Features

RIP April 2017


Was Mbah Gotho really the oldest person ever? Should we admire or denigrate the death of Karel Schoeman? What does the death of Zoe Realla say about the state of US society? And what sadness drew František Rajtoral to kill himself at just 31? Many deaths, many imponderables - but, contra T. S. Eliot, April was no more cruel than any other month.

The Grim Reaper decided that he would bookend the month of April with two big literary figures. Yevgeny Yevtushenko (pictured in main image right), the fierce and controversial Russian poet, died from a heart attack at the age of 84 on 1 April; and on 30 April Jean Babette Stein, the author and one time editor with The Paris Review, jumped from the ledge of her Manhattan apartment, aged 83. Interspersed between those two were some fascinating, although less familiar names, such as Agga Maha Pandita Davuldena Sri Gnanissara Thero, who was 101 when he died on 3 April. A senior Buddhist monk, he was buried with full state honours in Sri Lanka, with the government calling for people everywhere to raise a yellow flag on their homes in his honour. We failed to check to see how many actually did so.

I am frequently astonished to see yet another member of the House of Hapsburg pop out of the woodwork, only to pop their clogs; after all, a quick check tells me that the House of Hapsburg died out in the 18th century. And the dual monarchy of Austria-Hungary, one of the more barbarous regimes in its treatment of minorities, finally bit the dust, unmourned, at the end of the First World War. No matter. One of the last things aristocrats are prepared to let go of is their title, the grander the better. Thus Joseph Árpád Benedikt Ferdinand Franz Maria Gabriel breathed his last on 30 April, in Madrid, to his end enjoying the title of Archduke and being addressed as ‘His Imperial and Royal Highness’. Never heard of him? Me either. Another equally obscure aristocrat was Mary Katharine Mumford, 15th Lady Herries of Terregles, a Scottish peeress, who died on 7 April aged 76.

One of the last things aristocrats are prepared to let go of is their title; the grander the better

30 April saw a much greater figure, Ueli Steck (pictured), the Swiss mountaineer, fall 1,000 metres to his death from a small peak adjacent to Mount Everest. Steck had an astonishing record as a mountain climber, scaling the North Face of the Eiger at just 18. A modest man whose profession was that of a carpenter, he became known as the ‘Swiss Machine’ for the sheer speed of his climbing; in 2008 he climbed the Eiger’s notorious North Face, 1,800 metres high, in slightly more than two hours and 47 minutes. The last day of the month also saw the end of Saparman Sodimejo, better known as Mbah Gotho, who claimed to be the world’s oldest person ever recorded, at 146 – although there was no independent verification of his claim. He died in an Indonesian hospital, puffing away at his cigarettes – a lifelong smoker – almost until the end. A couple of weeks earlier Emma Morano, an Italian born in Piedmont who really was verified as the world’s oldest living person, died aged 117 years and 137 days. She was asked in 2013 about the secret of her longevity: her answer – three eggs a day, a glass of grappa, the occasional chocolate, and staying optimistic.

On 29 April a 15 year-old American boy was shot in the back of the head, through a side window of a car that was driving away, by a policeman in Texas. The incident is such a cliché in today’s America: the boy, Jordan Edwards, was African American; the cop, Roy Oliver, white. Oliver fired three rifle shots into the car, which was full of teenagers who had been drinking at a party; he was fired from his job. A similarly stupid death was that of the US rapper Zoe Realla (aka Lorenzo Dixon), shot several times on the afternoon of 28 April in Baton Rouge, the capital of Louisiana. He was 32; nobody has (yet) been arrested for the murder.

Another month, another death of someone who dared to raise the possibility that Vladimir Putin might not be as clean as a freshly-unwrapped toothbrush

Technically, Karel Schoeman, a respected South African writer in Afrikaans, author of 19 novels, several autobiographes and historical works, should feature next month as he finally died on 1 May, although he’d started the process of his suicide in April. Schoeman decided that, at 77, he’d had enough, and stopped drinking and eating and faded away. In a letter he left behind he wrote (in part): “The decision to take one’s own life is naturally a very personal one which I would not blindly advise anyone to take. For me‚ I am grateful to be able to make and follow through the decision.” He just didn’t want to face becoming decrepit and a burden. The South Korean poet Kim Jong-gil, died on 1 April aged 90; Jeremy Wilson, a British historian who became the leading authority on T. E. Lawrence, died a day later, aged 72; ‘Hate Man’ (born Mark Hawthorne) died homeless in Berkeley, California on 2 April aged 80 – he gave up his job at the New York Times in 1970, and, in his own words, started becoming “downward mobile”.

