Features

RIP February 2019


Some months it's a matter of sifting through crumbs, searching for interestingly quirky deaths. And then other months it's like being handed a richly spiced fruit cake. February's cake was absolutely stuffed with cherries.

Of all the wierdos whose death should be noted this month, perhaps none had quite such a bizarre background as Gizella Bodnár, the notorious female Hungarian serial burglar, who died in Budapest aged 92. She had spent more than 16 of those years in jail. Her sentences totalled 40 years; her last arrest (of more than 20) was in August 2017, when she was 91. Repülős Gizi – ‘Airplane Gizi’ as she became known, because her modus operandi involved taking domestic flights to different cities in Hungary – was an unusual kleptomaniac in that she attributed her mania to having survived meningitis while a child. She claimed that she gave most of the stolen goods away, and died virtually penniless on 6 February, the same day that a woman with an even murkier past started feeding the worms. The story of Marcia Field, as she was born, who later became Marcia Williams and still later Marcia Falkender, is one of a rise from obscurity to the very centre of the British establishment.

“I have only one thing to say to you – I went to bed with your husband six times in 1956 and it wasn’t satisfactory.”

Unsubstantiated gossip has it that Marcia’s mother was an illegitimate daughter of King Edward VII. Upon graduating from the university of London (in history) she took up secretarial work, her first job doing the typing for the General Secretary of the Labour Party. In 1956 she became Harold Wilson’s private secretary and stuck to that until in 1964 he became Prime Minister – and Marcia shot to the epicentre of power, and also rumour. She successfully sued the BBC in 1974 when it suggested in a drama-doc, The Lavender List, that she used an affair with Wilson to blackmail him into awarding honours to cronies. Francis Wheen, a spirited Private Eye journalist, wrote the script. She won £75,000 from the BBC – but notably did not sue  Joe Haines, Wilson’s former press secretary, when he also alleged an affair. In his 2003 book Glimmers of Twilight Haines wrote that Marcia told Wilson’s wife Mary: “I have only one thing to say to you – I went to bed with your husband six times in 1956 and it wasn’t satisfactory.” High time that the BBC – which promised not to air The Lavender List, a concession made as part of Marcia’s victory – broadcast the programme now the old bat is dead.

One wonders what Jeremy Hardy (pictured), who died on 1 February from brain cancer aged just 57, would have made of the Wilson-era scandals had he being doing stand-up comedy then. A brilliant and impassioned performer, his gift was to reduce the pompous and foolish to their bare bones, while spinning off into increasingly absurd mockeries. I won’t miss many of this month’s departed, but I will miss him. As I will Bruno Ganz, the Swiss actor whose grizzled visage departed from the stage on 16 February, struck down by intestinal cancer at the age of 77. He graced many fine movies directed by such as Wim Wenders and Werner Herzog but perhaps found true international recognition for his portrayal of Adolf Hitler in his final days, in the film Downfall – which has since spawned many parodies on Youtube, perhaps the funniest being this one on Brexit. Equally grizzled was Serge Merlin, a fine French cinematic and theatrical actor who is perhaps best-known for playing Raymond Dufayel in the romantic comedy movie Amélie, although his role as Phillippeaux in Andrzej Wajda’s Danton, who carries on reading his book while all round him the revolutionary debate swirls, stays with me more. He died aged 86.

He was one of the UK’s biggest spies, perhaps a peculiar profession for someone who had a PhD in aesthetics

Charles Blandford Farr was snuffed out at 59, struck down by cancer. He was one of the UK’s biggest spies, perhaps a peculiar profession for someone who had a PhD in aesthetics. In the 1980s he worked in Aghanistan for MI6, bribing warlords to stop producing opium – an utter failure, as more opium is today produce in Afghanistan than ever before. Unpopular with his peers – several top officials threatened to resign if he was made head of MI6 – he failed to get the top jobs at MI6 and GCHQ but he went on to supervise the security for the 2012 London Olympics, where he came up with the expensively mad idea of positioning missiles on the roofs of residential buildings in east London to deal with any security threat. Shortly before he died he was awarded a knighthood – which says much about how and why such baubles are distributed. Kevin Ruane was another former spy – he had worked at the British government’s signals HQ, GCHQ after taking a degree in Classics – but was much better known and admired for his impeccable reporting for the BBC from Moscow and Warsaw in the 1970s and 80s. He was 86. I was inadvertently instrumental, in a tiny way, for his being kicked out of Poland in 1982 after the imposition of martial law in December 1981; the Polish authorities said the BBC dramatisation of the events of the military takeover, Two Weeks In Winter – for which I had done some research while a British Council lecturer in Poland – was damaging and was why Ruane’s credentials were not renewed.

There are plenty of reasons why Burkina Faso is not high on my list of places to visit, not least being the cheapness of life there, as Antonio César Fernández discovered on 15 February. He was a Roman Catholic missionary who criss-crossed Africa doing the work of God and died, aged 72, in a hail of bullets from supposed jihadists in the south of of the country. Also shot this month were T. J. Cunningham, a 46 year-old former American football star – he had arranged to meet a neighbour to decide a row over a parking space by having a punch-up, but the neighbour decided to shoot him instead. Novak Bošković, a handball player for Serbia’s national team, shot himself at home on 3 February; he was 29 and only recently had started a family. Alaa Mashzoub, an Iraqi journalist and historian, an expert on the history of Iraq’s Jews, was shot and killed at the age of 50 on 2 February, no doubt targeted by one of the militias that were subject to his fierce and courageous criticisms.

Now for the truly bonkers German who made a living from egregious self-display backed up by bugger-all evidence. No, not Karl Lagerfeld (pictured) but Erika Hedwig Bertschinger-Eicke

Almost as eccentric as Gizella Bodnár was Leonard Casley, the Australian farmer and self-proclaimed monarch of the Principality of Hutt River, who died at the age of 93. His son Graeme has become monarch in his place. Hutt River – a 75 square kilometre ‘principality’ some 500 kilometres north of Perth in Western Australia – is one of those marvellous eccentricities which embellish our world. Leonard was tougher than leather and hard as nails. For nearly 50 years he had been in dispute with the Australian government over wheat quotas. In 1969 the federal government imposed a quota system, which limited production. The Casley farm was some 4,000 hectares but the government permitted Leonard to sell the wheat produced on just 40 hectares. In December 1977 the principality declared war on Australia, though peace was announced a few days later. The principality has never been recognised, and the Australian tax office is pursuing the Casleys for various unpaid taxes.

Now for the truly bonkers German who made a living from egregious self-display backed up by bugger-all evidence. No, not Karl Lagerfeld (although he did die in February), but Erika Hedwig Bertschinger-Eicke, who in January 1980 founded in the municipality of Egg, in Zurich canton, the ‘Order’ of Fiat Lux, started calling herself Uriella, and claimed to be the direct mouthpiece of Jesus Christ. Followers of her religion – and yes, there are some – dress all in white because white defeats the evil beams of the Devil. Erika fell off her horse in 1973 and was badly injured in the head – which may explain a lot. She went off, presumably to meet her maker, four days after her 90th birthday on 24 February. Another 90 year-old, Princess Sara Gizaw, who once was renowned as one of the beauties of the court of Emperor Haile Sellassie of Ethiopia, died, as did another ‘princess’, Caroline Lee Radziwill, a sister-in-law of President J. F. Kennedy, aged 85.

Albert Finney, a fine and versatile British actor and star of many movies, from Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960) onwards, and whose depiction of Ebenezer Scrooge in the 1970 movie directed by Ronald Neame is for my money the best version, went at 82. Idriz Ajeti reached 101, an astonishing age for someone who was born in 1917 in Serbia and thus lived at a time and in a place of enormous political and military upheavals. His career was spent studying the Albanian language;  he ultimately became chairman of the Academy of Sciences and Arts of Kosovo. Gordon Banks, who had a scintillating 20-year career as a professional goalkeeper and who used chewing gum to make his hands stickier, died aged 81. Squadron Leader Dick Churchill, the last survivor of the 76 men who escaped from Stalag Luft III in Germany in 1944 – and which was memorialised in the 1963 movie The Great Escape, directed by John Sturges – died aged 99. Seventy-three of the escapees were quickly recaptured, including Churchill, and two-thirds of them were executed as punishment, Churchill probably being saved by his surname.

Flat Stanley is a character in a highly successful children’s series of books dating from the 1960s onwards, about a two dimensional boy, an unimaginable state of being that children of a certain age have no trouble imagining. The idea that a child can exist who is flat, yet who interacts with the three-dimensional world quite happily, is so simple and yet lends itself to all kinds of bizarre and amusing situations. The first – and the best – illustrator of the Flat Stanley books was Tomi Ungerer (pictured), an enormously prolific and talented writer and illustrator, who was born in Strasbourg but grew up in Alsace and lived through the German occupation of the French province. You can see an example of Ungerer’s early work here, a quick animation of his story The Hat. Ungerer too died this month, in Cork, Ireland, aged 87. His website says: “He died peacefully in his sleep with a book beside him.”

I’ll be here again in early March.

Picture sources: Andy from London, PictureCapital, Claude Truong-Ngoc