RIP January 2018

What links a cranberry, a chicken, and a teletubby? They all died in January. Along with dozens more figures from history, some well-known and others who should be better known.

Roll up, roll up! Buy your Tinky Winky toy now – before they all disappear. Simon Shelton Barnes was the actor who dressed up as the Tinky Winky character between 1998-2001, in the surreal kid’s TV series the Teletubbies. He died in January at the age of 52, apparently from hypothermia; his lifeless body was found on a waterfront in the northern British city of Liverpool. Following news of his death the Tinky Winky toy was withdrawn from a toy fair. Barnes was found in the early morning of 17 January, sadly lacking the massive purple garb of Tinky Winky, which would have helped fend off the cold. Initially reluctant to take the role, Barnes’ three year run in the part – during which he carried a red handbag – was slightly controversial; there were accusations that Tinky Winky was homosexual, but he shrugged those off. As the programme said at the end: “Teletubbies’ bye-bye.”

And the chicken? “Big Mama” was a Rhode Island chicken who had spent her early life cooped up in an apartment. With her new owners she settled into life in Texas very easily in 2013, joining other chickens (Bubbles, Runt, Ms. S, Funky, Lucky and Blondie) as part of the Sword family – who adored her so much they paid for an obit to appear in the local newspaper.


She was once arrested on a flight from New York to Shannon airport, after headbutting an Irish policeman and shouting “I’m the queen of Limerick!”

As for the cranberry…Dolores O’Riordan (pictured) was just 46 when she died in a London hotel. Tiny, a charismatic live performer, and graced with an astonishing voice – perhaps heard at its best in this video –  O’Riordan had a troubled life, recalling when she was just past 40 how she had been sexually abused from the age of eight for four years. The youngest of nine, a child of a solidly working class Roman Catholic family in Ireland, in 1990, aged 21, she auditioned for the role of lead singer for a band originally called Cranberry Saw Us, which later became the Cranberries. She became an honorary member of the University Philosophical Society at Trinity College, Dublin. Fame went to her head slightly; she was once arrested on a flight from New York to Shannon airport, after headbutting an Irish policeman and shouting “I’m the queen of Limerick!” In 2017 she revealed she was suffering from bipolar disorder.

“We have decided once and for all to side with the many.” Those words are from A Furniture Dealer’s Testament, which appeared as an appendix to Leading by Design: the Ikea Story. They were written by one of the most complex – and richest – of individuals, Ingvar Kamprad (pictured), who has died peacefully aged 91. He was born in Sweden, although his father was of German descent. At the age of seven young Ingvar started his business career by selling matches, graduating to fish, Christmas tree decorations, and pencils. Ikea was founded in 1943 and is controlled by the Dutch-registered Stichting INGKA Foundation, which has both philanthropic and tax-avoidance purposes; it usefully protects Ikea from attempted take-overs. In his teens, in 1942 Kamprad joined Nysvenska Rörelsen, a proto-fascist organisation in Sweden, and was an activist for Svensk Socialistisk Samling. The latter was a peculiar movement. Founded in 1933, it was a Swedish version of Nazism, but later moved its policies to emphasise its socialist, anti-capitalist nature. As early as May 1945 it claimed that no holocaust happened. Kamprad lived his central ideas of humility, strength of will, simplicity, cost awareness, and fellowship – and drove Ikea to become a classless icon.


The same day Kamprad died saw the passing of another elderly icon, Addison Morton ‘Mort’ Walker, aged 94. Mort was born in Kansas and at the age of 18 he was already chief editorial designer for Hallmark Cards. Her served in Italy during the Second World War and in 1948 finally went to college, graduating from the University of Missouri in 1948. Best known for his Beetle Bailey comic strips – featuring a lazy US army private who lived at Camp Swampy – Walker founded the National Cartoon Museum in the US in 1974; the collection is now housed in Ohio State University.

Naomi Parker Fraley died in Washington aged 96. She will live, however, as long as poster art remains popular. For Naomi was the model for the famous “We Can Do It!” poster used in Westinghouse factories in the US from 1943 to encourage the morale of wartime workers. This was not entirely undisputed – the model for the poster, now often used as a feminist icon, was for years considered to be Geraldine Hoff Doyle, who died in 2010 aged 86. Philip Jacobson was a legend on Fleet Street, having covered for The Sunday Times wars in Bangladesh, Chad, Cyprus, El Salvador, Lebanon and Vietnam. It’s said that in Bogota, Colombia, he was part of a small group of reporters who consumed 13 bottles of wine during an eight-hour lunch. The book he co-authored on the events of Bloody Sunday in Northern Ireland in 1972 – Those are real bullets, aren’t they? – remains a classic. Meningitis felled him at the age of 79, on 1 January.

