RIP March 2017

Actors, philosophers, sportsmen and women, politicians, prelates, rock stars, artists and scientists - in March the panoply of the dead was as varied as always. Here's just a selected few of the more notorious and some of the worthy yet overlooked.

Raw power seems to be one of the themes for this month’s obituary round-up. The Slovakian politician František Gaulieder appears to have committed suicide at the age of 66 by walking in front of a train. Elected to the Slovakian parliament, in Bratislava, in 1994, he publicly attacked the leadership of his party, the HZDS, then headed by prime minister Vladimír Mečiar. Gaulieder criticised Mečiar’s autocratic style, which was instrumental in delaying Slovakia gaining membership of the European Union. For his pains he was unceremoniously kicked out of parliament in 1996, to be replaced by Ján Belan, who at the time was under prosecution for a car crash while drunk in which a woman was injured.

The Slovakian politician František Gaulieder appears to have committed suicide at the age of 66 by walking in front of a train

An obscure figure outside of Slovakia, Gaulieder is worth remembering because – whatever else he did – he was a rallying point, a cause célèbre, without whose public stance against the corruption that had seeped into Slovakian politics the country may still be lingering on the edges of democracy. At the time of Gaulieder’s defenestration the US Senator Alfonse D’Amato, then Chairman of the OSCE (Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe) Commission said: “The Prime Minister’s party and its allies have made an historic decision, whether they know it or not. They have chosen raw power over constitutional order and law. By disposing of Mr. Gaulieder as they did, they have reduced their country’s constitution to a ‘recommendation’ and ended the rule of law in Slovakia.” In 2000 Mečiar was arrested by the Slovenian police on fraud charges; HZDS gradually lost more and more votes in elections and was dissolved in 2014.

“When power rules instead of law, rights become privileges and citizens become subjects of the powerful.” Those words of D’Amato about Slovakia ring through the ages. They might stand as an epitaph for others who died this month, not least Ahmed Kathrada (pictured below), who died aged 87. A leading figure in the African National Congress, he joined  the Young Communist League of South Africa at the age of 12. At the 1963 Rivonia trial Kathrada was sentenced to life imprisonment along with Nelson Mandela and others, and was released in 1989, after spending 26 years first on Robben Island and then in Pollsmoor Prsion near Cape Town.

Another who suffered extreme punishment for speaking truth to power was Denis Nikolayevich Voronenkov, shot through the head in Kiev, Ukraine’s capital, on 23 March, at the age of 45. A less sparklingly ‘clean’ politician than either Kathrada or Gaulieder – he served as an MP for the Communist Party in the Duma in Russia between 2011-2016, and thus had an insider’s view of Vladimir Putin’s modus operandi, and financially benefitted from proximity to power – Voronenkov nevertheless belatedly had a change of heart. This year he became a very outspoken critic of Putin’s Russia, comparing life there to that of Nazi Germany. He was bumped off before he could testify in a case being staged by Ukraine’s courts against the country’s former president, Viktor Yanukovych. It’s the stuff of very grubby fiction.

He was bumped off before he could testify in a case being staged by Ukraine’s courts against the country’s former president, Viktor Yanukovych

For such figures as Putin – and we look forward to penning his obit – the end always justifies the means, a dictum of dictators everywhere and at all times. It may have been a dictum close to the heart of Martin McGuinness, the Irish Republican, and devout Roman Catholic Robespierre, who also died in March at the same age as Gaulieder, from complications arising from that favourite last-gasp guess of many an episode of the TV series House, amyloidosis. As with Voronenkov, McGuinness (pictured below) had a belated mind-change, famously making the transition from bombs and bullets on behalf of a struggle to achieve a united, republican Ireland, such that, when he died, he was more or less universally acclaimed as ‘a man of peace’.

Historically, England has treated Ireland, Irish Catholics particularly, abysmally, since at least Oliver Cromwell’s day, and McGuinness obviously believed that wasn’t going to change without bloodshed. But for relatives of those who died at his hands, and the hands of his fellow Torquemadas, it is perhaps galling in the extreme that he embraced, and was embraced by, the English establishment merely for laying down his gun and starting talks about cooperation with the Ulster Unionists – whose own paramilitaries happily murdered innocent Catholics. McGuinness – ironically a butcher by profession – never admitted committing any murders. Did he confess all on his deathbed, to his priest, at the last rites? We’ll probably never know.

Inomjon Buzrukovich Usmonxo‘jayev, who died aged 86, knew all about corruption. He was First Secretary of the Communist Party of the Uzbek Soviet Socialist Republic between 1983 and 1988, a period in which – under massive pressure from Moscow – Uzbekistan’s entire leadership systematically falsified and inflated the country’s cotton production figures. Usmonxo‘jayev managed to survive the widespread purges that followed the revelation of the scandal, which became know thanks to satellite imagery. You couldn’t get away with such massive lies these days.

