Features

RIP September 2018


Historians, actors, writers, artists...and a silent monk - they all tramped their way to death in September. Read on for early autumn's round-up.

One of the more unusual people to have passed our way is Baba Hari Dass (pictured), who died on 25 September aged 95, at his home in Bonny Doon, in California. Born in the lower Himalayan region of India into a spiritual household, Baba Hari Dass quickly became fascinated by the big imponderable questions of man’s existence and meaning. Aged eight, he left home and joined an ashram for young practitioners of yoga. At 29 he took a vow of continual silence, seeking self-purification by introspection, and writing his thoughts on a small chalkboard. This self-discipline – keeping a literal silence and fighting the battle to preserve a quiet, or still, mind – he maintained until his death. One of his aphorisms was that “all babies are yogis”. His recommendation for a good life was to “work honestly, meditate every day, meet people without fear, and play.” I’ve yet to meet anyone who manages to score on all of those fronts.

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For a good life he said one should “work honestly, meditate every day, meet people without fear, and play.” 

September was not a great month for monks – Namkhai Norbu, a Tibetan Dzogchen monk who was acclaimed a ‘mindstream emanation’ of various teachers, managed to reach 79 before dying in Italy, where he had lived since 1960. Tarun Sagar went relatively early, aged 51. A sick man, he starved himself to death. He was a Digambara jain monk who became prominent in India, appearing on TV shows, where he would present his Kadve Pravachan or ‘bitter utterances’, a book that in its complete state supposedly weighs two tonnes and contains not a single joke.

Ju Kyu-chang was reportedly the head of North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs. He was certainly on the Central Military Commission of the Workers’ Party of North Korea. He made it to 89 before succumbing to pancytopenia, which is a serious drop in the number of red and white blood cells and platelets. A rather rare syndrome. Perhaps coincidentally, one of the causes can be chronic radiation sickness. Imrich Andrejčák was the last defence minister of Czechoslovakia, who then became the first defence minister of the newly-independent Slovakia; he died at the age of 77. François Floric, a fomer aide-de-camp to Charles de Gaulle, died aged 98. As an officer in the French Navy, Floric was loyal to the Free French forces in the Second World War, and eventually commanded the Jeanne d’Arc.

Walter Laqueur, the historian and journalist who was born in what today is Wroclaw, Poland, to Jewish parents, managed to escape the Nazis by emigrating to the British Mandate of Palestine in 1938. His parents were murdered in the Holocaust but Walter survived and moved to the US, where he founded the Journal of Contemporary History, and Survey. He was 97. A famous Holocaust denier, the Swiss nationalist Gaston-Armand Amaudruz, popped his clogs aged 97. When he was 79 he was sentenced for Holocaust denial to 12 months in jail, but that didn’t discourage him and he continued with his bonkers’ beliefs to the end. He should have had a few words with Freddie Oversteegen (pictured) before her death at the age of 92. Brought up to be a communist by her single parent mother, Oversteegen joined the Dutch resistance in the Second World War aged 14 and assisted Jewish children by smuggling them out of the country. Together with her sister and their friend Hannie Schaft they blew up bridges, shot German soldiers while riding their bikes, and lured them into woods where they would kill them.

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When he was 79 he was sentenced for Holocaust denial to 12 months in jail, but he continued with his bonker’s beliefs to the end

The director of the Ukrainian Documentary Film Studios, Oleksandr Koval, died aged 73. As with pretty much anything to do with Ukraine, documentary film-makers have been having a rotten time since roughly 1918. You can search high and low for a documentary about the Holomodor – famine that Stalin created in Ukraine in 1932-33 during which cannibalism became common – and you won’t find one: if you do, please let us know. In 2012 Koval was still strong enough to give a resounding battlecry on behalf of Ukrainian documentarists: “however much our authorities want it otherwise, our documentaries will survive!” But one can struggle against the odds for only so long. One of those ‘authorities’ also died in September – Vitaliy Masol, 89, the time-serving former Ukrainian prime minister who, thanks to his early membership of the communist party of Ukraine, rapidly rose through the ranks of the nomenklatura. He was forced from office by student protests in 1990, when Ukraine was still part of the USSR. Perhaps that’s why he  got only the 5th Class of the Order of Prince Yaroslav the Wise, in 1998.

Yang Side reached 96. The son of peasants, Yang became a lifelong member of the Chinese communist party. He rose to become a general in China’s People’s Liberation Army, before becoming a victim of the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s. He spent five years in jail, only to be rehabilitated later. Chang Baohua, one of China’s best-known performers of the enormously popular xiangsheng comedy, died at the age of 87.

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The world of comedy lost a couple of greats in the UK, too. Fenella Fielding (pictured) and Liz Fraser, 90 and 88 respectively when they died in September, were the double-entendre stars of scores of black-and-white movies in the 1950s-70s, usually playing dumb or daffy women, characters that belied their real cleverness. They built their careers in the archetypically British Carry On… series, where Fraser, especially, was chosen partly to show off her sex appeal. Lurid lasciviousness aimed at males was then acceptable – it was a different era, where the hint of such soft-porn couched within comedy was popular, long before the extreme porn revolution that has swept away such innocence. Burt Reynolds died of a heart attack the same day as Liz Fraser went; he was 82, and was a bit of a porn star himself, posing naked for a woman’s magazine in 1972. A stalwart of Hollywood movies, he first made his mark in the 1960s TV series Gunsmoke, and played a heavy in many subsequent and now justifiably forgotten series, and was bankrupted in 1996.

“fucking hell! He looks like a Spanish pirate!” 

Carlos Ezquerra (pictured), the genius Spanish comic-book artist who co-created the character of Judge Dredd, died of lung cancer on 1 October, a day after our normal cut-off point, but we make the rules here. One of the outstanding graphic artists of his generation, his lasting creation of Judge Dredd – a super-powered police officer living in the dystopian Mega-City One – was greeted with a “fucking hell! He looks like a Spanish pirate!” by the writer of the series, John Wagner, when he first saw it.

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Tara Fares, an Iraqi model, had around 2.8 million followers on Instagram, on which she posted in July the following message: “I’m not afraid of the one who denies the existence of God, but I’m really afraid of the one who kills and chops off heads to prove the existence of God.” Very brave words for a woman living in Baghdad: she was shot dead while sitting in her car in the city of Irbil in September, by a man (of course). She was 22.

“I don’t like cocaine” was one reason Marty Balin, songwriter and musician, walked out of the California band Jefferson Airplane at the peak of their fame in 1970. Balin had rather botched open heart surgery in 2016, from which he never really recovered, and he died on 27 September at 76. It’s difficult to believe that the stunning lead singer of the Airplane, Grace Slick, will be 80 next year.

Ronnie Shelton, the notorious West Side rapist who was thought to have raped as many as 50 women, and who in 1989 received the longest prison sentence ever in the history of the US state of Ohio – 1,554 to 3,195 years – jumped to his death from the top of a prison building.

And finally a man who ought to be recalled for his magnificent beard, but in fact will be remembered for creating the character of Postman Pat. John Cunliffe was 85 when his heart gave out. Bullied as a child for his tall height, he was bullied as an adult by the BBC, which made an absolute fortune out of comercialising Postman Pat and Cunliffe’s other main creations, Rosie and Jim. Cunliffe mildly protested to the BBC about the rampant merchandising of Pat and his black-and-white cat, Jess, only to be told that he had signed away his rights to exercise any control over the characters so could take a running jump. There’s a lesson there for any creator.

Until October, thanks for reading.

Picture sources: Pradeepwb, Ministerie van Defensie, Etienne Gilfillan, Javier Mediavilla Ezquibela