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Fifteen notable lives lost in 2022 – The Economist – 17.12.22

Updated: Dec 31, 2022

The year through the prism of our obituaries pages.

ONE DEATH in particular dominated this year: that of Queen Elizabeth II, in September, after reigning for 70 years. As at all other newspapers and magazines, the obituary had been long prepared, but articles written in advance seldom feel adequate when the time comes. This certainly did not. The outpouring of grief in Britain, a country not known for public displays of emotion, was enormous, and to offer up merely a page of tribute to the queen, even alongside other articles about her, did not seem nearly enough. At a time of political chaos and irresponsibility, her constant example of duty and service made an almost unbearable contrast.


But death is the great equaliser, and at The Economist a single page serves both monarch and commoner, famous and unknown. Abe Shinzo was an exceptional leader of Japan, guiding it (as an enthusiastic practitioner of ritual archery) from stasis to growth again with his “three arrows” of expansion of the money supply, fiscal stimulus and (less accurately) structural reform. Yet he was suddenly shot in the street, an act shattering in a country where guns are rare. In the face of death, everyone is equal. Mikhail Gorbachev, who died in August, would especially agree that he was merely a mortal—a devotee of poetry and theatre, and a husband who abandoned politics to care for his dying wife—rather than the architect of the dissolution of the Soviet empire.


The past year was also overshadowed by the war in Ukraine. The death toll, especially among civilians, could not be ignored, but when victims were so many it seemed invidious to pick one person rather than another. We covered Pasha Lee, a television presenter one week and, another week, Roman Ratushny, a campaigner to save a park in Kyiv: both were young, fashionable urbanites, who knew nothing of fighting but joined up because they felt they must. The contrast between their previous careers and their deaths was heartbreaking.Yurii Kerpatenko was older and did not fight. As a conductor of an orchestra in Kherson, he resisted the occupying Russians with music. He made an extraordinary gesture of courage on behalf of artistic truth, and was killed for it.


Among writers and artists, three were particularly noteworthy. Peter Brook, who died in July, revolutionised theatre not only in Britain but far beyond. He stripped it back to its essentials—the human voice and human gestures—and pioneered productions of shocking immediacy and political force. Hilary Mantel won Britain’s foremost literary prize, the Booker, twice, for her trilogy of novels about Henry VIII’s chancellor, Thomas Cromwell; but long before that she had acquired a following for books written with an eye so vivid, and so attuned to the presence of ghosts and marvels in everyday life, that they seemed infused with magic.


Jean-Jacques Sempé’s tender but incisive cartoons were a staple of several French publications, but were best known outside France for appearing regularly on the cover of the New Yorker. His tiny figures, often burdened with briefcases, washing, packages or violins, struggled gamely against the immense backdrop of the modern world; but not infrequently they escaped it, to drive a triumphal chariot through the heavens or dance in victory on the beach. Victory dances, as a batsman’s wicket lay in ruins, were also a feature of Shane Warne and his astounding spin-bowling. Not only Australia loved him; he was a character who lit up cricket, drinking and saucy escapades and all.


Three subjects were remarkable for transforming the world around them. Albert Woodfox was in solitary confinement for four decades, the longest spell known to have been endured by anyone in America. While inside, however, he began not only to study law and to instruct himself in world affairs; he also taught his fellow inmates, through the bars, how to read, and thus made the walls of his prison and theirs fade away.


Loretta Lynn, America’s most famous female country star, rose from poverty as a coalminer’s daughter to a sprawling mansion with a coal mine as an exhibit. More important, though, she added a woman’s voice—disgruntled, baby-burdened, often laughing defiantly—to the male universe of American country music. But James Lovelock, with his Gaia hypothesis, achieved the most influential transformation of all, by insisting on the beautiful, fragile and vital self-regulating chemistry of the Earth. He was mocked at first; but as humans grew to understand how far they had degraded their planet, threatening the continuance of its beautiful system, he was recognised as a prophet.


From the remote Himalayas, we told the story of Shyam Saran Negi. He was the first voter—in 1951—in independent India, and in 2022 cast his last, never missing an occasion to mark his ballot even through storms and snow. Winston Churchill’s words come to mind: “At the bottom of all tributes paid to democracy is the little man, walking into a little booth, with a little pencil, making a little cross on a little bit of paper.” And on various concert stages across America we observed Franz Mohr, piano-tuner to Horowitz, Rubinstein and van Cliburn, patiently bending, striking and listening for hours at a time. For behind all the pomp and glory of public events, the panoply of presidents and queens, there is often just a humble technician, with a hammer.■


https://www.economist.com/obituary/2022/12/17/fifteen-notable-lives-lost-in-2022/


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