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RIP February 2017


February saw the usual crop of sleazebags check out, as well as a good sprinkling of the truly weird and wonderful. While we can't possibly cover all 4.5 million of those around the world who died last month, we can select a few of the more fascinating characters who have now gone forever. Some we are well rid of; others were true heroes.

If Elisabeth Charlotte Valerie Waldheim, née Ritschel, hoped that by dying on the last day of February (aged 94) she’d escape our notice, she was out of luck. The former ‘first lady’ of Austria, Elisabeth – or ‘Cissy’ to those who knew her well – was the publicity-shy wife of Kurt Waldheim, former UN Secretary General (1972-1981) and President of Austria (1986-1992). Kurt, who died in 2007 at the age of 88, was a member of the Sturmabteilung, the paramilitary wing of the Nazi Party. He served as an officer in the Wehrmacht in the Balkans during the Second World War.

At the age of 18 her application to join the Nazi party was successful; her membership number was 9027854

Kurt claimed he didn’t know anything about German atrocities – an outrageous lie, but one happily conspired with by the rich and powerful. Sissy and Kurt married in August 1944. Her father, Wilhelm Ritschel, a businessman, joined the (then illegal) Nazi party in Austria in 1934, and enrolled Elisabeth in the female version of the Hitler Youth. At the age of 18, in January 1941, her application to join the Nazi party was successful; her membership number was 9027854.

From the despicable to the admirable. A month before the death of the former Nazi, Robert McFarlane died at the age of 93. He was one of the last surviving former agents of Special Operations Executive (SOE), who fought the Nazis behind enemy lines. Bob was a clandestine radio operator. His childhood was rather different from Cissy’s. His family was poor and Bob had to leave school at the age of 14 to start work as a farm labourer. When the Second World War started he was just 16, and joined the army in 1941, first in the tanks and later as part of SOE, serving in occupied Yugoslavia and later against the Japanese in Malaya. In later years Bob sold carpets.

While McFarlane’s death was barely noticed, despite his doing something worthwhile with his life – fighting Nazis and flogging carpets both being useful activities – too many others who did bugger-all got plenty of headlines.

For a few days the US media appeared besotted with the rancid Frank Ancona, a white supremacist who led a chapter of the Ku Klux Klan and was pumped full of lead at the age of 51 on 9 February: good riddance. Showing equal obsession with the sensationalist, the British media got its knickers in a twist over the death the day before of the cocaine-sniffing socialite Tara Palmer-Tomkinson at the age of 45. She was, when young, a gifted pianist, but evidently lost her way amid the attentions of the paparazzi and that lousy cocktail of booze and drugs. In Britain, the Labour MP Gerald Kaufman (pictured) kicked the bucket at 87. In the great 2009 MPs expenses scandal, Kaufman was fingered for having submitted expense claims that included £8,865 for a 40-inch LCD television and £225 for a rollerball pen. He regularly made claims for odd jobs, which he submitted without receipts at a rate of £245 per month, then £5 below the limit for unreceipted expenses. He blamed his (self-diagnosed) OCD for spending taxpayers’ money so freely but actually was just a greedy man. Whenever he was phoned up by the media for an interview his first remark was: “what’s the fee?” When told there was no fee he would simply hang up.

The big attention-grabber of February was of course the assassination of the podgy Kim Jong-nam at Kuala Lumpur airport on 13 February at the age of 45. Exiled from North Korea since 2003 he was clearly bumped off (after several previous failed attempts) on the orders of the appalling Kim Jong-un, the country’s lunatic dictator and Kim Jong-nam’s half-brother. Not that he will be in the dock; two hapless females who were either coerced, duped, or paid to commit the murder are now awaiting trial and could face execution for wiping a VX Agent-impregnated cloth across the face of Ki, Jong-nam. An illuminating video discussion of how VX works is available here…I want one of those neckties.

But the meretricious should not delay us. People who entertained, delighted, thrilled us, also turned to ashes and worm fodder in February. Jórunn Viðar, the Icelandic pianist and composer, died at 98 (27 February), while a couple of days prior to her death Toshio Nakanishi, a founder of the Japanese new wave band Plastics, died of oesophageal cancer aged 61.

The rancid Frank Ancona led a chapter of the Ku Klux Klan and was pumped full of lead at the age of 51 on 9 February: good riddance

A particularly vicious form of cancer, which typically only starts presenting symptoms when treatment is often too late, it also did for Steve Hewlett at the age of 58. Hewlett was a much-loved British journalist who was – as many hacks are – treated shabbily by the BBC until it belatedly realised just how good a broadcaster he was. Cancer also did for Howard Philpott, aged 63, a familiar voice – an announcer – with the BBC. Frank Delaney, Irish novelist, critic and journalist, was another perfect BBC radio voice who will be missed; he was 74.

Some were taken by the Reaper at a very young age. Ellli Norkett was the youngest player at the 2014 Women’s Rugby World Cup, part of the Wales team; she died in a car crash at just 20, on 25 February. The South Korean-born Trish Doan was bassist with Canadian metal band Kittie, but had long suffered from depression; she died on 13 February at just 31.

