Features

RIP August 2018


When a man who started adult life as a killer gets beatified and is treated to a send-off worthy of Presidents, it's time to batten down the hatches - because something ugly this way comes.

Of all the people we have written about over the years, none poses a more extreme example of the politicisation of a funeral than John McCain (pictured), the dearly-departed US Senator and former US pilot, who died on 25 August  from a glioblastoma, the most aggressive form of brain cancer. McCain has been beatified in the US largely because he isn’t Donald Trump. As GQ magazine commented on a piece about McCain: “You shouldn’t get extra credit for being the nicest asshole in a room full of assholes.” McCain was undoubtedly courageous. On being captured by the North Vietnamese on his 23rd bombing mission over Hanoi on 26 October 1967, seriously injured, he was put into solitary confinement for two years. For a while he was bound and beaten every two hours until he signed a ‘confession’. He remained a prisoner of war until 14 March 1973, his injuries leaving him permanently crippled and unable to raise his arms above head height. What he endured and suffered was enough to disrupt the morality and humanity of anyone. So while we can acknowledge all the good stuff about McCain – personal bravery, devoted public servant, loather of Donald Trump and so on – we need to recall his mess-ups: his happy massacring of North Vietnamese was a big one and his appointment of the ridiculous Sarah Palin as his nominee for vice-presidential running mate in 2008 was almost as huge. We are living through the post-Palinisation era of US politics, and that’s thanks to McCain, who died four days short of his 82 birthday.

biu tin flikr

Earlier in August (on the 11th) Bùi Tín (pictured centre), a former Colonel of the People’s Army of Vietnam, died. During the Vietnam War he had authority from Defense Minister Võ Nguyên Giáp to visit any of the camps where American POWs were held and interview the POWs. During at least one of those visits he interrogated John McCain.

Brian ‘Dribbles’ Drebber was killed on 23 August when his motorcycle hit a deer. A well-known sports commentator in the US, ‘Dribbles’ supposedly had a great sense of humour although he didn’t see the funny side of his departure; he was 68. Other traffic accident-deaths this month included that of Yasser Al-Masri, 47, the Jordanian actor, who was squashed in an accident involving a bus on the same day that ‘Dribbles’ died; Tom Clark, the US poet who was poetry editor of The Paris Review 1963-73, was knocked down and killed by a car in California on 17 August aged 77; Peter Fisher, the homeopathic doctor who worked for Queen Elizabeth II for 17 years and chaired the World Health Oragnisation’s working group on homeopathy – a contradiction in terms, perhaps – was killed in a cycling accident on 15 August aged 67; Emiddio Novi, the Italian journalist and former MP, was crushed by a garbage lorry  on 24 August aged 72; and Nicholas Bett, the Kenyan athlete who had a personal best of 47.79 seconds in the 400 metre hurdles, drove his car into a ditch in Kenya on 8 August, killing him instantly at the age of 28.

Zwarra is a fine example of ‘it’s never too late’ – he started writing his various histories of Gdansk when in his seventies

Tomasz Jędrzejak, a member of the Polish national speedway team and someone who therefore probably ought to have died in a traffic accident in fact committed suicide at the age of 39. His fellow Pole, Bruno Zwarra, the historian of Gdansk, lived much longer, till 98, having survived the Nazi camps of Stutthof and Sachsenhausen. Zwarra is a fine example of ‘it’s never too late’ – he started writing his various histories of Gdansk when in his seventies. Philip Riteman survived till the age of 96 – remarkable given that, as a Jew, he was imprisoned at Auschwitz at 14 and only escaped immediate gassing by telling the guards he was 18. His whole family died in the war. He emigrated to Newfoundland after liberation, speaking no English and making a living by being a door-to-door salesman. He died in his sleep.

What might Riteman have had to say to Stephen Goodson, the South African Holocaust-denier who died on 4 August. Goodson bizarrely held a directorship with the South African Reserve Bank – the central bank of the country – during 2003-12, while publicly saying that the Holocaust was a “huge lie”, a fiction that was concocted as a mean of extracting money from the Germans as compensation. ‘International Jewish bankers’ were responsible for starting World War II, he believed. Another central banker who overplayed his hand was Sherkhan Farnood, chairman of Kabul Bank, Afghanistan’s biggest private financial institution. A big-shot poke player, Farnood was placed under house arrest in 2011 for mysterious reasons – undoubtedly to do with money – and died in jail on 24 August aged 55. Mary White, the South African-born paleobotanist, was murdered at her old people’s home in New South Wales on 5 August, at the age of 92; her daughter has been charged with the crime.

dolores o'riordan

The political career of Elmar Pieroth managed to survive the 1985 diethylene glycol wine scandal

“Live fast, die young, and have a good-looking corpse” might be the mantra of many a rock singer, but actually it probably conceals a bucket-load of misery. This month we learned that Dolores O’Riordan (pictured), lead singer of the Cranberries and who had been sexually abused for four years at the age of eight, died in January in her hotel room by drowning while completely plastered. Jill Janus, lead singer of the American heavy metal band Huntress, killed herself aged 42 near Portland, Oregon. She had struggled with bipolar disorder since a teenager and later in life experienced schizophrenia. Jett McKee, an Australian hip-hop singer who adopted the name Scepaz, was killed by a Samurai sword at his home at the age of 30 on 10 August. Majid Al-Majid, the Saudi Arabian folk singer, died at the age of 52 from an gunshot wound (said to be accidental) on 5 August. Ellen Joyce Loo, the Canadian-Hong Kong musician and co-founder of the group at17, jumped from her apartment in Hong Kong on the same day; she was 32 and had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder. Kyle Pavone, lead singer with the American metalcore band We Came As Romans died from a drug overdose on 25 August; he was 28.

The political career of Elmar Pieroth managed to survive the 1985 diethylene glycol wine scandal. Pieroth was at the time a Senator in local government in Germany, as well as founding his own wine company – which was found to have adulterated its wine with diethylene glycol, or antifreeze as it’s better known. He lived to 83. Heinz Rökker was a highly efficient killing machine for the German Luftwaffe in World War II, shootting down 64 British bomber aircraft, twice bringing down five planes in a single day in 1945. He died on 2 August aged 97. The next day saw the demise of Zbigniew Ścibor-Rylski at the age of 101. He trained as a fighter pilot in Poland and took part in the Warsaw Uprising. His reputation as a war hero was slightly sullied by the revelation that in post-war Poland he was registered as an informant for the communist secret police, the Służba Bezpieczeństwa or SB, which he admitted.

Charlatans flourish everywhere and one of the greatest of recent times, Zhang Baosheng, died on 3 August aged 58. A proponent of his own supposed supernatural powers, he was one of the key participants of the qigong fever which broke out in the People’s Republic in the 1980s-90s, when as many as 200 million Chinese practised qigong, a peculiar mix of physical health regimes and faith healing. He claimed he could move objects through his sheer powers of concentration, that he could see through people’s bodies, and that he was able to ‘smell’ the contents of messages. So powerful was this movement that it gained the support of many senior Communist Party officials, before being rejected and repressed, as a fascinating book by David Palmer documents.

V. S. Naipaul, Kofi Annan, Aretha Franklin, Neil Simon (bit of a bastard, bit of a bore, bit of a singer, bit of a playwright

As eccentrics go, Pierre Coustillas was outstanding. Born in France and ultimately the founding director of the Victorian studies centre at the University of Lille, his life was utterly absorbed with a monomaniacal passion to the life and works of the 19th century English writer George Gissing. Why Gissing? Who knows? Coustillas was ceaseless in his defence of Gissing, writing letters to obscure literary journals to correct mistakes, lambasting those who dared to question Gissing’s magnificence, editing his letters and diaries with fanatical attention to detail, and eventually publishing (when he was 80) his Heroic Life of George Gissing in three volumes between 2011 and 2012. He thereafter was exhausted and unable to do anything much at all until he died in August at the age of 88.

Aretha Franklin

So: no space for V. S. Naipaul, Kofi Annan, Aretha Franklin (pictured), Neil Simon (bit of a bastard, bit of a bore, bit of a singer, bit of a playwright, respectively) but we must find space for two or three others who brought greater personal  joy – Rosa Bouglione, Stefán Karl Stefánsson, and Barry Chuckle. Rosa, married in a lion’s cage at 17 (with lion present) was born into the circus world and finally left it and France, her country, on 26 August, aged 107. I have a soft spot for Stefánsson, whose appearance in the children’s TV show Lazy Town, now much (and hilariously parodied) because my children and I poked fun at the show’s appalling puppets. Poor Stefánsson, who played ‘Robbie Rotten’ who liked to stay indoors and sleep – ideal – died at just 43 from bile duct cancer. As for Barry Chuckle (Barry David Elliott) who died from bone cancer on 5 August age 73, he and his brother were so diabolically naff that they were funny. As the ‘Chuckle Brothers’, their TV slapstick was hard to beat. A Guardian writer summed them up perfectly: “the appeal of the Chuckle Brothers remains a mystery to anyone over eight, but to anyone under eight, they’re the ultimate entertainment experience”.

Until October – keep chuckling.

Picture sources: Thomas J. O’Halloran, manhhaiEva Rinaldi, Atlantic Records