RIP May 2018

Peter Byrne, Margot Kidder, Dennis Nilsen, Philip Roth, Peter Mayer, Tom Wolfe...the good, the bad and the ugly. Here's a selection of this month's collection.

Listening to Beethoven’s 9th Symphony in the company of family as he drifted off was how David William Goodall ended his life. He flicked a switch and a lethal dose of pentobarbital started to enter his blood stream. He wasn’t terminally ill, but at the age of 104 he had decided that he was tired of life, and who can argue with that? It was a full, rich life, one that included a shelf full of honours and academic awards for his work as a botanist; more than 100 publications; three marriages, four children and 12 grandchildren – no doubt some emotional pain along the way, but what life passes without that? He played tennis until he was 90 and enjoyed amateur dramatics.

“The sooner it comes to an end the better”

But he had to give up most of the things that gave meaning to his life once he turned 100, so his thoughts turned to assisted suicide in Switzerland. He said: “I don’t want to go to Switzerland, though it’s a nice country. But I have to do that in order to get the opportunity of suicide which the Australian system does not permit… The sooner it comes to an end the better.”

Delphine Gibson perhaps did not feel the same way, as she struggled on with life to the age of 114, the oldest living person in the US. She said that good food, her faith in God, and her church were the explanations of her longevity. The oldest living US person baton now passes to another woman, Lessie Brown, who will make 114 if she lives to early September. Bessie Camm, the oldest living person in the UK, who said that her long life was due to good food, hard work, and knowing lovely people, died a few days short of 114. Herbert Basil Sutton Cooke, a South African who made a small name for himself as an expert on fossil pigs in Africa, made it to 102. In Poland, Maciej Maciejewski, an actor, who had an impressively long career, died aged 103. Bernard Lewis, the Middle East analyst and expert on the Ottoman archives – he was once ordered by a French court to pay one franc in damages for denying that the Turkish slaughter of Armenians was a genocide – died at 101.

Dan Kneen

Why do people who indulge in sport seem to die relatively young? If you tear round a track at speed you up your chances of a premature death. Dan Kneen (pictured), a professional motorcycle racer, died after a crash on the Isle of Man at the end of May, was just 30. But why do others go quite early? Ray Podloski – the Canadian professional ice hockey player – slipped away after a heart attack at 52; Cliff Tucker, the former Maryland basketball player, was killed in a road crash aged 29; Daniela Samulski, the German Olympic swimmer, died from stomach cancer just before she was 34; the Japanese climber Nobukazu Kuriki died aged 35 after abandoning an attempt on Everest; Amir Ganiel, reckoned to be one of Israel’s greatest swimmers with 11 records, died at 55; Milan Malatinský, the Slovakian footballer, reached 48; Jlloyd Tafari Samuel, who played football for England’s under -21s and Aston Villa, died in a traffic crash aged 37; Mansoor Ahmed, a great hockey player for Pakistan at international level, had a heart attack and died at 50; Clare Droesch, a US star basketball player, finally succumbed to cancer at 36.

“I’m hoping you will tell me that.”

A few notable criminals snuffed it during May, including (at 72 and in prison where he was serving a life sentence) the Scottish serial killer and necrophile Dennis Nilsen, who killed at least 12 young men – he confessed to 15 murders – between 1978 and 1983 in London. Why did Nilsen, an ex-Army cook and former police constable, like to strangle and then wash and dress the bodies of young men, and then masturbate over their dead body? When the police asked him his motive he answered “I’m hoping you will tell me that.”

A more interesting character was Terje Larsen, a Norwegian convicted serial burglar, who has died at the age of 60. Known as the ‘Wanderer’ Larsen was convicted of 664 burglaries although he probably was responsible for several thousands. He gained his nickname by wandering across the remote parts of Norway, breaking into and stealing from lonely cabins; before leaving his left his mark – a pile of shit on the floor. In his youth he had dreams of becoming a professional footballer, and even played for a Danish club before he dropped out and started his itinerant thieving.

A Robin Hood – of sorts – also died in May. Ezio Barbieri was a notorious post-1945 bandit who operated at the start in and around Milan, whose gang would redistribute their takings among the neighbourhood poor. Captured in 1946, he was involved in the prison revolt on 21 April 1946 at Milan’s San Vittore jail, a 19th century building that has housed numerous fascinating characters, including the anarchist Gaetano Bresci.  He assassinated King Umberto I in July 1900; Bresci was the first European regicide not to be executed, because Italy had abolished the death penalty in 1889. Barbieri was sentenced to 30 years in jail and was released in 1971, when he moved to Sicily and died aged 95.

Tom Wolfe

At least three great figures of literature died in May – Philip Roth , Tom Wolfe (pictured), and Peter Mayer. Of the three perhaps Peter Mayer is the least familiar yet his contribution was no lesser. Mayer began working in publishing in 1961 and in 1971 founded his own publishing house, The Overlook Press which, he said, published “distinguished books that had been overlooked by larger houses. A long-time boss of Penguin, he published The Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie in 1988, earning a fatwa from Ayattollah Khomeini. Mayer died aged 82 from complications due to amyloidosis. Margot Kidder (pictured below), a terrific cinema and TV actress, a bi-polar sufferer and long-standing supporter of liberal causes, died in her sleep aged 69; she’ll always been remembered for playing Lois Lane in the Superman movies.

One childhood memory is of watching the Saturday night series Dixon of Dock Green, starring Jack Warner as Dixon, a bobby on the beat who was older, wiser, friendlier than other policemen – and honest. The series ran from 1955 to 1976 and had audiences in excess of 13 million viewers. Neither the honesty or warmth of the series, nor the astonishing ratings, could last into a harsher decade like the 1980s, where so many police were revealed to be anything but Jack Warners. Peter Byrne, who played the detective Andy Crawford for more than 300 episodes of Dixon, died in May aged 90.

Who else is worth remembering? Zhao Kangmin, one of the archaeologists who discovered China’s terracotta army, expired at 82. Martin Hoffman, the Czechoslovak professional bridge player, a boyhood survivor of the sub-camps of Auschwitz who later became a British citizen, reached 88. Barbara Nawrocka-Dońska, who fought in the Polish Home Army and later became a journalist with 28 books to her name, lived to 93. The 1960s left-wing German activist Dieter Kunzelmann, who once threw an egg at the Berlin mayor, reached 78. Miki Moster, the Slovenian sculptor, cartoonist and animator, died at 92. He was best known for the characters Zvitorepec (a courageous fox), Trdonja (a wise turtle), and Lakotnik (a dim-witted wolf). The three had worldwide adventures, including in space. One episode in space from 1959 caused a minor political incident: the trio meet Russian astronauts depicted as bears, which got an official protest. But his next episode featured Americans depicted as monkeys, which pleased the Russians.

A play featuring Vladimir Putin wearing a rubber chest and a Dobby the house elf mask

A few more suspicious deaths in Russia occurred in May. First up was Oleg Belous, the country’s ambassador to Portugal, who went at 66 on 8 May. Not much official or unofficial information was released, except the Russian foreign ministry’s bland statement that Belous “died suddenly” – always an odd statement that, as probably no-one expects their moment of death. Then there was Yuri Kotler, who apparently shot himself on 14 May in his Moscow flat, the day after his 50th birthday. He was a former member of United Russia’s supreme council who had been declared bankrupt by a Moscow court. Then there was the case of Yelena Gremina, who supposedly died of heart and kidney failure aged 61 on 16 May. Together with her husband Mikhail Ugarov she founded Teatr.doc which, among other things, staged a play featuring Vladimir Putin wearing a rubber chest and a Dobby the house elf mask. Unsurprisingly the theatre is subject to regular official harassment; Ugarov had a heart attack and died aged 62 in April.

Margot Kidder

Anne Voase Coates was one of those women whom you wished you’d met. Not a household name, she died on 8 May aged 92, but deserves never to be forgotten. It was Coates who was the editing brains behind some of the greatest movies ever made, such as Lawrence of Arabia (for which she won an Oscar) and The Elephant Man. She was a believer in decisiveness and once said: “You have to have the courage of your convictions. When you’re editing you have to make thousands of decisions every day and if you dither over them all the time, you’ll never get anything done.”

No dithering: have the courage of what you believe in and get on and do it.

See you next month.

Picture sources: Misscarina, Phil Long, UMC Studios