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The power of the evasive word

The Economist Book of Obituaries, by Keith Colquhoun and Ann Wroe

26 November 2008

12:00 AM

26 November 2008

12:00 AM

The Economist Book of Obituaries Keith Colquhoun and Ann Wroe

Profile Books, pp.409, 20

The Economist Book of Obituaries, by Keith Colquhoun and Ann Wroe

De mortuis nil nisi bonum, or so it used to be said. That was then. Now, since the late Hugh Montgomery- Massingbird became obituaries editor of the Telegraph, James Fergusson of the Independent, and Keith Colquhoun and Ann Wroe of the Economist, all has changed, changed utterly. Now obituaries are light entertainment. The great and the good can no longer console themselves for mortality with the expectation of unctuous posthumous tributes: the first paragraph of the Economist’s treatment of Edward Heath warns them what to expect:

The tributes spoke of his integrity, his long service and the strength of his convictions. Many of his fellow conservatives were especially keen to emphasise his love of music and sailing. Unspoken, at least for a few hours after his death, were the thoughts uppermost in many minds: his general grumpiness, his undisguised bitterness, and, in particular, his loathing for ‘that woman’.

Not that the Economist confines itself to the great and the good, at least as generally understood. It spreads its net to include film stars, clowns, cartoonists, third-world dictators, gardeners, poets, astronauts, explorers, cosmeticians, two rather off-beat dukes, the inventor of frozen non-dairy topping, at least one ‘extreme microbiologist’, a ‘possible victim of alien abduction’, and a (admittedly very remarkable) parrot. Barbara Cartland was perhaps a predictable target for its attentions, as was that grande horizontale Pamela Harriman, whose life is described as ‘an astonishing tale of sex, money and, far sweeter-smelling than both of these coarse commodities — power’; but a little more surprising is the inclusion of a rather less grande horizontale — one Anna Nicole Smith, described here as ‘a peculiarly modern celebrity’ who apparently owed her fame and fortune to her ‘celebrated American breasts’. I never knew this.

This collection indeed must make any readers devoutly pray that they may escape the attention of the Economist’s obituarists. Their tribute may begin as does that to the tycoon Tiny Rowland: ‘Hunting around for something not too brutal to say about Tiny Rowland now that he is dead, those who knew him remarked on his charm. The English language is helpful with the evasive word.’ Or it may conclude as does that to the fertile philosopher Jacques Derrida: ‘In his final years he became increasingly concerned with religion and some theologians started to show interest in his work. God help them.’ Or they may find themselves described with the same devastating understatement as is Kurt Waldheim: ‘a diplomat with a selective memory’. The wit is wicked, in the best sense of that ambiguous word, but it is never cruel, and always bang on; as its victims, after serving their million-odd years in Purgatory, would ruefully have to agree.

Anyhow, I hope I have made it clear that this volume deserves an honoured place among the select works that discriminating readers keep in the smallest room in the house.

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