Politicians, artists, philosophers, sports personalities, soldiers – the Grim Reaper’s scythe is never still, and produced a fine crop in January. Cancer, heart attacks, strokes, a few murders, some suicides, and sheer old age did their work. Some had defied death for many years, such as Elisabeth Ekenæs, Norway’s ‘supercentenarian’, who died on 4 January at the age of 112. Elisabeth’s recipe for a long, if not particularly exciting, life was supposedly that she never smoked, never drank alcohol, was always cheerful, and never consorted with men. I can tick off only one of those.
Another – and more notorious – centenarian who died was Brunhilde Pomsel, the last living person who knew at first hand what it must have been like to work in Hitler’s Chancellery. Pomsel slipped away on 27 January. She had been the personal secretary of Joseph Goebbels, Nazi propaganda minister.
Pomsel joined the Nazi Party quite early, in 1933, working in the news department of the Third Reich’s radio broadcaster. In 1942 she moved to Goebbels’ ministry where she took shorthand from the “raging midget” as she called him in an interview.
“We knew nothing, it was all kept well secret” she said
Pomsel might have watched Talat Tunçalp, the Turkish cyclist who raced his bike at the Berlin Olympics in 1936 and died on 1 January this year at the age of 101. He wasn’t the only sporting personality to give up the ghost in January. Just 26 days later the Russian women’s footballer, Tatiana Repeikina, a goalkeeper, died at just 43.
The sport world lost many elderly (and some very young) one-time ‘heroes’: the 1952 Olympic’s boxer Boris Nikolov, 87, from Bulgaria; the Moldovan footballer Ruslan Barburoș, found dead in his apartment at the age of 38; the Australian jockey Edgar Britt, 103;
Wim Anderiesen (pictured) played 177 football matches for the Dutch team Ajax, despite having been shot in the back in 1945 by German troops
The first Japanese to win a Grand Slam tennis tournament (in 1955), Kosei Kamo, was scythed down at the age of 84. Manuel Fernández Mora, the Spanish footballer and manager, died on 2 January aged 84, the same day as George Miller (87), whose claim to fame was that he played one first-class cricket match for Scotland, in 1955. The downhill ski racer Juan Vuarnet, who won the 1960 Winter Olympics’ gold medal for France, died the same day, just short of his 84th birthday. A couple of days later the South African professional golfer Wayne Brett Westner decided enough was enough, and shot himself at the age of 55…the list goes on.
Probably very few politicians can bask in the title of ‘Minister of Sport and Spectacles’ but that was once the job of the glasses-wearing Lelio Lagorio, who died on 7 January aged 91. A leading figure in Italy’s Socialist Party, Lagorio was minister of defence during 1980-83, when the still unresolved ‘Ustica Massacre’ happened: an Italian commercial flight mysteriously crashed into the Tyrrhenian Sea about 70 miles off the island of Ustica in June 1980. All 81 on board were killed. Was there a bomb aboard? Was it a rogue missile? Or did fighter planes mistakenly shoot the plane down? Despite years of official investigation, there’s still no definitive answer.
Elisabeth’s recipe for a long life: she never smoked, never drank alcohol, was always cheerful, and never consorted with men. I can tick off only one of those
Politicians tumbled in January, the most notorious probably being Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani (pictured), president of Iran 1989-1997, a son of extremely wealthy pistachio farmers. He died on 8 January aged 82. Corrupt, authoritarian and given to sanctioning the murder of Iranian opposition figures who lived abroad, he masterminded the 1994 bomb in Buenos Aires, Argentina, which blew apart the Argentine Israelite Mutual Association, killing 85 people and injuring many more. By coincidence Rafsanjani was next day followed by the death of Ali Shariatmadari, at the age of 93. A former minister of culture in Iran, Shariatmadari later had the job of training and vetting university professors, selecting students, and making sure that universities conformed to Islam. A more admirable Islamic leader died on 18 January aged 95: Hamza al Qâdiri al Boutchichi, murshid of the Qadirriyya Boutchichiyya Sufi order, based in Morocco, and a spiritual leader of the unquestionably great Sufi movement. Sufism has been regularly repressed by various Islamic regimes throughout its centuries-old existence. The last heir to the Ottoman empire, Bayezid Osman, the 44th Head of the Imperial House of Osman, which ruled from 1281 to 1922, when it was abolished, died in New York on 6 January aged 92. He never married and had no children.
There were, of course, a handful of political figures that died in January that deserve to be better remembered than some of the ogres who snuffed it. One was the Englishwoman Betty Tebbs, who died aged 98 on 23 January.
Tebbs learned that a boy doing the same job was earning two shillings a week more
An equally brave woman activist, Nadezhda Kavalírová, died at the aged of 93 in the Czech Republic. She trained in medicine at Charles University in Prague and in 1956 was arrested and convicted in a show trial. Released three years later, she took a job as a manual worker. In her old age she was chair of the Institute for the Study of Totalitarian Regimes.
Of British political figures who died in January, none invoke greater sorrow perhaps than Tam Dalyell, the Eton-educated maverick who initially supported the Tory Party while a Cambridge University undergraduate, but who joined the Labour Party in 1956, eventually becoming MP for West Lothian, and later Linthigow, both in Scotland. A staunch opponent of Scottish devolution, he also stood against all instances of British imperialism. He deeply loathed former Prime Minister Tony Blair, whom he publicly accused of being a war criminal. He was once asked his view of all eight prime ministers he had witnessed during his time in Parliament; he put Blair last of all, for his waging war in Kosovo and Iraq. An accomplished journalist, Dalyell died on 26 January aged 84. If nothing else, he will be missed for his implacable anti-Blairism.
Time ran out too for a number of rock musicians, not least Jaki Liebezeit, the German drummer and founder member of Can, and who later worked with Jah Wobble. Jaki went at the age of 78. Some big guns of the rock world who disappeared in January included Butch Trucks, drummer with the Allman Brothers Band (at 69 he decided to commit suicide by shooting himself), and Peter Overend Watts, bassist with Mott the Hoople, who died of throat cancer on 22 January aged 69, the same age as the deceased Michael Alexander Kellie, who played various instruments and sang for a number of groups, including Spooky Tooth. The gospel singer Nolitha Langa was hospitalised in South Africa with what appeared to be tonsillitis, only to fade away a few days later, aged 51. The Sophiatown jazz singer Thandi Klaasen died of pancreatic cancer on 15 January, aged 86. Anil Adhikari, better known by his stage name Yama Buddha (pictured), one of Nepal’s leading rappers, died on 14 January; he killed himself at his home in London aged 29.
Oxford University lost a great moral philosopher in Derek Parfit (74); the English art critic, novelist and painter John Berger succumbed (90); Shigeru Kōyama, the great Japanese film actor, departed (87); Ciro Bustos, the Argentine artist and guerrilla fighter who fought alongside Che Guevara, slipped away (84); and Dominique Appia, the Swiss painter whose surrealist works are quite beautiful, died at the age of 90. New Zealand’s last surviving veteran of the Battle of Britain, Bernie Brown, died on 23 January just after his 99th birthday. Brown was a lucky man; on his second patrol with his second squadron, 72, his Spitfire was shot down and Brown was declared unfit to fly fighters in combat because of his wound.
There were, of course, some highly odd people and very disturbing deaths in January. Christopher Chubasco Wilkins was on death row in Texas and was finally executed for a double murder on 11 January. At his 2005 trial he told his lawyer: “I guess, subconsciously, I’ve been trying to get myself killed since I was 12 or 13 years old. I don’t have nothing to live for. I haven’t been any good to anybody for the last 20 years and I won’t be for the next 20 or the 20 after that.” Nicodemo Domenico Scarfo – known as ‘Little Nicky’ – was the boss of the Philadelphia mafia syndicate. Scarfo died in prison of natural causes aged 87, an undeserved kindness that ‘Little Nicky’ never showed for others who, he felt, might have showed him the slightest disrespect. Another thug, Herbert Mies, former president of the German Communist Party, died age 87.
While on devious thugs let’s not forget Mohammed bin Faisal of Saudi Arabia in a hurry
But let’s not end on a sour note. There were a number of fine human beings who departed in January, among them Emmanuele Riva (who died from cancer aged 89), the French actor whose career extended from the 1959 movie Hiroshima Mon Amour, directed by Alain Resnais, right up to the moving 2012 film Amour, by Michael Haneke. We owe a great deal to David Rose (92) who not only brought British TV police drama out of the cozy world of Dixon of Dock Green by producing the classic series 1960s (and later) series Z-Cars, but who at Channel 4 oversaw the making of 136 films, many of them superb.
While we could probably all agree on those who the world is better off without, the choice of those who deserve mourning is inevitably highly personal. For me, it’s not the Lord Snowdons or Mary Tyler Moores – both of whom got the inevitable splashy sycophantic coverage when they too died in January – that count, but the smaller people, the quiet ones who went with scarcely a nod.
Father Placid (born Károly) Olofsson, of Budapest, who died at the age of 100, was one such. A Benedictine monk, he was arrested by the brutal Hungarian secret police in 1946 on trumped-up charges of terrorism. He refused to buckle under interrogation so the police sent him to a Soviet gulag, where he spent almost a decade 900 kilometres east of Moscow.
On his 100th birthday he published a book, in which he said: “I am aware of the fact that I am a simple man of average abilities, I have no special physical or mental skills. But life always demanded more from me than I was capable of; God always stood next to me, and more than once helped me in miraculous ways.”
Until February’s roster, adieu.
Picture source: Bundesarchiv, Jac. de Nijs, Sara Rajaei, Pankaj Acharaya