Been and Gone: The war historian and the gearbox wizard
Our regular column covering the passing of significant - but lesser-reported - people of the past month.
Phyllis Diller's housewife from hell comedy routine paved the way for a whole generation of female comedians, including Joan Rivers and Roseanne Barr. Her self-deprecating jokes, most of which she wrote herself, poked fun at her looks and her family. She adopted a wild stage persona which included flyaway blonde hair, oversize clothes concealing what was a shapely figure underneath, and a screeching voice that could flatten an audience at 100 paces. Influenced by Bob Hope, who was a great admirer, she specialised in a machine-gun like delivery of one liners. She trained as a copywriter, finally making her professional stage debut in 1955 when she was 37. She became nationally known after making a series of appearances on US television, notably on the Tonight Show. As she got older, she not only became one of the first celebrities to have plastic surgery, she incorporated the experience into her stage act.
Dom Mintoff earned a reputation as one of the most colourful politicians of his time. He was known for hysterical outbursts in public and famous for storming out of political conferences when things were going against him. He became prime minister of Malta, then a British territory, in 1955 and spent three years attempting to bring the island into full integration with the UK, including having a seat at Westminster. However, the Catholic Church objected to Malta becoming part of a Protestant country, and Mintoff changed tack, campaigning for a Maltese republic. This triggered unrest in the streets and his resignation. By the time he returned to power in 1971, Malta had achieved independence. Attempts to get Britain to pay more rent for bases on the island failed and also antagonised many of his pro-British voters. However, he was lauded for his social reforms, including the introduction of a welfare state modelled on the British system.
A childhood attack of TB prevented Sir John Keegan from serving in the armed forces, but he became one of Britain's foremost military historians. Inspired by World War II veterans he had met while in hospital, he went on to study at Oxford University and then became a lecturer at the Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst. His first book, The Face of Battle, ignored the military leaders and examined battle from the perspective of the common soldier, contrasting the experiences of men who fought at Agincourt, Waterloo and the Somme. He began writing articles on the Falklands War for the Spectator under the pseudonym Patrick Desmond, and eventually, under his own name, became a defence correspondent for the Daily Telegraph. He continued to publish books and with fellow historian Richard Holmes, wrote the BBC documentary, Soldiers: A History of Men in Battle. On the 50th anniversary of D-Day, he was called to the White House to brief President Clinton on the Normandy campaign.
Watch almost any form of motor racing or rallying and it is a good bet that many of the cars will be driven by a transmission based on designs by engineer Mike Hewland. A gifted craftsman, he was running a small business in Berkshire in the 1950s when he was approached by a local Formula 2 racing team who were having gearbox problems. At the time, most competition cars used modified road car transmissions. Hewland designed and made a set of gearboxes that proved up to the stresses and strains imposed on the race track. Word quickly spread and he was soon designing boxes for the likes of Lola, Cooper, BRM and McLaren. As well as the strength and durability of his transmissions, Hewland was a genius for being able to fit them into the increasingly streamlined shapes of the cars, sometimes having to design them to run upside down.
Jeffery Boswall was a vital part of the BBC Natural History Unit. He began his TV career on Animal Magic before going to work with Peter Scott on the Look series. One of his productions, The Private Life of the Kingfisher, became the first of the unit's programmes made in colour. A former army officer, he was said to have planned his productions like a military operation, something that did not always sit well with the more relaxed style of his colleagues. One of his more notable achievements was the 1980 Animal Olympians, in which he pitched various animals against human athletes which demonstrated the superior power of the animals. He left the BBC in 1987 to work for the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, an organisation that had first fired his interest in wildlife when he as a teenager.
The revival of the Welsh language owes much to campaigners like Eileen Beasley. In the 1950s, official forms and documents issued in Wales were only written in English and there was a real concern that the native language could die out. Campaigners began refusing to pay their local rates until the bills were written in Welsh, and Beasley herself appeared in court on a number of occasions and had goods seized by bailiffs. She and her husband Trefor both managed to get elected as local councillors for Plaid Cymru as part of their campaign. Eventually the local council gave in and agreed to issue bilingual forms in 1960. Her action was cited as a major influence on the founding of the Welsh Language Society (Cymdeithas yr Iaith Gymraeg) in 1962.
Among others who died in August were: