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RIP August 2017


This is starting to look like a suspicious trend - the ninth senior Russian diplomat to die in odd circumstances since January 2016 met his end in August. With Vlad the Impaler in charge in the Kremlin, it's the kind of thing that gives conspiracy-theory nerds the hots. The toppling of saints and sinners was impressive this past month - so read on.

Mirgayas Shirinsky, Russia’s ambassador to Sudan, was 63 when he was found dead in the swimming pool of his official residence in Khartoum on 23 August. Local reports say he died from natural causes, but that can hide a multitude of sins. The run of bad luck for Russian diplomats started in January 2016 when Igor Sergun, the head of the GRU (Russia’s military intelligence), who was 58 at the time, died, probably in Lebanon, and supposedly from a heart attack. Sergei Krivov, the man in charge of security at Russia’s UN mission, was first reported to have fallen from a roof and died as a result of his injuries at the Russian embassy in the US in November 2016 – only for that to be chaned a short while later into yet another heart attack.

 

Then on 19 December last year Russia’s ambassador to Turkey Andrei Karlov (pictured) was shot dead in Ankara, by a lone gunman in full public view, at the age of 62. The same day, Petr Polishikov, a senior official at the Russian foreign ministry was shot dead in his Moscow apartment. A few days later Roman Skrlnikov, who worked in Russia’s Kazakhstan consulate, was also found dead in his apartment – another heart attack. In January this year Andrey Malanin, head of consular affairs at Russia’s Athens embassy, was found dead at his apartment at the age of 55. Russia’s ambassador to India, Alexander Kadakin, died in a New Delhi hospital after a short illness at the age of 67 on 26 January 2017. Most notorious of the lot is the demise of Vitaly Churkin, Russia’s UN ambassador – he died on 20 February this year at the age of 64 but a post mortem into his death still has not been released, as ‘international law’ prevents that.

Sergei Krivov was first reported to have fallen from a roof at the Russian embassy in the US in November 2016, but this was then changed to a heart attack

This string of dead Russian diplomats is the kind of thing that would have appealed to James Farrell Marrs, one of America’s best-known conspiracy theorists, but sadly he succumbed to a heart attack on 2 August, aged 73. His 1989 book Crossfire: The Plot That Killed Kennedy was given a glowing evaluation by Sylvia Meagher, a relentless critic of the Warren Commission, which was set up by President Lyndon B. Johnson to investigate the assassination of JFK. Despite that 25 publishers turned the book down, before one was brave enough to bring it out.

In any case, as far as the conventional British media were concerned August had only one death worth noting, that of Sir Bruce Forsyth (pictured), 89, on 18 August, a TV personality who marred many a Saturday night’s viewing for me for what seemed like forever. The man who warbled “I’m backing Britain” in 1968, a miserable jingoist chant that sold a measly 7,319 copies, lived so long that he eventually morphed, as they all do, into a national ‘treasure’. Brucie’s obits (never mind the quality, feel the width) on 18 August and subsequent days overshadowed those of a much greater creative figure who died a day later; Brian Aldiss, the prolific British science fiction writer, died aged 92.

The incomparable Tobe Hooper (pictured in main image), of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre movie from 1974, died of “natural causes” on 26 August, aged 74. The horror genre came to him relatively early in his career; five years before Chainsaw Massacre, which actually contains very little obvious violence but depends on creating an atmosphere of extreme dread, he made The Song Is Love, a rarely seen film about the folk song Peter, Paul and Mary, whose “Puff the Magic Dragon” from 1963 now drives parents everywhere beserk – it’s often played by children learning instruments. Another loss to movies was Eric Zumbrunnen, who died at the relatively young age of 53, struck by cancer. A film editor, Zumbrunnen frequently worked with the director Spike Jonze and edited the surreal masterpiece Being John Malkovich.

It’s not often that we get to feature a former Royal Naval Officer turned magician, but such was Commodore Laurie Brokenshire (pictured), who died at the age of 64 from terminal brain cancer. A talented man, Brokenshire joined the Royal Navy in 1975 and became a submariner, while playing chess and bridge to very high international standards. Brokenshire carried a bag of magic tricks with him all the time and performed as a member of the Inner Magic Circle. He was also a world famous puzzle expert, with a personal puzzle collection considered to be one of the largest in the UK. In 1986 he also found time to swim the English Channel.

He carried a bag of magic tricks with him all the time and performed as a member of the Inner Magic Circle

In many ways book editors are also engaged in solving puzzles, trying to sort out what might make a bestseller from the piles of trash. There perhaps was no greater post-1945 literary discovery than The Diary of Anne Frank, rescued from the slush pile by Judith Jones, who died in New York City at the age of 93 on 2 August. She spent most of her professional career at Alfred A. Knopf but it was while she was working for Doubleday in Paris that she came across an advance copy of the French edition of the Diary and insisted that it should be published, even though many other publishers had already rejected it. She went on to write many award-winning cookbooks. The Norwegian writer Karen Bang, who liked to collect dolls when she wasn’t writing fiction, lived until 88 and died on 20 August. Gordon Williams, the Scottish-born novelist and soccer fan, whose book The Seige of Trencher’s Farm was turned in 1971 turned into the extremely disturbing movie Straw Dogs by Sam Peckinpah, met his end on 20 August, aged 83. The British writer Marjorie Boulton, who specialised in publishing works in Esperanto, was 93 when her life ended on 31 August.

A fair sprinkling of centenarians shuffled away in August. The continental Europeans lived through so much turmoil that it’s always a wonder to me that they survived to reach very old age. Take Karl Otto Götz, born in Germany in 1914 and died on 19 August, aged 103. He was 10 when he started painting seriously and by the age of 16 started producing abstracts, influenced by people such as Max Ernste and Wassily Kandinsky. With that kind of taste he was never going to flourish under the Nazis and was banned from painting and exhibiting once they took power. He was drafted into the military on the outbreak of war and served in Norway as a signals officer. After the war he consolidated he position as one of Germany’s leading abstract artists.

The oldest Italian bishop, Giovanni Benedetti, died on 3 August aged 100. The Israeli general and politician Yitzhak Pundak, who left Krakow where he was born in 1933, made it to 104. Ramananda Sengupta, the Indian cinematographer, died in Kolkata at the age of 101 on 23 August. The seriously fast right-arm bowler Thomas Leslie Pritchard, who played most of his professional cricket games in England although he was born in New Zealand, popped off at the age of 100. Star of this month is Yisrael Kristal (pictured), the Polish-Israeli supercentenarian, who was the world’s oldest living man before he died aged 113 years and 330 days. He was a specialist confectionery maker by profession, and continued to make sweets when he was forced by the Nazis into the Lodz ghetto, where his two children died. He and his wife were transported to Auschwitz, where his wife died; when he was freed by the Red Army he weighed 82 pounds. He rebuilt his confectionery shop in Lodz after the war and in 1950 emigrated to Israel.

She never took up Richard Branson’s offer to send her into space when she reached 100

Blanche Blackwell, a former mistress of Ian Fleming (and Errol Flynn in all likelihood) and a Jamaican heiress (her family made their money in the 19th century from rum and sugar) died in London on 8 August aged 104. She never took up Richard Branson’s offer to send her into space when she reached 100. Helen Louise Stehle reached the age of 109 and died on 27 August. In 1939 she became Switzerland’s first female newscaster – all the country’s male presenters had been called up to serve in the military on the outbreak of World War Two. In 1999, when she turned 100, her birthday party was attended by a Basel city official. He joked that he would be back in five years for her 105th. She replied: “Ah, but will you still be around?”

A personal hero of mine was the journalist Elizabeth Mary MacKean, who died from a stroke at just 52. I remember her courageous and balanced reporting from Northern Ireland for Newsnight, the BBC 2 flagship news and current affairs show. She and her producer broke the story of the serial sex abuser and paedophile Jimmy Savile – who once upon a time was regarded as yet another national ‘treasure’. Shamefully the editor of Newsnight at the time declined to run the story; the suspicion was that the BBC, where Savile had for years been a star presenter, was too embarrassed to do so. Newsnight has never been the same since and MacKean left the BBC.

Another hero lived much longer. The Scotsman David Ince, who won the Distinguished Flying Cross as a pilot in World War Two, flying ground-attack Hawker Typhoons harrying the retreating German armies in northwest Europe, died aged 96. He took part in the only raid in the war to use the then-experimental weapon napalm, on a German strongpoint on 12 April 1945. Typhoon pilots had a one-in-three prospect of death; Ince was hit at one point when he was photographing the Gestapo’s HQ in Rotterdam.

She found work as a nude showgirl at the Folies Bergère, won three million francs on the French national lottery, and built an empire of clubs in Paris

The Viscomtesse de Clarens – Jeannie Yvonne Ghislaine Rousseau – survived to the age of 98, and in its own way this was litle short of a miracle. In 1943 this young and vivacious Frenchwoman was working as an interpreter in Paris for French businessmen, assisting them in dealing with the German occupiers. Speaking flawless German and highly attractive, she rapidly became a favourite with German officers. Unbeknown to them Jeannie was an amateur spy for the French resistance, passing on detailed information about the Nazi’s flying bombs programmes. Eventually she was arrested but survived incarceration in three different concentration camps.

“Theft in business never stops, but it must be done with elegance and kept to a minimum.” So said another female survivor, an example of how resilience – plus a bit of luck – can overcome apparent disasters. Helene Martini was 14 when Russian forces occupied what is now Belarus in 1939; two years later when Germany attacked the Soviet Union she was carted off to a concentration camp. Never mind: on liberation she decided to trek to Paris where she arrived, penniless and with half a comb her only possession. She found work as a nude showgirl at the Folies Bergère, won three million francs on the French national lottery, and built an empire of clubs in Paris. Truly she pulled herself up by her bootstraps. She is no more, and was 92 when she gave up the ghost.

For now, adieu.

Picture sources: Lionel Allorge, Kremlin, Millfield Management, Ethel & Matthew Brokenshireמשפחת ישראל קרישטל – משפחת ישראל קרישטל