RIP February 2018

February - short, gloomy, dark and cold. Just the season for some cozying-up to a fine array of obituaries.

The death at 99 of Billy Graham (pictured) was immediately greeted with universal outpourings of praise. Yet Graham was a trimmer of the worst kind, adjusting his views according to the mores of the times he lived through. It’s now forgotten that he was an avid supporter of the American side in the Vietnam War; that he backed President Richard Nixon’s anti-semitic views in private conversations that were recorded – Graham later said that “I have no memory of the occasion”; that he was opposed to feminism and that he believed real womanhood was in being a wife, mother and homemaker; that he denied his daughters higher education; and that he opposed same-sex marriage. And it’s now all but forgotten that his earliest “crusades” were segregated affairs. When you come down to it, his only real message was ‘God loves you, so believe in God’.

Billy Graham

“Anyone intelligent who has worked for that rancid bitch deserves all the help he can get.” So wrote Ed – Edward – Pearce to me when I worked as the researcher – the lowest of the low – on the Granada TV programme What The Papers Say (WTPS) in the late 1980s. The ‘rancid bitch’ was the programme’s newly-promoted, incompetent and ideologically-driven producer, with whom Pearce had crossed swords. WTPS was the easiest programme in the world to do; all you needed was a class act journalist, a few good stories, and away you went. But the producer who took over was a dim-witted creature who thought that all men should be junked from the screen; in pushing her personal agenda she ruined the programme. Pearce was an excellent WTPS performer – and was the WTPS columnist of the year in 1987 – but his swiftly-delivered verbal jabs and uppercuts failed to please the producer, who hadn’t a clue what he was on about. Edward Pearce was a very fine writer whose journalistic career spanned many publications and many genres. A true libertarian – following an early flirtation with Margaret Thatcher’s ideas he came to loathe her, as much as the former Soviet Union – and gifted writer, Pearce was a grammar-school educated child born in Shropshire and raised in the north-east. His voice, strong in the richness of the north, added to his authenticity. His first of many books, The Senate of Lilliput (1983) remains a classic guide to the tropes and unchanging habits of the buffoons and peacocks who occupy the Houses of Parliament. Ed sadly died on 9 February at the age of 78.

Anyone intelligent who has worked for that rancid bitch deserves all the help he can get

Like Pearce, Ian Aitken started his Fleet Street career on the Daily Express. It’s impossible to imagine today just how important that newspaper used to be in the 1950s and ’60s; today it is, like the whole of the Street, just a shadow of its former self. Never entirely at home at the Express (he was a lifelong Labour Party supporter) he jumped to The Guardian in 1964, taking a pay cut to do so. At The Guardian he rose to become political editor – and grieved for what the Party became under Tony Blair. In 2010 he wrote: “There has been something unpleasant about the way Britain has been run by ‘new’ Labour – a mixture of old-fashioned incompetence and a lofty disregard for the wishes of ordinary people…the outstanding example of the lofty disregard was the decision to go to war in Iraq.” Aitken lived to 91.

Pearce and Aitken embodied the highest standards of truth and integrity, unlike Luciano Benjamin Menéndez (pictured centre with dagger), who as Commander of the Third Army Corps in Argentina led the war against the Ejército Revolucionario del Pueblo, ERP (the marxist People’s Revolutionary Army) in Tucuman province during 1975-79, at the height of the so-called dirty war. He was accused of almost 800 crimes of murder, kidnapping, and torture, but it was not until 2008 that he was finally served with a life sentence for crimes against humanity. Nor did he much love Chileans: he once said “if they let us attack the Chileans, we’ll chase them to Easter Island, we’ll drink the New Year’s Eve toast in the Palacio de La Moneda, and then we’ll piss the champagne into the Pacific.” A heart attack did for him on 27 February at the age of 90.

luciano Menendez

By the time he died at the age of 103 Dobri Dimitrov Dobrev, the Bulgarian ascetic, had walked thousands of kilometres

The roll-call of the centenarians this month included Nini Theilade, the Danish-born ballet dancer and teacher, who first appeared on the stage in the Hague in 1929 at the age of 14. She fled the Second World War for Brazil but returned to Denmark, where she appeared in many productions and founded a ballet academy in Thurø; she died on 13 February aged 102. Julio Barela died at 101; he was one of the last survivors of the infamous Bataan death march, when as many as 80,000 American and Filipino prisoners-of-war were forcibly marched across the Philippines. Thousands died. When liberated in 1945 Barela weighed just 80 pounds. By the time he died at the age of 103 Dobri Dimitrov Dobrev, the Bulgarian ascetic, had walked thousands of kilometres; he notched up 12 each day to stand outside the Cathedral of Alexander Nevsky in Sofia, where he collected money to give to charities. In 2000 he decided to donate all his belongings to the Orthodox church, and lived thereafter very modestly in a small extension to the parish church in his native village of Bailovo.


Helmut Sinn (pictured centre), the German maker of the eponymous watch brand, died aged 101. He flew with the Luftwaffe in the Second World War, was shot down over Russia and lost both his little fingers as a result. That didn’t stop him from starting his business in 1956, because he needed a job and “was looking for something that did not need much space or material.” Dorothy Rungeling, one of Canada’s pioneer aviators and the first woman to fly a helicopter solo, died at 106. The author of the first manual on rocket propellants, Barys Kita, who was born in St Petersburg Russia but later took up American citizenship, lived to 107.

The Moldovan model Anastasia Cecati was stabbed to death by her husband at the age of 31, 20 days after she gave birth to a daughter; her husband then jumped to his death

At the other end of the spectrum, death for the young often arrives violently and without warning. The Moldovan model Anastasia Cecati was stabbed to death by her husband at the age of 31, 20 days after she gave birth to a daughter; her husband then jumped to his death. In Slovakia Ján Kuciak, an investigative journalist who dug into the tax frauds of business people connected to local politicians, was shot dead at his home along with his girlfriend Martina Kušnírová: both were 27; all seven of those arrested on suspicion of the murders have been released for lack of evidence. Scott Westgarth won his final professional boxing match on 24 February at the age of 31 before dying from his injuries a day later. Bence Lázár, the Hungarian footballer, succumbed to leukemia at the age of 26, while the Nepalese gangster Manoj Pun was shot dead by Nepalese police after a year’s hunt; he was 30. The British grime artist Stormin (born Shaun Lewis) made it to 34 before dying from skin cancer. Danilo Caçador, who played as an attacking midfielder for the ill-starred Chapecoense football team in Brazil, who lost all but three of their players in a 2016 plane crash, died from a heart attack aged 32. Roman Nikolayevich Filipov took his own life with a grenade at the age of 34; he was a Russian pilot who was shot down in Idlib Province in Syria. Wounded but defending himself, those who shot him down gradually surrounded him; his last words as he pulled the pin were: “This is for our guys”.

Dan Alon was a fencer and one of five Israeli athletes at the 1972 Olympics who avoided being held hostage by terrorists, who killed nine others; he died at the age of 72.

Marike Bok painted former prime minister Ruud Lubbers *11 April 2011

The longest-serving Dutch prime minister, Ruud Lubbers (pictured right), died aged 78; as president of the European Council of Ministers in late 1991 he brokered the Maastricht Treaty. In 2000 he was appointed the UN’s High Commissioner for Refugees, where he was involved in covering-up the results of an investigation into allegations that he sexually harassed staff; when the story finally came out in the British press in February 2005 he resigned and – like many others since – claimed he had been smeared by the media and that he resigned “in the interests of the organisation.”

In the end, sweetness is all

Scandals, tragedy, charlatans, weirdos…The Reaper sweeps them all up in the end. Last of all but by no means least, Norman Walsh died in February aged 83. Virtually no-one had heard of him – except in the world of bees. He passed his first examination in bee-keeping in 1953 and when he retired from a job with Unilever in 1989 he had time to indulge his real love, the cultivation and improvement of bees and their honey. He ran courses in Northern Ireland, where he lived, and built a bridge to Ukraine’s bee-keepers, helping them to become hosts of Apimondia in 2013. In a quiet, unnoticeable fashion, Walsh helped to protect bees and produce the finest quality honey, in the UK and overseas. In the end, sweetness is all.

Picture sources: Florida Memory, Enrique Rosito, Miriam Schumm, Marike Bok