Richard D North

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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.