Features

RIP July 2018


July was a very bad month for professional wrestlers. Come to think of it, it wasn't great for writers, journalists, actors...Read on for the highlights.

July was not a great month if you were a professional wrestling fan – and 29 July was an unusually trying day, with three wrestlers going at the same time. Brian Christopher Lawler finally gave in to his struggle with the bottle and hanged himself in a police cell in Tennessee at the age of 46. The same day “Brickhouse” Brown (Frederick Seawright) had his own ‘clean finish’ by succumbing to the final stages of prostate cancer; he was initially thought dead nine days earlier but he woke up and said he was hungry. He was 57. And Josip Hrvoje Peruzović – better known as Nikolai Volkoff – died at the age of 70. A Croatian who became a US citizen, Volkoff had a variety of roles and names in the professional wrestling circuit, including Bepo of the Mongols tag team. He had recently been hospitalised suffering from dehydration – not surprising, given the heat more of less everywhere. A more serious wrestler was Vakhtang Balavadze (pictured left) from Georgia, who won an Olympics bronze medal for welterweight freestyle wrestling for the USSR in 1956; he lived to be 90. On 14 July the Japanese professional wrestler Masanori Saito – better known as Mr Saito – died from complications of Parkinson’s disease aged 76; he once had a bout with a fellow Japanese on a deserted island which endured for two hours.

Vakhtang Balavadze

The ‘Few’ just became even fewer

The ‘Few’ just became even fewer. I love stories of success that hinge on an accidental encounter. One of my favourites concerns Geoffrey Harris Augustus Wellum, who died on 18 July at the age of 96. He was living on borrowed time; he had flown a Spitfire in early 1940, as part of 92 Squadron, and was in the thick of the Battle of Britain, and gained the Distinguished Flying Cross. The 1980s were not great for him and he withdrew to Cornwall, where he spent his time writing in longhand his memoir of his life during his Spitfire days. The manuscript was never intended for publication but it found its way into the hands of Viking Books, who published First Light: The Story of the Boy Who Became a Man in the War-Torn Skies Above Britain to great acclaim in 2002. Thomas Francis “Ginger” Neil did not enjoy the literary success of Wellum but not from lack of trying. Neil was a wing commander in the RAF during the Battle of Britain; he scored more ‘kills’ than Wellum; he wrote more books than Wellum; he gained more medals than Wellum; but when he died on 11 July aged 97, he was less written about than Wellum when he died. Such is the quixotic nature of even modest fame.

The cool demonstrated by people like Wellum and Neil was partially explained by the latter a few years ago, when he said in an interview: “As soon as you got airborne everything was easy because you’re so busy dealing with it.” Mary Wilkins – later, after marriage, Mary Ellis – was a supremely cool woman who learned to fly when she was 16 and who in October 1941 joined the British Air Transport Auxiliary, ferrying military aircraft around the UK. Ellis died aged 101 on 24 July.

He was killed in his monastery at dawn, hit over the head by a pointed object, on his way to morning prayers

Other centenarians slid quietly away in July, not the least of whom was Chiyo Miyako, who at 117 years and 81 days died just as the evidence of her claim to be the world’s oldest living person had been approved by Guinness World Records. One of her favourite foods was eels. Anne Olivier Bell (née Popham) lived to 102. Part of the Bloomsbury Group and the editor of the diaries of Virginia Woolf, she also played a significant part in protecting and recovering works of art stolen by the Nazis in the Second World War. She was, in fact, one of the Monuments Men, celebrated in the 2014 movie of the same name and directed by George Clooney – though, being Hollywood, the cast of the film was mostly male and women didn’t seem to have done much; which was, it goes without saying, a total distortion of the truth.

Anba Epiphanius

The murder of Anba Epiphanius (pictured), the Abbot of the Monastery of Saint Macarius the Great, on 29 July, might have featured in the novel The Name of The Rose by Umberto Eco. The Abbot was 64 and to all intents and purposes utterly harmless – though darker secrets clearly lurked below the surface. He was killed in his monastery at dawn, hit over the head by a pointed object, on his way to morning prayers. Adding to the mystery of who did him in and why, three others were found wounded at the site. Denis Yuryevich Ten, the Kazakhstan figure skater who won an Olympic bronze medal in 2014, died on 19 July after losing three litres of blood on an Almaty street; he was stabbed in the thigh by a couple of hoodlums who wanted to steal his car mirrors. The South African featherweight boxing champion Manelisi Mbilase, 40, was stoned and beaten to death in East London after threatening some women with a knife and robbing them.

The Abbot’s murder was far from being the only brutal killing in July. Simegnew Bekele, the Ethiopian engineer who was known as the public face of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, a huge project that is highly controversial, was found shot dead in his Toyota Land Cruiser in Addis Ababa. He had a pistol in his right hand, a clumsy effort to make his death appear to be a suicide; he was 53.

He clearly not only loved but identified with children, which makes him pretty special in my eyes

I must record the passage of some people who became great companions in my childhood and who have delighted my own children in turn. Peter Firmin died aged 89. A very clever puppetmaker, Firmin made not one but several brilliant children’s TV series in collaboration with Oliver Postgate, my favourites being Noggin the Nog and Bagpuss; he clearly not only loved but identified with children, which makes him pretty special in my eyes. Clive King, author of the utterly brilliant novel Stig of the Dump, died aged 94; King wrote 20 more novels but none captured the hearts of audiences in the way that Stig managed. Jessica Mann died at 80; she produced 22 crime novels and wrote a considerable amount about crime fiction as a genre. One of Britain’s classic character actors, Bernard Hepton, who scarcely seemed to leave the TV screen in the 70s and 80s, went at the age of 92. Vladimir Voinovich, a Tajik-born writer who was forced into exile in 1980 but later allowed back to Moscow in 1990, died at 85. His best-known book – The Life and Extraordinary Adventures of Private Ivan Chonkin – a kind of  Good Soldier Švejk updated and set in the Second World War – got Voinovich into troubles with the authorities; but his reputation will live far longer than theirs.

Claude Lanzmann

Nor can we ignore the death of Claude Lanzmann (pictured) at 92. In 1985 his nine-and-a-half hour documentary on the Holocaust, Shoah, was released. Highly controversial because it made clear that the Nazi’s Holocaust had been eased by Poland’s deep anti-semitism that pre-dated the Nazis, yet completely ignored the anti-semitism of France, Lanzmann’s country, it remains a magnificent achievement and a testimony to Lanzmann’s dedication. Lanzmann fought as a young man with the communist resistance to the Nazis and after the war  became a friend of Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir.

Three courageous journalists died this month. Orkhan Dzhemal, 51, Alexander Rastorguev, 47, and Kirill Radchenko, 33, were working in the Central African Republic, investigating Russia’s Wagner group, which is a quasi-independent military contractor that has supplied mercenaries to supplement Russian armed forces everywhere from the Ukraine to Syria. They were ambushed and brutally slaughtered shortly after being refused entry to a Wagner base – you can listen to the theme tune of this shady bunch of murderers here.

Enjoy the final days of heat – winter is coming…

Picture source: Unknown,  Kyrieevlogison, Donostia Kultura