RIP May 2019

Death comes in many guises. Whether it is shooting or suicide, heart failure or cancer, in the end we all finish in the same place. You can only drive so many fast cars, eat so many fancy meals, buy so many luxury pads...happiness does not lie that way.

How many cats are there in the world today? Some reckon that there may be as many as 600 million – and that the number of animals and birds they kill each year could be as high as three billion. Few felines gain as much fame as Tardar Sauce, aka ‘Grumpy Cat’, brought to celebrity status in the US and elsewhere by the internet, which exploited the cat’s accident of birth – it had a form of congenital dwarfism according to her owner, Tabatha Bundesen. ‘Grumpy’, pictured below, ended up with more than 10 million followers on various social media sites and became a rich source of sponsorship income, and various companies piggy-backed on the cat’s notoriety. Tabatha eventually gave up her waitressing job to “manage” the cat’s busy schedule. Like so many other cats, ‘Grumpy’ succumbed to a urinary tract infection and died in May aged seven.

From one feline to another. Claus Cecil Borberg von Bülow, a shifty smoothie who twice stood trial accused of murdering his wife Martha ‘Sunny’ von Bülow (the first time found guilty and sentenced to 30 years, the second time acquitted), died aged 92. Von Bülow was smuggled to the UK to escape the German occupation of Denmark, where he was born to a Nazi-sympathising father, in the Second World War. In London he worked as a barrister before becoming an assistant to the US oil magnate J. Paul Getty. ‘Sunny’ was American and very rich, with a personal fortune of $75 million when she ventured on her second marriage, to von Bülow, in 1966. By the start of 1979 the couple were openly talking of their intention to divorce. In December 1979 she was taken to hospital in Rhode Island, where she went into a coma. A year later she was again hospitalised in a coma and suffered irreversible serious brain damage but lived that way until 2009, when she died in a nursing home. The lawyers made their own fortunes from the family wrangles and mutual accusations that surround this case. Peter Soros, the financier, said of von Bülow: “He’s an all-round amusing fellow who’s capable of being outrageous.”

When you have faced the Nazis on the streets of Germany, British Foreign Secretaries hold little fear

When you have faced the Nazis on the streets of Germany, British Foreign Secretaries hold little fear. Walter Wolfgang, who died on 28 May aged 95, grew up as a child and teenager in Frankfurt, Germany, until his parents, both Jews, managed in 1937 to get him out of the country to the UK . He joined the Labour Party in 1948 and co-authored several pamphlets for the party. He became a founder member of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) in 1958. Wolfgang might have continued to be unknown and hidden in the shadows, were it not for his attendance at the 2005 Labour Party conference, where he shouted “nonsense” in a very loud voice during a speech by Jack Straw, who as Foreign Secretary was defending the Government’s decision to invade Iraq. Wolfgang – who then was aged 82 – was roughly ejected from the conference and this long-standing party member was briefly detained under terrorism legislation. He later endorsed Jeremy Corbyn for leader of the party.

Another political eccentric who shuffled offstage this month was Brian Borthwick (picture below), perhaps more well-known by his adopted name of ‘Lord Toby Jug’, leader of the Cambridgeshire and Huntingdonshire ranch of the Official Monster Raving Loony Party until he was expelled in 2014 and then formed the Eccentric Party of Great Britain the following year. A self-confessed alcoholic, Borthwick was just 53 when he died. But perhaps his cause has already filtered through to national life; given the chaotic state of the mainstream parties over whether the UK will or will not leave the European Union perhaps they all just merge in the minds of the electorate into one big amorphous Monster Raving Loony party.

John Lukacs died aged 95, a loss to the study of history. He was born János Albert Lukacs in Budapest in 1924 to Jewish parents and was forced to work in a Hungarian Labour Battalion for Jews during the Second World War, narrowly avoiding being sent to death camps. He never saw his parents again and fled the country when it became clear that Hungary was going to become a communist state after the war. He went to the US and found a job teaching history at a small Roman Catholic college for women, the Chestnut Hill College in Philadelphia, where he remained for 47 years. A highly cultured and multi-lingual man, Lukacs published more than 30 books over almost 60 years, and despite describing himself as a “reactionary” was actually a person for whom life was precious and yet obviously precarious.

He was ejected by the apartheid authorities for being a “pernicious liberal”

Another fine historian, the Dutch-born Dan van der Vat, , who grew up in Nazi-occupied Netherlands, has died at the age of 79. He became a journalist in England and eventually joined The Sunday Times and opened the paper’s bureau in South Africa, from which country he was ejected by the apartheid authorities for being a “pernicious liberal”. He then turned his journalistic talents to writing accessible but well-researched books, mostly naval history, although his The Good Nazi: The Life and Lies of Albert Speer stands out for me.

We have, fortunately, come a long way from the days when women were considered to be “too frivolous” to deliver news to the nation via TV. That attitude, which was very much the BBC’s view in 1961, led to a disgraceful episode. That year Nancy Wigginton, who was known professionally as Nan Winton, was sacked from reading the early evening TV news on the BBC with no explanation, despite being an experienced journalist. Winton then moved to commercial TV and worked there. Her daughter Tina later said that Nan regarded her year in the BBC newsroom as the unhappiest of her life. Winton was 93 when she fell at her home and died in May. Her main claim to fame is that she was the first female newsreader to deliver the national news on BBC TV, appointed to do so by Stuart Hood, a manager at the BBC at the time. Winton’s early life was tough. She was the youngest of four children and left school at 15 to run the family home after her mother died. But she was lucky to get a place at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, which kick-started her career.

Toma Daniel ‘Tim’ Conway, who was born in Ohio, US, to an Irish immigrant father and a mother of Romanian origin (hence his birth name of Toma) died the same day as Grumpy Cat, and the two shared one thing in common – they both made the public laugh, a noble activity in these dark days. Conway became an actor, comedian, director and writer who starred in many US TV situation comedies, most latterly Spongebob Squarepants, where he voiced Barnacle Boy. He died from complications of  hydrocephalus aged 85. Is this just an excuse to show a big photo of Spongebob, (below)? Maybe. If you think Spongebob rather anarchistic, we also need to record the death of Milton Lawrence Born With A Tooth, the Canadian political activist for First Nations’ rights. He served four-and-a-half years in prison for shooting a rifle in the air near police in Canada; he died from bowel cancer aged 62.

But true to form we should end on a sombre note by mentioning the demise of Rudolf von Ribbentrop at 98, son of the much more famous Joachim von Ribbentrop, the Nazi Foreign Minister and former champagne seller. There was very little fuss made about Rudolf’s death; as you might guess, the fact that this former SS officer passed away was pretty much ignored in Germany. One has to feel sorry for Rudolf. In 1933, when Hitler came to power, he was just 12, not an age when anyone is equipped to make a mature decision. And given his father – one of 10 senior Nazis hanged on 16 October 1946 after the Nuremberg trials – Rudolf could hardly avoid being sucked into the maelstrom of the Nazi regime. His father was ambassador to the UK in 1936-38 and while in England young Rudolf was sent to Westminster school, where with modest eccentricity he would turn up sporting his school uniform of morning suit and top hat plus his Nazi party youth badge in his lapel.

His brother – Adolf Richard Barthold, born 1935 – apparently still lives.

Photo sources: Gage Skidmore, Robbowolf101, Tomas Castelazo