On the other hand – and there are no patterns here – some survived to advanced old age, against all the odds. How did Ivan Dmitrievich Pavlov, who served in the Red Army for six years (including the Soviet-Finnish War and at the battle for Stalingrad) manage to get through all that flying steel and reach the age of 97? Before he died on 20 February he’d spent more than six decades as a Russian Orthodox Christian mystic and guru. Cosmo Dugal Patrick Thomas Haskard survived the same war as an officer in the Royal Irish Fusiliers, and then went on to be Governor of the Falkland Islands (1964-1970); he died in his 101st year on 21 February. Another great survivor was Ren Xinmin. A rocket scientist, Ren lived through war, civil war, famine and widespread anti-intellectual purges under Chairman Mao, and eventually was feted as one of the key figures in the development of China’s satellite programme. He reached 101 and died on 12 February.

Jørgen Kieler (pictured), a Danish physician, impressively defied death as a young man. As a member of the Danish resistance against the German occupation during the Second World War, he published an underground newspaper (Frit Denmark, or Free Denmark); helped hundreds of Danish Jews to escape to Sweden; and was captured by the Nazis and imprisoned in a concentration camp. Despite all those high-risk episodes he lived on until 19 February, dying aged 97. Seijun Suzuki, the Japanese movie-maker and actor who worked largely in the brilliant B-picture yakuza genre – Japan’s version of the mafia – survived the Great Kantō earthquake of 1923, which killed more than 140,000 people, when he was just a baby. Twenty years later he was conscripted into the Japanese army and was on board a transport ship which was sunk by American fighters. After all that he made a career in movies which now have a strong cult following.

Richard Keir Pethick Pankhurst, who died on 16 February aged 89, will be remembered not so much for his scholarship on Ethiopia as the fact that he was the only child of the former suffragette Sylvia Pankhurst.

US magician Daryl couldn’t take any more. At 61 he hanged himself in his dressing room at Hollywood’s Magic Castle, just before going on stage

Nicholas Mosley, who died at the age of 93 on 28 February, is more likely to be recalled as the eldest son of Oswald Mosley, the upper-class founder of the British Union of Fascists in 1932, than for his own fine collection of fiction and non-fiction. Long after she has been forgotten, Mildred Dresselhaus’s (pictured) work on nanotechnology will be remembered; she became in 1985 the first woman Institute Professor at MIT and died at 86 on 20 February, but not before being covered with well-earned academic prizes and accolades.

Terrorists of course accounted for many murders in the Middle East in February, ranging from Hassan Daaboul, the Syrian army general and head of military intelligence in Homs, one of 42 people killed in a series of bombings by god knows who on 25 February, to Shifa Gardi, a 30 year-old Iraqi Kurdish TV reporter, was killed in Mosul by a roadside explosion.

There were plenty of suicides. Susanne Kablitz (pictured), a thoughtful German political figure – a member of the PDV, Partei der Vernunft, the libertarian party – killed herself on 11 February at the age of 47. The day before she had written on her blog a profoundly moving and scarcely noticed piece under the heading “This country is lost”. Ren Hang, the Chinese photographer who got into trouble with the Chinese authorities on many occasions for his largely nude photographic art, reportedly killed himself in Beijing at the age of 30 – he suffered from depression.

Another shabby figure who won’t be missed was Ljubiša Beara, who died on 8 February while in prison in Berlin, aged 77

A day later, on 24 February, the US magician Daryl Easton – known professionally as just Daryl – hanged himself in his dressing room at Hollywood’s Magic Castle, just before he was due to go on stage. One of his most famous tricks was the ‘Hot Shot Cut’, whereby a spectator’s chosen card spins out of a deck of cards held by the magician. Daryl himself spun out of control.

I was personally delighted to see that the Argentine air force Brigadier General Basil Arturo Ignacio Lami Dozo croaked on 1 February. A thoroughly nasty man, Lami Dozo was a leading figure in the military dictatorship (along with Leopoldo Galtieri and Jorge Anaya) that ruled Argentina during 1976-1983. Never mind that he sanctioned the invasion of the Falkland Islands in 1982; he was deeply involved in the kidnapping, torture and murder carried out against thousands during the dictatorship. Another shabby figure who won’t be missed was Ljubiša Beara, who died on 8 February while in prison in Berlin, aged 77. Beara was chief of security in the Bosnian Serb army and sentenced to life imprisonment in 2010 for genocide – the massacre of Bosnian muslims at Srebrenica in July 1995. The ‘blind sheikh’ – Omar Abdel-Rahman – had been held in a US jail since 1993, serving life for numerous terrorist conspiracies; he died on 18 February aged 78. Lots of weeping over him by assorted Islamic jihadists but the world is a better place without him.

Which cannot be said of Tzvetan Todorov (main picture), the Bulgarian-born philosopher and literary critic, who died on 7 February aged 77. Among his many works is Facing the Extreme, a brilliant examination of life in the Nazi concentration camps and Soviet gulags, revealing on the basis of individual testimonies that compassionate behaviour perists under the most horrible circumstances. The law of the jungle can sometimes seem to surround us, but Todorov shows that human beings can still behave with admirable courage and morality – no matter what.

See you in March.

Picture sources: Fronteira do Pensamenta,  ‘Inside the M60’, Unknown, Pete Souza, Eckhard Henkel