Makoto Ōoka, the Japanese poet and critic, died on 5 April aged 86: his column on poetry was published without a break for more than 20 years on the front page of the newspaper Asahi Shimbun. Hard to imagine any English-language national newspapers giving poetry such prominence. Bernard Millant, expert maker of bows for musical instruments and author of the definitive book on French bows, died on 5 April, aged 87. At the age of 90 Don Rickles (pictured) – who voiced Mr Potato Head in the Toy Story movies, and was a great comic actor – died from kidney failure on 6 April.

Life ended for some remarkable women this month. Switzerland has many qualities – chocolate, mountains, money-laundering, plentiful gold shipped there by the Nazis, stolen from the murdered of the concentration camps – but it wasn’t until 1971 that Swiss women gained the right to vote in federal elections. As late as 1991 the smallest Swiss canton (by population), Appenzell Innerrhoden, still barred women from voting in local elections. Marthe Gosteli died aged 99 on 7 April; for more than 30 years she was at the forefront of the fight for female suffrage in Switzerland. The Polish-born memoirist Alicia Appleman-Jurman, who escaped the fate of her family (all murdered) in the Holocaust by being thrown from the window of a cattle-car as a child, was 86 when she died on 8 April.

How young lives are ruined by the actions of their elders is a perennial indictment of the human race

Sylvia Rose Moy, writer of many hit pop songs, especially for Stevie Wonder, died on 15 April aged 78, from complications from pneumonia. Libuše Havelková, a Czech actress who appeared in the 1966 classic movie, Closely Observed Trains by Jiří Menzel (still with us at 79) died aged 92 on 6 April. Sheila Abdus-Salaam, the first black woman to be appointed to New York City’s highest court, died under mysterious and as-yet unexplained circumstances on 12 April. It appears that she committed suicide by drowning in the Hudson River; she was found to have bruises on her neck. On 25 April Elena Moiseevna Rzhevskaya died aged 97. She was with Russian troops as they battled to capture Berlin in 1945, working as an interpreter. She was part of the unit that hunted for Adolf Hitler, and was entrusted with the safe keeping of a box containing Hitler’s jawbones – a fact, she claimed, that was suppressed for some reason by Joseph Stalin.

Suicide is not necessarily disheartening; one can understand the suicide of Karel Schoeman, in his eighth decade and after a successful career. After all, who of us wants to live into decrepitude? Yet the decision by František Rajtoral (pictured), an excellent footballer for the Czech Republic’s national squad, to hang himself at home on 23 April at the age of 31, cannot but leave his friends and family feeling utterly bereft. He’d been playing for the Turkish team Gaziantepspor since August 2016. Similarly, Lin Yi-han, who had a promising career ahead of her after publishing this year a best-selling novel in her home of Taiwan, chose to end her life aged 26, again by hanging, on 28 April. Her novel – about a young girl who is raped by her teacher – was apparently largely autobiographical. How young lives are ruined by the actions of their elders is a perennial indictment of the human race.

Yip was the first to use an AK-47 to commit armed robbery in Hong Kong

Another month, another death of someone who dared to raise the possibility that the Russian President, Vladimir Putin, might not be as clean as a freshly-unwrapped toothbrush. The journalist Nikolai Andrushchenko, 73, was a co-founder of the newspaper Novy Peterburg. After being in a coma for six weeks following a brutal attack on the street (no witnesses, of course), he died on 19 April. Since 1992 at least 56 journalists have been killed in Russia; only two have resulted in prosecutions, according to the Commitee to Protect Journalists. From one extreme to another. That same day saw the death (from cancer) of the Hong Kong gangster known as ‘Teeth Dog’, Yip Kai Foon. Yip and his gang specialised in using AK-47s to rob jewellery shops; he was the first person to use the assault rifle to commit armed robbery in Hong Kong. Yip was eventually shot and, paralysed from the waist down, was not due for release before 2022.

I must pay homage to someone who died in April, and cheered my otherwise bleak Saturday mornings for years – Leo Baxendale, a self-taught artist. He died from cancer at the age of 86 on 23 April. A gifted strip cartoonist, Baxendale worked on the comic The Beano for many years, creating endless brilliantly anarchic icons such as the Bash Street Kids, Lord Snooty, and Minnie the Minx. By 1959, at the height of his and the magazine’s success, The Beano was selling two million copies a week. Perhaps not surprisingly he gave up drawing in 1992, suffering from repetitive strain injury. His work lives on in the form of many early years Beano annuals – which have given much joy to my own children, and no doubt will to their children in turn.

Until next month: RIP all.

Picture sources:  Dikoross, Ludovic Péron, Gary Dunaier, Vachovec1,  Sarah Joy