Features

RIP September 2017


One individual stands out this month. He would have demurred at being so publicly recognised; yet it's precisely for that modesty that he was held in such great esteem by all who knew him.

Michael Cassell, who I worked alongside for a few years at the Financial Times, was a very modest guy. A remarkably trustworthy reporter and wonderfully decent human, Cassell died this month, at the age of just 71, from pancreatic cancer. He worked at the paper for 30 years and spent a long time at Westminster as a political reporter. Never ‘journalist’ – Mike was too self-effacing for that; just ‘reporter’. Before he died we exchanged emails in the run-up to the last UK general election. Mike knew his cancer was terminal. Here’s what he had to say:

“Welcome to Corbyn World!  This must be the ultimate proof that the world has gone barking mad. Still, if we can Brexit and Trump then why not complete the three-card trick and have a Marxist for PM? The only consolation would lie with the promise of months of fun ahead as Dianne Abbott runs the police force and [Emily] Thornberry, quite one of the most unpleasant people on the political scene, has to cope with Trump. I know Corbyn pretty well. He is not of course the demon he is painted but he is simply incompetent and utterly unrealistic. Brussels will chew him up into pieces and the economy would collapse within three years. Such fun. Neither is he the avuncular character he may sometimes appear: he has a real hatred of private enterprise and the people who make money from it and is terrifyingly small-minded. I can at least watch the outcome with a certain amount of detachment on the basis whoever wins isn’t going to change anything or me.”

Cassell’s capacity for tolerating pompous arseholes, whether inside the FT office or outside, was limitless.

In the early 1990s Mike was on the receiving end of an invitation to lunch from a heavyweight in Neil Kinnock’s Labour shadow cabinet. At the Friday lunch the said heavyweight leaked to Mike some long-forgotten Labour Party finance initiative. He cleared that this was off-the-record but reportable, went back to the office, filed the story, and went away for the weekend. But between Friday lunch and the story’s appearance, the initiative was dropped. When Cassell got back there were several mouth-foaming calls from the Labour party heavyweight on his voicemail, including a threat to have him fired from the FT. On Monday Cassell was summoned to the editor – who listened to Mike’s side of the story and, quite properly, refused to sack him.

Cassell’s capacity for tolerating pompous arseholes, whether inside the FT office or outside, was limitless. Shortly after Prince Charles’ separation from Diana was publicly revealed, Cassell spent a week with Charles on the Royal Yacht. Charles was in extraordinarily candid mood, and told Cassell how he really didn’t like the idea of being king. No doubt many of his future ‘subjects’ feel very much the same. Mike obviously couldn’t take notes as Charles spoke, so kept shuffling off to the loo to write down occasional nuggets. According to Mike, Charles spoke every night on the radio to Camilla.

From Royal yacht to Shropshire dog show. In years gone by Mike was asked to judge the local dog show in his Shropshire village. He made such a great job of it he was asked to do the judging every year. He wasn’t a dog owner, but he loved doing it and was so popular that, wherever he might be in the world, he made sure he was back for the dog show.

Another FT reporter died in September. Paul MacClean was eaten by a crocodile on Southwark Bridge in Sri Lanka: he was 24.

Sylvilagus palustris hefneri, a sub-species of the marsh rabbit, was named after Hugh Hefner (pictured above, centre), the editor-in-chief and founder of Playboy magazine, which he established in 1953. No doubt the naming of the rabbit was in homage to the Playboy “bunnies”, although Hefner, who once claimed that he had slept with 1,000 women, had rabbit-like qualities of his own. Hefner died on 27 September at the age of 91, apparently from “natural causes”, or in other words sheer exhaustion. He will be buried next to Marilyn Monroe at Westwood Village Memorial Park Cemetery in Los Angeles; he bought himself a crypt next to hers in the 1990s.

On 2 September, Hugo Obwegeser, the Austrian considered to be the pioneer of orthognathic or corrective jaw surgery, died aged 96. The same day saw the end of Xiang Shouzhi, the Chinese general who founded the Chinese ballistic missile forces, three days short of his 100th birthday. During the Cultural Revolution he was persecuted and imprisoned, only to be reinstated in 1972. The first harpsichordist to record the whole of J. S. Bach’s works for the harpsichord, Zuzana Růžičková (pictured), died aged 90. Born in Czechoslovakia in 1927, she was imprisoned in the Nazi concentration camps of Theresienstadt, Auschwitz, and Bergen-Belsen. Of the latter she said: “If ever there was Hell, this was the lowest part of Hell. This was an extermination camp. It was really meant for us to die in.” She was persecuted under communism but throughout her life remained true to Prague, where she met her end from cancer.

Hefner died on 27 September at the age of 91, apparently from “natural causes”, or in other words sheer exhaustion.

