, for his US films One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975) and Amadeus (1984), which both were awarded Best Director at the Academy Awards. His later films tailed off in terms of quality, but cineastes should go back and enjoy his 1967 movie The Fireman’s Ball, made – and immediately banned forever by the authorities – in Forman’s birthplace of the former Soviet satellite state, Czechoslovakia. Like so many émigrés of the period, both his parents were murdered in Nazi concentration camps. In 1996 an asteroid – number 11333 – was discovered and named after him. Michael Anderson, who directed the 1955 film The Dam Busters, died at the age of 98. He went on to make many more great movies, including The Quiller Memorandum (scripted by an up-and-coming Harold Pinter) in 1966, and the thoroughly weird 1972 Pope Joan, which has Liv Ullmann disguised as a monk who ends up as Pope, gives birth to a child and then is torn to shreds by an angry mob.

The Reaper is a place for great cartoons, so it be remiss of us if we failed to acknowledge the death of Prabhakar Rao, better known as simply Raobail, the Indian artist and cartoonist, who died aged 81. He was highly prolific with work appearing in all Indian media including The Indian Express, The Times of India, Reader’s Digest, Eve’s Weekly, and The Illustrated Weekly of India. Similarly, we will miss Brian Moynahan, the British journalist who covered wars in the Middle East and elsewhere for the Sunday Times; he died aged 77.

Marijuana, digital scales, a handgun and an AK-47 were found in his home

Some died pathetically young. Jonathan Pitre was just 17 when he died as a result of complications from septic shock; he suffered from RDEB, the  rare genetic mutation recessive dystrophic epidermolysis bullosa, which causes external and internal blistering across the body, and did much to bring RDEB to wider public attention. Nasim Najafi Aghdam, a 38 year-old vegan activist and bodybuilder, shot three people, killing one, at the HQ of YouTube in California, and then killed herself. The American football player Carlos Gray, 25, was shot and killed at his home in Alabama; according to reports from the police marijuana, digital scales, a handgun and an AK-47 were found in Gray’s home. Ahmad Shah was 29 when he was shot and killed in Afghanistan, the fifth BBC reporter to have died there since the 1990s. A glioblastoma – the nastiest form of cancer which rarely gives up – did for Jacquelyn Crowell, the US racing cyclist; she was just 30. And you might never be far from a heart attack – the Moroccan actress, singer and TV presenter Wiaam Dahmani was felled by one at the age of 34. Aaron Traywick, the 28 year-old biohacking advocate of gene-editing therapies, was found floating face down in a sensory deprivation tank in Washington D.C.

code talkers

“Were it not for the Navajos, the Marines would never have taken Iwo Jima.” So said Major Howard Connor, signals officer of the 5th Marine division at the ghastly battle of Iwo Jima, fought by US forces against the Japanese in February and March 1945. The US had as many as 500 Native Americans during the Second World War as ‘code talkers’, using their knowledge of obscure languages as the basis for transmitting coded tactical messages on the battlefield. Roy Hawthorne, a second-generation Navajo code talker, died in April aged 92. A video of him is available here. Alf Davies died aged 98; a former British soldier, he was one of a handful who escaped the Wormhoudt massacre of some 90 others, killed by German SS troops as they headed for Dunkirk in 1940.

Dale Winton (British TV personality); Barbara Bush (wife of President George H.W. Bush); Avici (aka Tim Bergling) – all died in April, all well-known, and all famous faces. The famous get their dues – if such they be – elsewhere.

I prefer to end on the less well-known, the quiet ones who have done something utterly selfless for others, and who merit our recognition. TV, politics, popular music…all fads, all dependent on the fickleness of fame. Far more important, for me, is the touch of an individual for another individual who needs help or kindness. One such was Agnès Cécile Marie-Madeleine Valois, who in April died aged 103. She was a French Roman Catholic nun (our normal anti-religious sentiment is obviously suspended) who looked after British and Canadian casualties after the fiasco of the Dieppe Raid on 19 August 1942. Of the more than 6,000 men who finally made it ashore that day at Dieppe, 3,623 were killed, wounded or captured. A trained nurse, sister Agnès, then under the name of sister Sainte Marguerite-Mari, along with 10 of her fellow nuns, looked after any injured man she came across on the Dieppe beach – British, Canadian, or German. One soldier, a Canadian called Roland Laurendeau, appeared to be dying; the Germans wanted to shoot him in the head to put him out of his misery. Sister Agnès intervened and nursed Laurendeau. They finally met again in 1993, when he recognised her by the sound of her voice. She became known, justifiably, as the ‘Angel of Dieppe’.

Until next month.


Picture sources: Elena Hermosa / Trocaire, Zff2012, USMC Archives