The death of Gustav Metzger at the age of 90 put paid to a minor curiosity of the art world. Metzger, who fled Nuremberg at the age of 13 in 1939 for Britain, under the Refugee Children Movement, was a leading figure of the auto-destructive art movement and was perhaps most famous for having inspired Pete Townshend’s guitar-wrecking performances with The Who. Chuck Berry (pictured), who treasured his guitars rather than trashing them, died from a heart attack aged 90.

Mirella Bentivoglio departed at the age of 94; she was famous for her obsession with the letters E and O

The Hungarian-born Alfred Tibor, who was denied a place on the Hungarian gymnatics squad for the 1936 Olympic Games because he was Jewish, and who spent six years in the Siberian gulag, survived to the age of 97, becoming an accomplished sculptor whose work can be seen around the world. Mai Volfovich Dantsig, a leading Belarusian artist, died aged 86; he specialised in large-scale paintings of Soviet-related themes, meant to last forever, the very opposite of Metzger’s style. The Austrian-born Italian artist Mirella Bentivoglio departed at the age of 94; she was perhaps most famous for her obsession with the letters E and O, which in Italian stand for the English words ‘and’ and ‘or’. And in France, the self-taught painter Henri Cueco, who among other works did 150 still-lifes of potatoes, died aged 87 from complications arising from Alzheimer’s. One of Australia’s leading abstract painters, Sydney Ball, died at the age of 83.

Several cricketers were clean bowled in March, the most prominent being John Hampshire, aged 76, who scored a century at his Test debut at Lord’s in 1969 – the first English batsman to score a century on debut at Lord’s – against ferocious West Indian bowling, only to be dropped after just one more match. In New Zealand Eric Alexander Watson, the right-arm medium pace bowler, died aged 91. John Derrick, who played 95 matches for Glamorgan, died from a brain tumour at the early age of 54. Stephen Hunter Cosh, who captained the Scottish team during 1956-59, with a top score of 99 runs, died at the age of 97. Christopher Herbert Millington Greetham, the capable all-rounder who played for Somerset between 1957 and 1966, and whose style would have perfectly suited one-day cricket match playing before the one-day game became popular, thus missed his boat; he died aged 80.

The world is a lesser place without Robert Benjamin Silvers, who was editor of the The New York Review of Books for a remarkable 54 years, during 1963-2017, and who died in March aged 87. Silvers once said that “the great political issues of power and its abuses have always been natural questions for us”. Wojciech Młynarski, the much-loved Polish poet and singer-songwriter, died aged 75. Robert James Waller was the American who wrote the phenomenally successful The Bridges of Madison County in just two weeks; he died aged 77. The Estonian writer Enn Vetemaa died aged 81; originally an engineer, he published most famous novel, Monument, in 1966. The Soviet-era censor refused its publication at first, but Vetemaa happened to meet the censor and – so the story goes – after a very heavy drinking session Vetemaa persuaded the censor to change his mind. In the UK David Storey, son of a coal-miner, and who first came to fame for his tough working-class 1960 tale This Sporting Life and later won the 1976 Booker Prize, suffered from Parkinson’s and dementia and died at the age of 83.

He could lift a small car; he could carry stones weighing more than 200 kilos. He shot himself, aged 48, when his car was pulled over by FBI agents

Of course there was the usual gathering of the strange, perhaps none more so than Gerard Benderoth, a New York City policeman who, in his spare time, tried (and failed) to win the title ‘World’s Strongest Man’. He could lift a small car; he could carry stones weighing more than 200 kilos. He shot himself, aged 48, when his car was pulled over by FBI agents investigating his relationship with a fellow retired cop who had been charged with a quadruple homicide and drugs’ conspiracy. Too many steroids are bad for the body – and mind. Another strongman, the Greek weightlifter Ioannis Tsintsaris, who competed at the 1984 Olympics, went at just 55. Ingeborg Rapoport (pictured in main image), a German pediatrician who first studied medicine at Hamburg in Nazi Germany, was denied a medical degree because of her Jewish mother. She continued her studies in the US and retuned to East Germany in 1952. Controversially she continued to defend East Germany long after the collapse of communism. In 2015, finally, the Faculty of Medicine of Hamburg Universty awarded her medical degree; she became, at 102, the oldest person to receive a doctorate, before dying in March at the age of 104.

Amid the many notable deaths in March there are few who ought to be universally mourned. Most lives are composed of moments of goodness and badness. Yet for me there is one name above all others who did an unquestionably wonderful thing in their life, and that is Lloyd Hillyard Conover. He fought in the Pacific during the Second World War but fortunately for us all survived and returned to take a doctorate in chemistry in the US. In 1952 he collaborated on the invention of tetratcycline, the wide-spectrum antiobiotic used in treating everything from acne to syphilis. His invention has saved countless lives across the world, and eased the suffering of millions. While we can all think of people whose passing we might – or might not – regret, Conover was unquestionably one of the 20th century’s modest giants.

RIP Lloyd Conover.

Picture credits: Bundesarchiv, Office of Senator Christopher Coons, Northern Ireland Assembly, Universal Attractions