Few notable centenarians are recorded this month. One was Gisèle Casadesus, the French actress, who lived to the age of 103. In the US, William Jonas Ely, who at 105 was the oldest living graduate of West Point military academy and rose to become Lieutenant General, will never see another summer. Lucy Dorothy Ozarin, a US psychiatrist who served with the navy during the Second World War, reached 103. The heart of Mircea Ionescu Quintus, a Romanian liberal politician who was imprisoned under the Ceausescu regime, gave out as he turned 100. Iulian Vlad, who served the Ceausescus as chief of the Securitate, Romania’s secret police, and was sentenced to 25 years in jail after the collapse of the regime, died age 86. Etelka Kandó, who was unable to pronounce her first name when she learned to talk and called herself Ata – a name that stuck – died just before her 104th birthday. A Hungarian-born photographer of Jewish descent, she and her husband joined the Resistance in Hungary in the Second World War, hiding 14 Jews in their home – she escaped persecution because her husband was not Jewish.

The world of pagan witchcraft – also known as Wicca – lost a significant figure in September, in the person of Raymond Buckland, who died aged 83. Buckland, who was a High Priest, wrote extensively on Wicca, and claimed to be the first person to openly practice Wicca in the US. Together with his wife he founded the Long Island Coven in the US, where Buckland was working for British Airways at the time. His first book, A Pocket Guide to the Supernatural, was published in 1969, since when he published further books more or less every year. Wiccans believe in eight virtues: mirth, reverence, honour, humility, strength, beauty, power, and compassion.

The American car customiser Joe Bailon, who created the paint colour Candy Apple Red and – among others – customised Zsa Zsa Gabor’s Rolls-Royce – died on 25 September aged 94. Jake LaMotta (pictured), the American professional boxer who was played by Robert De Niro in Martin Scorsese’s 1980 movie Raging Bull, died of pneumonia aged 95.

The totally corrupt Argentine politician María Julia Alsogaray died of pancreatic cancer in Buenos Aires aged 74. As environment minister under President Carlos Menem, in 1993 Alsogaray acquired a $250 million loan from the Inter-American Development Bank (IADB) to clean up the heavily polluted Riachuelo, a waterway in Buenos Aires; only $1m went into that project while the rest disappeared, except for $6 million lost in fines levied by the IADB. In May 2005 she was sentenced to three years in jail and served 21 months for her nefarious deals, and had the distinction of being the only Menem-government official ever to serve time.

An avid avoider of paying taxes she owed to the French state, Liliane Bettencourt understandably shunned media attention.

Islamic State fighters scored a big hit in September, killing Lieutenant General Valery Grigorievich Asapov on 23 September while he was on secondment to Syria. The official reports suggest that Asapov, commander of Russia’s 5th Red Banner Army, was killed by mortar fire while at a Syrian command post. Sergei Ryabkov, Russia’s deputy foreign minister  said: “The death of the Russian commander is the price, the bloody price, for two-faced American policy in Syria.” During his career Asapov participated in the crushing of rebellious Chechnya. Another killer, Orville Lynn Majors, who was serving 360 years in a US prison for serial killings while he worked as nurse in a hospital in Indiana, died of heart failure. At his trial in 1980 witnesses testified that Majors hated old people and believed they “should be gassed”. He was tried for six murders but is thought to have done away with as many as 130. He chose to kill patients who were demanding and whiny. The so-called ‘sheikh of snipers’, Abu Tahsin al-Salhi, a veteran of conflicts since the 1973 Arab-Israeli War and who claimed he had shot and killed 320 members of Islamic State, was killed while fighting for Iraq’s pro-government forces. He was 63.

The world’s richest woman (with an estimated fortune of almost $45 billion), Liliane Bettencourt, died aged 94. Her wealth was inherited from her father’s comestics’ business, L’Oréal. In 1950 she married the French politician  André Bettencourt, a slippery character who in his youth was a member of the violent fascistic group called La Cagoule (the Hood), which was financed by Liliane’s father, Eugène Schueller. Bettencourt wrote for a Nazi propaganda sheet during the Second World War, describing in 1941 Jews as “hypocritical Pharisees” who “will be cursed”. He astutely switched sides during the later stages of the war and, bizarrely enough, was awarded the Croix de Guerre for bravery in the French Resistance. An avid avoider of paying taxes she owed to the French state, Liliane Bettencourt understandably shunned media attention throughout her life. Claire Thibout, her former accountant, alleged in an interview in 2010 that conservative French politicians were frequently given envelopes stuffed with cash at her mansion, and that one envelope containing €150,000 was given to the campaign to back Nicolas Sarkozy’s election as president.

Until next month – à votre santé.

Picture sources: G Mead,  Luke Ford,  Iria Castro, Joeyjojo86Filip Markiewicz