Alex Massie

Hugh Massingberd: Hall of Fame Journalist

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Sad news. Hugh Massingberd, the man who did more to bring obituaries to life than anyone else, is dead. He qualifies as one of the great journalists of our age.

My poor, old (not so old actually) and now dead Uncle David was one of his contributors and I recall answering the phone, aged 12 or so, during one of David's rather extended stays at my parents' house, to hear Mr Massingberd asking, politely, how the obituary of this or that not-yet-dead restaurateur*, wine merchant or horse trainer was progressing. "Fitfully" was the answer one learned to give, David being  incommunicado...

And now the begetter is gone too. Sic transit gloria mundi and all that. Just 60 too. Young.

Massingberd later wrote, "I determined to dedicate myself to chronicling what people were really like through informal anecdote, description and character sketch." Laughter, he added, would be by no means out of place.

His ambition took many years to come to fruition. When, in 1979, during the strike at The Times, Massingberd sought to convince the Telegraph's editor, Bill Deedes, to venture upon a more expansive obituaries section, he was given to understand that it would be rather poor form to exploit the difficulties of a rival publication.

Finally, in 1986, Max Hastings gave Massingberd his opportunity. Immediately, Telegraph readers found themselves regaled by such characters as Canon Edward Young, the first chaplain of a striptease club; the last Wali of Swat, who had a fondness for brown Windsor     soup; and Judge Melford Stevenson, who considered that "a lot of my colleagues are just constipated Methodists".

The column also made a speciality of tales of derring-do from the Second World War. The foibles of aristocrats proved another fertile source.

The 6th Earl of Carnarvon appeared as a "relentless raconteur and most uncompromisingly direct ladies' man".

The 9th Earl of St Germans listed his recreations as "huntin' the slipper, shootin' a line, fishin' for compliments".

The 12th Marquess of Huntly married a nurse 40 years his junior: "I still have my own teeth. Why should I marry some dried up old bag?"

Part of the fun lay in the style which Massingberd evolved to pin down the specimens on display. Liberace, readers were gravely informed, "never married". Hopeless drunks were     "convivial". Total shits "did not suffer fools gladly". Financial fraudsters seemed "not to have upheld the highest ethical standards of the City".

Sad times. I highly recommend any of the collections of Telegraph obits: perfect post-Christmas reading.

*Spelling corrected thanks to commenter dearieme.

Written byAlex Massie

Alex Massie is Scotland Editor of The Spectator. He also writes a column for The Times and is a regular contributor to the Scottish Daily Mail, The Scotsman and other publications.

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