Features

RIP June 2017


Mr. Pogo, as he liked to be known, will fight no more deathmatches: the Japanese professional wrestler, born Tetsuo Sekigawa 66 years ago, died of a brain haemorrhage on 23 June, while having surgery on his back. Sekigawa is just one of a selection of the interesting and the odd who snuffed it last month.

A shroud of centenarians saw their end in June, including Nikolai Zhugan, a Russian pilot during the Second World War and later an Air Force Major General; Lorna McDonald, an Australian writer; Zoltán Sárosy, the Hungarian-born professional chess player, who died aged 110 years and 300 days, thus qualifying as the world’s 9th oldest living person; Sam Beazley, a British actor who had a minor role in one of the ‘Harry Potter’ movies; Trento Longaretti, the Italian artist; Zhang Tianfu, a Chinese tea expert; and Theodor Bergmann (pictured), a German agronomist, who made it to 101. The aptly named Ren Rong, who was the Chinese Communist Party boss of the Tibet Autonomous Region during 1971-1980, almost made this list but died aged 99 just three months shy of his 100th birthday.

Few big beasts saw their end in June, but of that small band Helmut Kohl (main image), former Chancellor of Germany, was the biggest. The charisma-free Kohl won just about every accolade going by the time of his death aged 87, largely as a result of his role in the reunification of Germany in 1990. Kohl, like everyone else, was completely taken by surprise by the swift collapse of the USSR. Despite the current Chancellor, Angela Merkel, being a protegé of Kohl’s, he was happy in 2011 to be quoted all over the place as saying “that woman is destroying my Europe” for her strict austerity EU polices following the Great Collapse of the financial world in 2008. Portly since his youth, he gained the nickname Birne (pear) for his shape. At the age of 78 he married for the second time (his first wife, who suffered from photodermatitis, killed herself in 2001) a woman 34 years younger. Maike Richter cared for the wheelchair-bound brain-injured Kohl in his final years, but there was a bitter rift between her and his sons.

Politicians are, almost by definition, never to be trusted; unlike Paddington Bear, who is so naive as to be completely trustworthy, without a devious thought in his head. Thomas Michael Bond, Paddington’s creator, died in June at the age of 91. The fortunes accruing from Paddington almost rival those of Harry Potter; more than 35 million Paddington books sold, TV series, a film (and sequel promised), audiobooks, toys – the merchandising goes on and on. Not bad for someone whose first Paddington book was rejected by seven publishers, before the final one purchased it for £75 in 1958. It was a precarious start for a writing career, and Bond kept his day job – as a cameraman for the BBC – until 1966.

She was the Swedish court’s Chief Court Mistress, which sounds luridly lubricious but actually only means the senior lady-in-waiting

Sometimes people deserve notice in obituaries simply because they have such weird and wonderful names. Take the Countess Alice Victoria Trolle-Wachtmeister, who died age 91 in June. She was the Swedish court’s ‘Chief Court Mistress’ from 1994-2015, which sounds luridly lubricious but actually only means the senior lady-in-waiting. Trained as a child care nurse, her main claim to fame appears to be that in 2012 she (along with others) had to be presented with the new baby born in line to the throne of Sweden, to bear witness that the child hadn’t been swapped with someone else.

And some deaths can only be categorised as really bad luck. Such as that of Sergei Vikharev, a prominent Russian ballet dancer and choreographer, at the age of 55. An ‘Honored Artist of Russia’, Vikharev went into a dentist on 2 June in Saint Petersburg for regular surgery, and died from a cardiac arrest under the anaesthetic. Patrick Johnston, Vice-Chancellor of Queen’s University Belfast, was a leading expert in cancer research. On 4 June he happily went forth on his bicycle and when he returned he died suddenly, at the age of 58. Cheick Ismaël Tioté, aged 30, and who played 52 times for the Ivory Coast national football squad, died from a cardiac arrest while training in Beijing, where he played for his latest football team. Rokas Žilinskas (pictured), the first openly gay member of the Lithuanian parliament who earlier was a journalist, died from pneumonia aged 44. Mao Kobayashi, a well-known Japanese TV broadcaster, died of breast cancer aged just 34.

If any really obvious bastards checked out in June, I confess to overlooking them, although the Saudi Arabian arms dealer Adnan Khashoggi, who died 6 June aged 81, might qualify. He made his fortune by taking ‘commissions’ from companies such as Lockheed who sold their weapons to the Saudi kingdom. He eventually landed up in a Swiss jail and narrowly avoided extradition to the US to face charges of racketeering and conspiracy; the US authorities got him only on the lesser charges of obstruction of justice and mail fraud. A truly grubby billionaire who will not be missed.

A truly grubby billionaire who will not be missed

One intriguing character who left the stage in June was Yuri Drozdov, a former KGB Major-General who masterminded and led the assassination of the Afghan president Hafizullah Amin in 1979. Aged 91, he had been an artillery officer in 1945 and entered Berlin as part of the Red Army; graduated from the Military Institute for Languages; and was the head KGB man at the UN in New York in 1975. After he retired in 1991 he gave a few interviews. In one from 2011, he reportedly said: “I would not give top marks to Nato’s Special Forces, not to the American system of training. What they do is try to carry out their special operations without getting their hands dirty, and that, to my mind, is a rather dubious business.”

“For decades, my name was more popular in police stations than bookshops, and I do not mean to compliment the literary awareness of Spanish policemen.” So said Juan Goytisolo, who died aged 86, and winner of Spain’s most prestigious literary award, the Cervantes Prize, in 2014. Widely recognised as Spain’s greatest living writer, he had nevertheless been in exile in Paris since the 1950s, an enemy of the Spanish dictator Francisco Franco. His father was imprisoned during the Spanish Civil War by the Republican government, for being an aristocrat, and his mother died in a Francoist air-raid on Barcelona in 1938. He moved to Marrakech on 1997 after the death of his wife; he said their Paris apartment had become like a tomb after she died.

And then there are some who went with scarcely any notice, yet who profoundly affected all of our daily lives. One such as France Rode, the Slovenian engineer and inventor who worked on the Hewlett-Packard HP-35 pocket calculator (pictured), the world’s first scientific pocket calculator, i.e. one with trigonometric and exponential functions, now commonplace for most pocket calculators. He also invented the first working Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) products, in the form of workplace entry cards. Born in 1934 he had no formal early education, because local partisans burned down the school after the Germans occupied the country. He died aged 82. Angela Hartley Brodie, who also was 82 when she died, was another. Brodie was a leading expert on developing treatments for breast cancer – many women are alive today thanks to her. She succumbed to Parkinson’s in the end.

Many women are alive today thanks to her

And then there are the oddities. 24 year-old Randy Stair – nicknamed ‘Andrew Blaze’ – had worked at Weis Markets, a Pennsylvania-based food retailer, for seven years prior to June 2017. While he lived at home with his parents, Stair produced videos and journals in which he expressed his fascination with suicide and mass shootings. When he went to the store for his regular late night shift on 7 June he was armed with two pump action shotguns, which he used to kill three other employees, shoot up items around the store, before finishing himself off by putting the gun to his mouth in the delicatessen section. The killings barely rippled the national news in America, now perhaps too weary to note the murders of just three people, and the suicide of one strange, no doubt suffering young person, who had somehow bought himself a couple of shotguns all too easily.

Until next time.

Picture sources: Artur Klose, Veit Feger, Dovile Liesauskaite, Seth Morabito