Organised religion is synonymous with brutality, social division, systematic abuse, and generalised intimidation.

America, land of the free, has lost a bishop. Not just any old bishop, but a 90 year-old bishop, Thomas Spencer Monson, the 16th president of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, better known as the Mormons, which has around 16 million members. At The Reaper organised religion is synonymous with brutality, social division, systematic abuse, and generalised intimidation. It is also, we need to recall, a joke: the Mormons are firmly against homosexuality, masturbation, lesbianism and all forms of sexual ‘deviation’. Monson rose from being a bishop of the Mormons at the remarkable age of 22 to be head (president) of the Church. He was also for much of his life part of the Utah State Roller Club, for pigeon breeders.

Some who died in January went without much public attention, yet deserve wider recognition. One such was Małgorzata Bochenska, a Polish journalist who courageously opposed both the creeping authoritarianism of the current Polish government and who had, earlier, fought against the martial law imposed in December 1981. She was just 69. Another was Ivan Otto Schwarz, who died age 94 in London. Born of Jewish parents in Bratislava, his family escaped to Britain and aged 16 he lied about his age and joined the Czech Air Force in the UK, flying Wellington and Liberator bombers as an air gunner. He went back to Czechoslovakia in 1948 but, under communism, swiftly returned to London. Elza Brandeisz died aged 110. A trained dancer, she was honoured in 1995 as “righteous among nations” by Yad Vashem in Israel, partly because she hid the young George Soros from the Germans. During the Second World War she worked as a dancer and a teacher in a private dance school run by a Jewish woman, Béla Lajtai. During the war the school was registered under Brandeisz’s name to avoid confiscation by German Nazis.

The human is a peculiar creation. Unpredictable and merciless. We played music in hell.

Many died before they had fulfilled their promise. Christa Leigh Steele-Knudslien, who organised transsexual beauty pageants in the US, was beaten and stabbed to death by her husband at the age of 42, the first recorded victim of violence against transgender people in the US in 2018. Saksham Yadav, a former powerlifting world champion, died at the age of 28 in a traffic accident near Delhi – three other powerlifters were killed in the same car. Tricia Walker reached 53 when she died from an aggressive form of cancer; her debut novel, Benedict’s Brother, was initially rejected so she took to writing a blog, on which she published her book – and which gained a worldwide following and became book of the year for Publishing News in 2007. Mao Kankan, a Chinese entrepreneur, gassed himself at home when he was 35; the growing and vast debt of the digital gaming business he founded seems to have been the motive. Marcos José Carvajal, the 33 year-old professional baseball player, died from pneumonia, probably due to the chronic lack of medicines in his native Venezuela. At the same age Andrew Carroll, a professional US ice-hockey layer, decided to jump from the upper level of Chicago’s O’Hare airport. Yell Htwe Aung, a Burmese comedian and growing Internet star thanks to his short videos, was beaten to death while out celebrating New Year’s Eve; he was 24. Olvia Lua, 23, was the fifth pornographic movie ‘star’ to have died in recent weeks. She succumbed to a cocktail of prescription drugs and alcohol.

It’s a moot point as to what precisely Imad al-Alami’s promise was, but he nevertheless died in January aged 61. One of the founders of the terrorist group Hamas, it seems he was inspecting his own weapon when it accidentally fired, and he shot himself in the head. Sources say that he was the point man for all of Iran’s relations with Hamas, but who knows really.

Ursula Le Guin

Many famous people died in January – the South African musician Hugh Masakela, the American novelist Ursula Le Guin (pictured), and the French chef Paul Bocuse are just a handful – but we’ll end with Heinz Jakob ‘Coco’ Schumann, who lived till 93 – the ‘Coco’ was, he said, the creation of a French girlfriend who couldn’t pronounce Jakob. He was born in Berlin in 1924 and at the age of 19, in 1943, was turned into the Nazis as a Jew who played forbidden jazz music. He played guitar in a band which took the name the “Ghetto Swingers”. He was shipped first to the Theresienstadt concentration camp and subsequently to Auschwitz. When he arrived at Auschwitz he was asked to form a band with two other members of the “Swingers”: they played for “hours and hours ever day, especially when they [the guards] tattooed the new arrivals, because it was such boring work.”

He once recalled: “The human is a peculiar creation. Unpredictable and merciless. What we saw in those days was unbearable, and yet we bore it. We played the tunes to it, for the sake of our bare survival. We played music in hell.”

Picture sources: Eva Rinaldi, Gorthian