Richard D North

Share
I once heard newspapers described beautifully as a first draft of history. The theory is only slightly flawed by the way we make a daily fuss over many events which will prove unhistoric, but don't know which they are. Obituary pages, however, stand a higher chance than most of being about matters of enduring interest. They are a first effort to tell us something about the people from whom we know we inherited our modern life.

One especially notices small but signal differences in the way they felt things should be done. In the past year, we have lost, for instance, Detective Chief Superintendent Arthur Benfield (aged 82). The son of a policeman (who was shot by poachers when Arthur was a baby), he led the inquiry into the Moors Murders, and put his men onto two luggage receipts hidden in the spine of Hindley's prayer book. These provided access to suitcases full of incriminating evidence. Benfield's refusal to cash in on his investigation has old-world charm: "I was just doing my job and I've already been paid to do it."

We are losing, of course, a warrior generation. John Miller (who died aged 91) liked sailing before the war, and considered becoming a priest before joining the navy. Aged 37, he became a member of a most select military elite: a bomb disposal officer. In 1941, Miller won the George Cross after defusing a mine, which had fallen into the mud of a creek in East London. He was said to have been recommended for a bar to his GC after he had laid in a puddle on his back at London Bridge Station, defusing a mine above his head. Its fuse started to tick on two occasions, giving him 22 seconds each time to remove himself, only to return to do the job when the mine did not detonate. He was reported to have crossed himself before tackling jobs, except when they were so dangerous that "fiddling of any sort seemed unnecessary". Insouciance has enduring appeal.

Commander Donald Bradford (who died aged 83) had to deal with mines which were at least in their more normal environment: the sea. For a boy of my generation, the hulks of Motor Torpedo Boats or Motor Gun Boats were intensely exciting. One saw them everywhere on estuaries and rivers (there still are quite a few). Bradford bought one himself after the war. He deserved to own such a charismatic vessel for leisure, having had an adventurous war in them.

Bradford was clearly a born fighter: After a period at the French Military Academy at St Cyr, he was a ship's deck officer, a cow-puncher and a logger, before fighting for the Bolivians against Paraguay, and riding as a cavalry ensign for the International Brigade in Spain.

I suppose serious chic will never die, but it is mourned afresh by every generation. Oonagh, Lady Oranmore and Browne (who died aged 85), was the brightest of young things. She and her three sisters were the "Guinness girls", fabulously rich and lovely (the palest skins, the fairest hair, the bluest eyes: "You can nearly see through them," said John Huston). Oonagh had three marriages, one of them to a Cuban fashion designer, 17 years her junior. I like best how, when young, she over-compensated for her shyness when dining with George V by drinking whisky. Excelling herself with liveliness, the king asked her to be near him on the next day's shoot. Still under the influence, she refused him, on the grounds that "you are far too pompous and boring".

It is, of course, interesting to spot the progenitors of the modern. I noted last year the passing of the man who pioneered military psychology, and thus introduced the idea of stress counselling for soldiers. I guess that this development will quite soon make it all but impossible for democracies to go to war. The man who first made a commercial success of battery hen farming also died last year, and seems - perhaps oddly - to have been a good egg.

React Now

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Senior Accounts Assistant - Accounts Payable - St. Albans

£26000 - £28000 per annum + benefits : Ashdown Group: Senior Accounts Assistan...

Ashdown Group: Treasury Assistant - Accounts Assistant - London, Old Street

£24000 - £26000 per annum + benefits : Ashdown Group: A highly successful, glo...

Recruitment Genius: Installation and Service / Security Engineer

£22000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company is part of a Group...

Recruitment Genius: Service Charge Accounts Assistant

£16000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you a a young, dynamic pers...

Day In a Page

Read Next
A Gold Ferrari sits outside Chanel on Sloane Street  

Sunday Times Rich List: We are no longer in thrall to very rich people

Terence Blacker
David Cameron was openly emotional at the prospect of Scotland leaving the union before the referendum  

General election 2015: Remember when David Cameron almost cried over Scotland because he loved it so much?

Matthew Norman
Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

How a costume drama became a Sunday night staple
Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers as he pushes Tories on housing

Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers

Labour leader pushes Tories on housing
Aviation history is littered with grand failures - from the the Bristol Brabazon to Concorde - but what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?

Aviation history is littered with grand failures

But what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?
Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of Soviet-style 'iron curtains' right across Europe

Fortress Europe?

Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of 'iron curtains'
Never mind what you're wearing, it's what you're reclining on

Never mind what you're wearing

It's what you're reclining on that matters
General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

Marginal Streets project documents voters

Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

The real-life kingdom of Westeros

Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

How to survive a Twitter mauling

Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

At dawn, the young remember the young

A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

Follow the money as never before

Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

Samuel West interview

The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence