I used to be a foreign correspondent. Sometimes I thought it was a pretty glamorous job. At dinner parties I might occasionally drop hints about the dangerous sorts of places I had been to. But the only people who cared were other foreign correspondents, and then only because they were eager to dwarf my boasts with their own tales of derring-do. To my youthful indignation, nobody else gave a hoot.
Now I am the obituaries editor at the Telegraph. Quite a career shift, I’m prepared to admit. These days if people ask what I do I tend to mumble something about being a journalist. But this, I’m afraid to say, is not because I am now wiser and less vain. Rather, it is because I have discovered that the job of obituaries editor, unlike that of foreign correspondent, is something that people are actually fascinated by. These days, if someone learns precisely what I do, the chances are that they will be ravenous for every detail. And while we all like to bore on about ourselves, there are limits.
It took me a while to understand this. I’d once assumed that foreign corresponding was the cool beat, and that obituaries was, well, the dead beat. It turned out the reverse was true. To my astonishment the words ‘I just love obituaries’ would come tumbling out not just from the mouths of aged great aunts, but also from the pouting lips of shapely twentysomethings at parties. Obituaries, it seemed, are sexy. How did this happen?
Put it down to Hugh Massingberd. He was the great man who launched obits in the Telegraph in the late 1980s. Of course, obits had appeared in the paper before then, but only occasionally, and then they were pretty stuffy. Hugh was the man to carve out a regular column, which has grown over the years to the entire page it inhabits these days. The secrets of his success were his catholic tastes and roving eye — his instinctive understanding that readers are interested in so much more than the arid achievements of peers and prime ministers as laid out in Who’s Who. What people were after, Hugh realised, was a splash of colour, a tasty titbit of gossip or three, and an amiable indication of the true nature of the dead chap’s character. Thus when readers discovered that the stiff in question ‘did not suffer fools gladly’, they knew they were dealing with a total shit.
It was a magic formula. The funereal pieces or yore were replaced by such introductions as:
‘Denisa Lady Newborough, who has died aged 74, was many things: wire-walker, nightclub girl, nude dancer, air pilot. She only refused to be two things — a whore and a spy — “and there were attempts to make me both…”’
Who could resist? Certainly not Hugh’s successors as editors of the obituary page, all of whom have subscribed to his enlightened criteria for what make a life worth recording. The only problem, as far as I am concerned, is that this spirit of inclusiveness means it is hard to whittle down the list of contenders. After all, with dope peddlers, jewel thieves, orgiasts, con men, witches, goat-breeders, cult-leaders and strip-club proprietors every bit as ripe for consideration for the page as archbishops and Fellows of the Royal Society, the list of candidates is endless. The obits editor’s cup runneth over every day.
Given this bounty, it is probably utter foolishness to have attempted to select the very best obituaries that we have ever printed. Nonetheless, this is what I have done. More than a quarter of a century has passed since Hugh revolutionised the format, so the time is ripe for such an collection.
Of course it recounts the lives of the great figures of the age, from Isaac Asimov to Alexander Solzhenitsyn, and the celebrities too, from Jade Goody to Jane Russell.
But for my money the best of the obits page is often to be found in the glorious and the vainglorious feats of the lesser known, and it is largely these lives that fill the book. People such as Norman Jackson, who attempted to put out a fire on the wing of his Lancaster bomber by crawling out of the cockpit at 22,000ft with a extinguisher stuffed into his jacket, or Maurice Flitcroft, the chain-smoking shipyard crane-operator from Barrow-in-Furness whose persistent attempts to gatecrash the British Open golf championship produced a sense-of-humour failure among members of the golfing establishment. ‘Having bought a half-set of mail-order clubs,’ the obit recounts, ‘he obtained an entry form from an unsuspecting Royal and Ancient. Invited to play in the Open qualifier at Formby, he put in a performance which one witness described as a “blizzard of triple and quadruple bogeys”, achieving a total of 49 over par, the worst score recorded in the tournament’s 141-year history. In fact, this was only a rough estimate, his marker having lost count on a couple of holes.’
So many such tales abound that it is hard to pick a favourite. Among those that stand out for me are ‘Chris Dale, a 6ft 6in mountaineer with a passion for solo climbs among the hardest peaks of Scotland, Wales and the Alps. He was an equally enthusiastic cross-dresser who went by the name of Crystal.’
Then there is William Donaldson.
Donaldson, the ‘Wykehamist pimp, crack-fiend and serial adulterer’, was the man behind Henry Root, a fictional ‘right-wing nutcase and wet fish merchant from Elm Park Mansions, SW10, who specialised in writing outrageous and frequently abusive letters to eminent public figures, enclosing a one-pound note.’
‘Root,’ the obit continues, ‘suggested to Margaret Thatcher that Mary Whitehouse should be made Home Secretary and sympathised with the Queen about the “problems” she was having with Princess Anne (“My Doreen, 19, is completely off the rails too, so I know what it’s like”).’
When faced with such joys it’s suddenly easy to see why so many people love obits. And the treats just keep on coming. Witness Roy Bates, who died just the other day. He established his own micro-nation on an abandoned sea-fort off the coast of Suffolk and declared himself Prince Roy of Sealand. As such he engaged in skirmishes with the Royal Navy, and once rappelled from a helicopter onto his ‘principality’ to prevent a coup d’état led by a German businessman. ‘Listen, old boy,’ Bates told a journalist in 2000, ‘I like a bit of adventure. It’s the old British tradition. Maybe Britain’s changed, but there’s a lot of us still about.’
There certainly are.
Thinker, Failure, Soldier, Jailer... An Anthology of Great Lives in 365 Days is just published.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated 17 November 2012